Freedom in the Interstices of Power Among the Elite

Photo by Fronteiras do Pensamento, CC-SA
Photo by Fronteiras do Pensamento, CC-SA. Click image for full res and details.

Francis Fukuyama from The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution:

In Hungary, the absolutist project initially failed because a strong and well-organized noble class succeeded in imposing constitutional limits on the king’s authority. The Hungarian Diet, like its English counterpart, made the Hungarian king accountable to itself. Accountability was not sought on behalf of the whole realm but rather on behalf of a narrow oligarchic class that wanted to use its freedom to squeeze [373/374] is own peasants harder and to avoid onerous taxes to the central state. The result was the spread of an increasingly harsh serfdom for nonelites, and a weak state that ultimately could not defend the country from the Turks. Freedom for one class, in other words, resulted in a lack of freedom for everyone else and the carving up of the country among stronger neighbors.

We are taking the time to consider the Hungarian case for t simple reason: to show that constitutional limits on a central government’s power do not by themselves necessarily produce political accountability. The “freedom” sought by the Hungarian noble class was the freedom to exploit their own peasants more thoroughly, and the absence of a strong central state allowed them to do just that. Everyone understands the Chinese form of tyranny, one perpetrated by a centralized dictatorship. But tyranny can result from decentralized oligarchic domination as well. True freedom tends to emerge in the interstices of a balance of power among a society’s elite actors, something that Hungary never succeeded in achieving. (374)

This seems like a particularly useful lesson for Americans, who often view questions of government power as simply “How much?” without thinking carefully about the fact that there can be multiple, competing nexuses of political power. Historically, you had at least three:

  1. A centralized state (usually a monarch)
  2.  An elite class (usually aristocrats, which are absolutely present in modern meritocracies)1
  3. Everybody else

Seems to me, a lot of conservatives and liberals either can’t or don’t want to keep track of three separate groups and collapse things into just two.

Speaking in broad strokes, conservatives take the side of #3 against #1 and #2, which they see as basically interchangeable. Thus, you get terms like “crony capitalism” and “the establishment.” Liberals take the side of #1 and #3 against #2. Thus, you get lots of advocacy for new rules, regulations, and agencies to stand up against #2 on behalf of #3.

The reason the Hungarian case is so important, then, is to remind us of how dangerous it is to simply conflate the three groups into two for convenience. The familiar failure mode of a centralized, despotic regime (Fukuyama mentions ancient China above, but he’s about to talk about czarist Russia as well) is not the only failure mode available. In Hungary, the centralized state was limited, but instead of freedom the result was serfdom and ruin.

In Fukuyama’s reading of history, it took an incredibly delicate balance of three forces for liberal democracy to actually arise in England, and an overabundance of any one segment led to disaster. It was only due to that tradition that the American Revolution was spared the fate of virtually all other popular uprisings–like the French or the Russian–that, when they didn’t fail outright, merely served as object lessons in how mob rule and despotism are two sides of the same coin. The supremacy of #1 in France under the late monarchs led to the supremacy of #3 during the French Revolution which in turn led back to the supremacy of #1 in Emperor Bonaparte. Same basic deal in Russia, see-sawing back and forth from Czar to people’s revolution, to Lenin and Stalin.

Unfortunately, I don’t think this approach is going to be palatable to anyone in America. Both the left and the right seem so enamored with populism of late (Sanders or Trump, take your pick in this regard), that any nuanced talk about the importance of stabilizing elites is likely to fall on deaf ears.

2 thoughts on “Freedom in the Interstices of Power Among the Elite”

  1. You say that conservatives take the side of #3 against #1 and #2, while liberals take the side of #1 and #3 against #2. Rhetorically that’s correct, but the actual policies both have pursued have mostly benefitted #2. In particular, “rules, regulations, and agencies,” whatever their nominal purpose, almost always strengthen the power of elites.

  2. I basically agree with you there, Curtis.

    The one thing I’ll point out, however, is that historically there have also been times (in American history) when the liberal view was correct, and where #1 really did need to oppose #2 for the benefit of #3. (Slavery and Jim Crow come to mind, when it was up to the federal government to impose rules on local elites to prevent them from exploiting/oppressing ordinary people.)

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