Subsidiarity and the outline of your next novel

Subsidiarity and the outline of your next novel December 28, 2011

Noah Smith’s post, “The liberty of local bullies,” does a good job describing the inadequacy of contemporary libertarian ideology.

The modern American libertarian ideology does not deal with the issue of local bullies. In the world envisioned by Nozick, Hayek, Rand, and other foundational thinkers of the movement, there are only two levels to society — the government (the “big bully”) and the individual. If your freedom is not being taken away by the biggest bully that exists, your freedom is not being taken away at all.

Smith recognizes that this ideology ignores the obvious reality of our world. It’s view of society is far too thin and constricted. There’s far more to society than just the individual and The State. Society also includes, for example: “… a large variety of intermediate powers like work bosses, neighborhood associations, self-organized ethnic movements, organized religions, tough violent men, or social conventions.”

All true. But Smith’s list is too short and is too much shaped by the other inadequacy of that libertarian ideology, which is its tendency to treat anything other than the individual almost exclusively in negative terms — as a “bully” limiting or restraining the freedom of individuals. (I don’t think this is what Smith means to argue, but his critique of libertarian ideology here  winds up adopting the shape of his subject.)

All of these intermediate “powers” — to use that oddly Pauline termcan be bullies, or can become bullies, but that is not their only or their proper or their primary function in our society or in our lives. We are not all and always Stephen Dedalus — the romantic, heroic individual struggling against kinships, institutions, traditions and all the other bonds that serve only to keep us in bondage. These powers and principalities do not function exclusively as “bullies.”

Just consider the first of Smith’s examples — “work bosses.” Like about 14 million other Americans at this point, I do not have a boss right now because I do not have a job. I do not regard this as a form of liberation, as a welcome enhancement of my individual liberty. To be unfettered from employment does not make me more free, but less so.

If we’re going to get anywhere addressing problems like the jobs crisis that has left millions of us unemployed, then our solutions have to be based on society as it actually is, rather than on some theoretical model that fails to account for the actual world. It won’t do to follow a model that is unable to acknowledge the existence of anything other than the individual and The State. Nor will it do to follow a model that is unable to conceive of institutions, relationships, associations and governments as anything other than “bullies.”

A better model of society is one that can recognize the existence of a vast and multilayered network of such institutions, relationships, agencies, associations and governments, identifying the complementary role each has to play and their mutual responsibilities.

Let’s first consider “the big bully” of The State, which isn’t really the massive, monolithic, centralized “The State” at all. Government encompasses a vast variety of actors large and small that we relate to and rely on in a multitude of ways. Each of us lives in a network of levels of government, with each level in turn differentiated with various agencies, services, bureaucracies, offices, officers, regulators, responders, police, courts, councils, legislatures, schools, libraries, etc. Treating them all as a single, undifferentiated entity takes away our ability to think about what each should or shouldn’t be doing. And determining beforehand that they are all just “bullies” or a single “big bully” begs the question — mistaking a presumption for a conclusion.

As vast and various as all those aspects of government are, put them all together and they’re still dwarfed by multitude of non-state, non-individual entities that make up our world: families, friendships, clubs, teams, bands, troupes, affinity groups, congregations, denominations, businesses, banks, exchanges, markets, unions, neighborhoods, theaters, leagues, societies, charities, associations, etc.

This is the point at which I usually begin to talk about “subsidiarity” or about the “inescapable network of mutuality” or, since I already mentioned the jobs crisis here, about “direct” and “indirect” employers.

But instead let’s just talk about stories. Let’s talk about the outline of your next novel.

Look again at that list of entities above — families, friendships, etc. Any one of those might, at some point, come to function as a “bully” in the life of an individual. In doing so, it would be betraying its intended purpose and function, but any single one of those entities so corrupted could turn a person’s life into a hell.

So instead of using that list above as the starting point for another lecture on subsidiarity, let’s instead think of it as a novel-generating machine. Pick one item from the list. Twist it into a bully. Voila! There’s your next novel.

If you like, you can pick more than one item from the list and turn several of these entities into bullies in the life of your protagonist. But don’t overdo it — don’t use all of them.

If you portray all of them as bullies then your readers will begin to suspect that the problem doesn’t lie with the rest of the world, but with your protagonist. Also, how would you resolve such a story? If, for example, the story is one in which the hero’s family has become a bully, then you can resolve the story by having her liberate herself from that bully. But you can’t have a hero who liberates himself from that entire list.

If your story ends with your hero saying, “I am not bound by and do not care about my family, my friends, or any clubs, teams, bands, troupes, affinity groups, congregations, denominations, banks, businesses, exchanges, markets, unions, neighborhoods, theaters, leagues, societies, charities or associations,” then your hero won’t turn out to be much of a hero at all.

He’ll just be a libertarian and, well, kind of a jerk.

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  • Lori

    That’s a good answer, and one that I wish Lori gave, but she’s too busy
    assuming that I’m advancing an ideology and putting words into my mouth
    to give me a proper answer. 

    You know, up until now I’ve been assuming that we were simply having a
    communication problem. They happen all too frequently, esspecially on
    the internet. Now however, I’m thinking that you’re just acting like a jerk.

    To quote the great Dolly Parton, climb down off the cross honey, somebody needs the wood.

  • Treating this as simply a matter of individual prejudice is to miss the entire point

    I think this really gets to the core of the matter of why people tend to mock “black slavery reparations” discussions. They don’t grasp that there are still structural barriers against black people in the USA, chief among them the perception that all blacks are essentially fungible members of a criminal underclass who should be called “animals”.

  • Anonymous

    You are mistaken; when speaking of hostility, intent is everything.


    1. Of, relating to, or characteristic of an enemy: hostile forces; hostile acts.
    2. Feeling or showing enmity or ill will; antagonistic: a hostile remark.
    3. Unfavorable to health or well-being; inhospitable or adverse

    Let’s see here. Saying something easily interpreted as a threat: characteristic of an enemy, showing enmity (even if none exists), and being unfavorable to health and well-being. Hat trick! In conclusion, you proved my point for me.

  • Anonymous

    If my recollection is correct, Buck was condemned not for “saying something could be interpreted as a threat,” but for making a threat.  The widespread belief was that Buck intended to make a threat against Verna — not that Buck should have chosen his words more carefully, but that he intended to threaten Verna — and did threaten her –in order to keep her quiet.  I argued the contrary, that Buck did not intend to imply a threat, but that Verna mistakenly took it as such.

    I’m done explaining my position.  At our host’s current pace, we have at least a couple of years until he discusses this passage (Nicolae, p 348) in detail.  Which is fine with me.

  • If nothing else I would say that by L&J’s definition, Verna is clearly going to be Buck’s enemy if only by virtue of the fact that she’s not a Christian, and in their binary-conflict (this is what “Manichean” means, for anyone who doesn’t know) view of how the world works, one is either with God or against God. Since Verna is a lesbian, and likely not a RTC (she was, after all, “left behind”), that makes her an enemy to Buck.

    So he is literarily written as being justified as being hostile to start towards anyone who isn’t an RTC.

  • Anonymous

     I argued the contrary, that Buck did not intend to imply a threat, but that Verna mistakenly took it as such.

    And I’m arguing that nobody but you gives a fuck what Buck intended, because nobody but you believes that intent is magic. Verna heard a threat. End of story.

  • Anonymous

    You’ve made a lot of assumptions about me, Lori, and you’ve hinted but never said what those assumptions are, but as far as I can tell are generally negative, if not downright insulting, and they’re only tangentially related to what I actually said.  I’ve tried to prompt you to unwind those assumptions, but you’ve not been interested in doing so. 

    Under the circumstances, ‘jerk’ is a bit rich.  It’s also not something I feel any inclination to take seriously — you believe negative things about me anyway, which aren’t true and I can’t do anything about, so what’s one more?  Actually, I’m somewhat surprised you hadn’t already assumed this.

    I’ll admit that my opening sentence to hapax was partly born our of frustration, but I also thought it was worth pointing out that she gave an admirable answer to my question, which she says also lies within your ability to do so, but for some reason you’ve decided to do something else instead.

    I’m not going to respond any further as it doesn’t seem to make any difference what I say to you — every post results in no further clarity but more assumptions and misinterpretation, and I’m sure this won’t be any different.

  • Buck clearly wanted and needed to shut Verna up – it didn’t matter how. She saw Tsion Ben-Judah where he wasn’t supposed to be, and she was getting irritated by Loretta trying to stonewall her.

    Buck is already assuming he’ll be fired by Nicolae at some point for being a Christian and pushing, however soft-pedalled, a sectarian viewpoint contrary to the doctrine of the EBOWF*.

    to tell the truth. I don’t think I’ll have much trouble convincing Steve Plank or even Nicolae Carpathia that it appears you’re harboring Tsion Ben-Judah.”

    Chloe looked at Buck. “You think Buck would do something so royally stupid it would not only get him fired, but it would also get him killed? And you’re going to use the threat of this news to the Global Community higher-ups in exchange for what?”

    And that’s why. He needed any kind of good threat. Careful word choice had nothing to do with it.

    “I’m not. You think that little revelation was of God too?”

    “I’d sooner think it was a wild coincidence, but you never know. That tidbit may
    have saved your life.”

    And that’s Buck and Chloe believing that his threat was divinely ordained.

    Many Christians have, now and in the past, claimed that their homophobic behavior is or was divinely ordained and that QUILTBAG-person second-class status is justified on Biblical grounds.

    A fool believes L&J are of a sect with a broad-minded perspective on QUILTBAG people. A fool tries to claim that L&J are, through their literature, encouraging sympathetic treatment of QUILTBAG people.


    * This is the kind of siege-mentality stuff RTCs just love, even though a Christian fired for being Christian would, IRL, raise such a shitkicker of a fuss over it that all the fundamentalist preachers would rile their congregations up over it and by sheer weight of numbers, drown the unfortunate business in their noise machine.

  • Tonio

    I do think that someone who belongs to or sympathizes with an oppressed
    minority can make a mistake and erroneous see a hostile intent when
    there is no actual intent.

    Please stop treating bigotry and discrimination as though these are about whether a given individual intends to treat others badly because of their differences. Both of these are about the effects on people who are different. Intent is irrelevant here because no one can read minds. And please, please stop worrying less about people who are charged with being bigots and start worrying more about people who suffer because of bigotry. It’s not important who has the moral high ground, because this isn’t a contest.

  • Anonymous

    There is a fundamental difference, though. I’m as much of a snarky bastard as they come, but if I get called on something, I don’t hesitate to elaborate and, if necessary, retract my case.  I would go so far as to say that most people here do that as well. On the other hand, you post some glib remark that makes you look like you inhabit the same right-wing fantasy world Chuck Asay does, and then you get out of Dodge.

    If you learn only one thing from this discussion, make it this: if you aren’t willing to explain why you have an opinion, the default notion is “I’m right because I say so.”  And as the skeptical investor said to the inventor of the feces-powered helicopter, that shit will not fly.