Does the Constitution matter today? Some people, especially those in the establishment, find it fashionable to mock those of us who say it does. It’s an outdated document, they say, whose outmoded ideas are irrelevant in the twenty-first century. Those silly, superstitious lunkheads who believe in it may as well be doing a rain dance.
What this sentiment misses is the key insight of America’s founders, that the centralization of power is not one threat to liberty among many, it is the primary threat to liberty. These ideas are elegantly embodied in the Constitution’s delegated powers and the Ninth and Tenth Amendments. They have also precipitously fallen out of favor since the time of the Constitution’s framers. Governments all around the world, and here at home, have become centralized and all-encompassing, just as early Americans feared.
While it is easy to view the centralization of power of a battle between the state and the individual, one prominent twentieth-century conservative, Robert Nisbet, viewed the situation differently. Nisbet, a sociologist who was considered one of the most important post-World War II conservatives, viewed the history of centralization as primarily a battle between government and communities of free association.
Nisbet expounded his thesis in his 1953 classic The Quest for Community. In it, Nisbet convincingly argues that the modern national state has grown only as it has consumed the responsibilities and roles of smaller social units and that for freedom to flourish there must be competition among all social institutions, including governments, for the loyalty of people.
Nisbet begins his treatise with the observation that modern man is increasingly disaffected and lonely. He believes this to be the result of the separation of individuals from traditional community. In the preface he writes, “I believe, then, that community is the essential context within which modern alienation is to be considered. Here I have reference…to the…concrete matters of the individual’s relation to social functions and social authority.”
Having identified the symptom, Nisbet diagnoses the disease. In laying the blame for the breakdown of social institutions on the modern state, Nisbet writes that “The contemporary state with all the apparatus of bureaucracy has become more powerful, more cohesive and is endowed with more functions than at any time in its history.”
The problem in Nisbet’s view is that centralized power cannot acquire more functions without stealing them from other social institutions. He argues, “The State becomes powerful not by virtue of what it takes from the individual but by virtue of what it takes from the spiritual and social associations which compete with it for men’s devotions.”
Even with this being true, it may not be immediately apparent why this would be problematic for society. But Nisbet sheds light on this when he writes that, “For the overwhelming majority of people, until quite recently the structure of…life rested upon, and even presupposed, the existence of the small social and local groups within which the cravings for psychological security and identification could be satisfied.”
With the social significance of small groups stripped away, the people have increasingly searched in vain for a replacement, what Nisbet calls modern man’s quest for community. With the modern state absorbing more social functions, it has increasingly become the focus of this quest and, thus, it has not been only power that has become centralized but also the allegiance of individuals.
Nisbet observes that “the State has become, in the contemporary world, the supreme allegiance of men and…the greatest refuge from the insecurities and frustrations of other spheres of life.” He further notes that “Modern nationalism…cannot be understood except in terms of the weakening and destruction of earlier bonds, and of the attachment to the political State of new emotional loyalties and identifications.”
In the United States, nationalism has not weakened only the bonds between individuals and the voluntary social organizations with which Nisbet is primarily concerned, but also the bonds between individuals and smaller state and local governmental units. None of this is mourned by the modern centralized governments. They have been quite content to act increasingly as the most important institution in the lives of their citizens. But beyond the social impact to disaffected individuals, Nisbet observes the inherent danger to liberty that this has created.
With the disintegration of smaller social units, the modern state has lost the primary check on its own power. Nisbet opines, “…it is doubtful whether, in terms of effective powers and services, any king of even the seventeenth-century ‘absolute monarchies’ wielded the kind of authority that now inhere in the office of many a high-ranking official in the democracies.”
He makes the important observation that before the rise of the modern state “The very prestige and functional importance of church, family, guild and local community as allegiances limited the absoluteness of the State’s power.”
With the modern state’s power now absolute and total, Nisbet lays the responsibility for the rise of twentieth-century totalitarianism on this destruction of social institutions, writing that “Totalitarianism involved the demolishment of autonomous social ties in a population, but it involves, no less, their replacement by new ones, each deriving its meaning and sanction from the central structure of the state.”
Observing the Nazis’ ban on competing social authorities like labor unions, Nisbet explains that ultimately “It is not the extermination of individuals that is ultimately desired by totalitarian rulers…. What is desired is the extermination of those social relationships which, by their autonomous existence, must always constitute a barrier to the achievement of the absolute political community.”
Thus, as power has become centralized, liberty has become endangered. Beyond that, the spiral is made eternal because even the rhetorical defense of traditional liberty has become arduous as individuals find more of their identity and purpose in the very centralized power that oppresses them. Nisbet observes that “Even constitutional guarantees…dim to popular vision when the social and cultural identities of persons become atomized, when the reality of freedom and order in the small areas of society becomes obscure.”
British historian Neville Figgis summarized the current struggle when he wrote,“More and more it is clear that the mere individual’s freedom against an omnipotent state may be no better than slavery; more and more it is evident that the real question of freedom in our day is the freedom of smaller unions to live within the whole.”
Or as Montesquieu concisely stated, “The only safeguard against power is rival power.”
Few statements capture the American ideal of federalism better than these. The men who wrote and ratified the Constitution understood that liberty is forever balanced on the division of power, and that if the balance were to become tipped towards a centralized state, liberty would come crashing to the ground. For this reason they designed a system of government in which smaller political units, the states, held the authority to check the centralizing tendencies of a national government.
Nisbet closes his opus by appealing for a return to such a division of power, stating that “the sole possibility of personal freedom…lies in the maintenance of a plurality of authorities….”
With magnificent insight, he concludes, “The…values of autonomy and freedom of personal choice are indispensable to a genuinely free society, but we shall achieve and maintain these only by vesting them in the conditions in which…democracy will thrive – diversity of culture, plurality of association, and division of authority.”