Some Thoughts on the Nature of the State
A Concise Look at the Republican Model vs the Totalitarian Model

Douglas P. McManaman
September 20, 2018
Copyright © 2018
Reproduced with Permission

One of the most important things to understand in the study of philosophy is that ideas, even the most abstract and seemingly impractical, have consequences. What this means is that there are serious implications - even political and financial - of the ideas and basic presumptions that are the starting points of our reasoning process. We typically regard a good number of these presumptions as enjoying high plausibility, partly because they have gone unchallenged for so long. When they are finally given a shake, put to the test, that is, subjected to some sort of critical scrutiny, the process usually feels odd and the outcome may appear to be downright bizarre. But that "feeling" says nothing about the truth of what has been held for so long; it only speaks to the fact that "suspension of disbelief" is not a disposition we have been taught to cultivate. This is especially true in the area of politics and economics.

Many young people today are easily lured by socialism, and there are a number of reasons for this. Ignorance of history is without a doubt one of those reasons; perhaps the increase in the incidences of anxiety disorder among young people is an emotional factor that explains this phenomenon, in part at least. But this article focuses on a very real intellectual habit that has deep roots in the history of classical thought, namely the tendency to reify an abstraction, that is, to regard what is only a general idea inside the mind as a real "thing" outside the mind. We see this in Pythagoras, who regarded number (a logical entity that exists only in the mind) as the substance of things, and Plato, who treated "essences" as "being" in the fullest sense, and so on up to Descartes and Hegel, among others. Reifying abstractions has very serious political consequences - which is why Hegel has been called the father of modern totalitarianism. The following is an attempt to clarify these points.

In the republican model of government, the state is not regarded as a single entity with its own unique act of existing. Rather, it is the individual person who is primary, basic, that is, a real being with his own unique act of existence. The state is not a substance, but you are a substance, a being, a thing, etc. The analogy that is often employed comparing the parts of the state to the parts of the human body is an analogy grounded in this primacy, the primacy of the individual person. We often speak of the organized society as a body politic. But this is nothing more than an analogy, and a very imperfect one at that; for the individual person is a whole unto himself, with various parts that work towards the integrity of the whole (liver, heart, immune system, legs, hands, etc.). The state is in some ways like a human body, and in some ways not like a human body; for example, my toe is not a whole unto itself, but you are a whole unto yourself; at the same time you are a part of the civil community as a whole (which, unlike you, is not a substantial whole). The decisions of this body politic are the decisions of individual persons. We consider a majority decision to represent the state as a whole. Canada enters into a Free Trade Agreement with the United States, for example, but this was the decision of a group of individual persons who have been vested with authority, by the people, to act on behalf of the people. There is no "entity" that is the state, at least not in any primary sense; rather, the state is the organized sum of the individual persons (citizens) that make it up. There are no state decisions in the true sense of the word that do not proceed from individual persons. In other words, the state is secondary, a derivative phenomenon, while the individual person is primary. The government, which is a part of the state, exists for the people (not vice versa). Thus, a republic is government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

The totalitarian model is otherwise. Here the state is regarded as an entity primarily. The members of the state are related to the latter as parts are related to the body. This comparison is not analogical (i.e., in some ways like, in some ways not like), but univocal (in every way like). Just as you have dominion over your own parts, i.e., your legs, your hair, toes, etc., the state as a single whole has rights over you (a mere part), owns your property, owns your earnings, can require you to sacrifice yourself in a war of its own making (conscription), can require you to work for free for a certain percentage of the year and permit you to work for yourself for the remaining part of the year, etc. In the totalitarian model, your rights are given to you by the state, which can retract those rights as well, for the good of the state as a whole. The individual person has no inalienable rights; hence, no rights belonging to the individual are absolute; rather, they are all relative to the "benefit" of the whole.

Moreover, a single entity like the human body has a principle of organizational unity (i.e., for Aristotle, that is the substantial form or soul). It is by virtue of that principle that every part of the organism is ordered to the integration of the whole. Anything that is not so ordered or that cannot be so assimilated is disposed of, as in the disposal system in the human body. That is why a true totalitarian state that regards itself as a single entity (body) will brook no dissent; it is necessarily a closed society. Free speech, open discussion and debate must be circumscribed within very definite limits, for there is really no "truth" that is outside the grasp of the state government. Think of G. W. Hegel, who from the comfort of his arm chair and without any need to get up and investigate via an inductive method, regards himself as having a complete grasp of reality (since logical being and real being are identical for the epistemological idealist). In other words, for Hegel, the entire order of reality can be deduced from a single idea, the idea of being. It follows that control is paramount, that is, control of the education system, control of information/media, and control of the economy - in short, control of every part. Moreover, such a state must inevitably expand into an empire, and it does so by incorporating independent parts into itself, as a body metabolizes, or converts food into living tissue.

In the republican model - since it is the individual person that is primary, and since the individual person is the primary moral agent - , the state is governed by the same moral principles that govern the individual. There is only one morality, just as there is only one physics, one chemistry, etc. The decisions of the state are decisions of individual persons, and so corrupt states are the result of corrupt persons.

In the totalitarian model, on the contrary, there is, strictly speaking, no such thing as corruption, because it is the state (a single entity) and its single will that is the measure of what is morally good or just - and since individual rights are not natural or intrinsic, but endowed by the state (just as your toe has no independent right to exist, but will continue to exist as long as its existence is not a threat to the whole body). It follows that if the state government is not subject to the natural moral law, the state government is not subject to civil law either; rather, it will regard itself as being above its own laws and constitution.

Many people in the so-called free West are increasingly in the habit of thinking, partially at least, within the totalitarian model. In other words, totalitarian presumptions have become constituent elements of their reasoning process with respect to political and economic matters. However, the republican model and the totalitarian model are incompatible with one another and holding on to a mixture is simply inconsistent. Many people, however, are content to maintain an inconsistent blend of the two. For example, most people believe a state can be corrupt, and they believe they have the right to vote, etc., and so to this extent they operate out of a republican model; but they also believe the state owns our property (i.e., earnings) and has dominion over our very life (pre-emptive war/nation building, abortion and infanticide, for example, are indicative of this model in the minds of so many people, as well as our understanding of property rights and income tax).

Besides this erroneous metaphysics (i.e., the state is a real being), a fundamental problem with the totalitarian model is, among other things, a lack of appreciation for the limitations of human intelligence. Human intelligence is profoundly limited by matter, that is, by sense perception, time and geography. Knowledge is widely dispersed among individual persons; it is not concentrated in the minds of a few. Indeed, certain specialized areas are so concentrated, i.e., chemistry, history, finance, etc., but not the kind of knowledge required to control an economy for example, which requires a knowledge not simply of general principles, but contingencies - prices bring about a certain order, because they are the result of mutually agreed upon transactions between individual persons, and what you want cannot be deduced from a universal principle.

There is also the problem of human selfishness to contend with, that is, the inclination to self-seeking (Catholics refer to this as the wounds of Original Sin). The Rousseauian notion that human beings are basically good willed and that it is social/political systems that are the source of corruption is gravely mistaken. Human beings are morally ambivalent. In each one of us are proclivities to good and to evil. Moral integrity is an achievement, a lifelong and difficult achievement in fact because it involves growth in knowledge (wisdom, experience, etc.) and strength of will or self-possession (control of the passions). Moral integration is not a given. When power, which is a serious tempter, is concentrated into the hands of an elite few, the rest of us have a great deal to fear.

Another problem with the totalitarian model is that although human beings are not "accidentally equal" (i.e., some are better athletes than others, quicker at math, better artists, etc.), human beings are essentially equal. As such, the life of individual persons (human life) is not dispensable, as are diseased parts that can no longer be integrated into the whole organism. Although the value of human life is not infinite, it is nevertheless intrinsically good, not merely instrumentally good. The reason is that an individual human person is an end in himself, and there is no morally rational warrant for reducing another to a mere means to my own ends (or the ends of the state) - to do so is always a violation of justice. A fundamental obligation, an inviolable one, is the obligation to reverence individual human life, just as we naturally reverence our own and treat our own life as an end - and resent it when others reduce us to a mere means to their own ends. This reverence for the individual person must have no conditions, not because human life has an infinite value, but rather because human life has an immeasurable value, that is, a value that cannot be quantified - or calculated on the basis of how convenient it is for me without my becoming partial, which is unjust. Hence, it is never permitted to willingly do evil - such as to willingly or intentionally destroy human life - that good may come of it. And so as a result of this essential equality, government should only enjoy minimal power, no more than is necessary to maintain the conditions for human flourishing.