The Earl of passive-aggressive drunkenness
March 22, 2017 § 14 Comments
Sometimes folks get lost in abstract discussions, and it becomes helpful to season it with little storytelling to help get a point across. This seems especially true when it comes to grasping the implications-in-context of incoherent ideas; doubly so in the case of the cherished ideal of political liberty, that is, the doctrine that protecting and advancing freedom is what justifies the exercise of authority. Against the charge of incoherence it is sometimes countered that liberalism is not self-contradictory because (e.g.) expressly permitting abortion or public drunkenness or prostitution or gay sex parades or murder of the unfit or mass rape of young white girls by vibrant immigrants is merely passive: these are not active exercises of authority, and therefore do not discriminate, etc. Rights, it is claimed, are simply a passive recognition by the sovereign and in no way involve the sovereign in acts.
This is, of course, a load of malarkey. Whenever an authority chooses a course of action – any course of action – on a particular controvertible or actually controverted case this is always, necessarily, and without exception, an imposition of discriminating authority. There is no such thing as a “passive act”, in general. Even choices which appear “permissive” from some narrow point of view or other are permissive only relatively speaking not in some general sense: permitting trespassers to overrun an owner’s property without consequences does not permit the owner to enjoy his property free of trespassers, and permitting mothers to murder their children in the womb without consequence fails to permit those murdered unborn children to be born and grow up. Every single express permission granted by an authority implies numerous restrictions, always and without exception.
Suppose that I am the Earl of Meadistrad, and the issue of public drunkenness is brought before me because Rollo Rotgut has been making a spectacle of himself, vomiting in the street and corrupting youth. The Earldom of Meadistrad has never addressed the issue of public drunkenness before. Because the issue has literally never come up before now, the Earldom-qua-authority can genuinely be said to have been passive with respect to public drunkenness up to this point. The large number of potential ways to address public drunkenness remain possible during the time before a concrete choice has been made. It is only the case that an authority remains literally passive on a controvertible issue when that authority has never considered or been asked to consider that issue.
Once the issue of public drunkenness has been raised, though, this collapses the wave function. As in quantum mechanics, mere observation by the authority is all that is required to make a specific concrete result inevitable. Every response by the authority in question – including considering the issue and choosing expressly to decline to respond at all – converts a large number of potential possibilities for subjects into a more constrained space of current and future possibilities for subjects. Action always converts a large number of potentialities into a single concrete and particular result. That is what action means: change of potency into actuality.
It is the nature of every choice made by an authority to constrain possibility: to always and necessarily restrict freedom based on some substantive, discriminatory conception of the good. Indeed this is the nature of choices in general: choices collapse the infinite possibilities represented by real potentialities into some actual result which precludes all mutually exclusive real possibilities. When that choice is made by someone in authority acting qua authority, this always and necessarily constrains those subject to that authority. It changes all of the “might have beens” into a single “this is how it must be”.
Consider the following non-exhaustive list of possible responses I might make to Rollo’s public drunkenness once the issue has been raised:
- I express my desire to ignore the issue entirely and send the people who raised it away.
- I go on a public drunken bender with Rollo because I think he is a fun guy and his detractors are prudish busybodies.
- I declare that subjects of the Earldom are not to be punished for public drunkenness.
- I declare that no public accommodation may refuse service on account of public drunkenness.
- I declare standards for public drunkenness and prescribe punishments corresponding to those standards.
- I declare that subsidiarity authorities should handle the matter of public drunkenness, but reserve the authority to resolve it myself if they can’t get their act together.
Each of these choices is an act by me as the authority: it collapses my subjects’ possible worlds from before the choice into a world constrained by my choice. (Every act, every choice of behavior, collapses a large number of potential outcomes into one actual outcome).
Because my choice is an act of an authority-qua-authority, this act constrains my subjects. Those subjects who would rather live without vomit in the streets, or those who would rather keep the raucous party going, etc are out of luck if my choice does not produce the kind of outcome they prefer.
Note that I am not passing judgment on the merits or demerits of various choices by authority. I am merely observing that all choices by an authority qua authority necessarily discriminate based on some substantive conception of the good, in the process necessarily restricting the freedom of subjects, collapsing potential possibilities into a particular authoritative and constraining result.
So liberalism — the doctrine that liberty is what justifies acts-of-authority — is rationally incoherent.
 It does not follow that an authority never grants any sort of permission for anything, of course. That every single permission is accompanied by a multitude of constraints does not mean that permission is never granted. Permissive will is real enough as a facet or mode of a particular choice; but every coin has both a heads and a tails. Every concrete choice empowers (or “frees”) a particular actual reality to the detriment of mutually exclusive real potentialities. That God “permits” the world as it is actively precludes infinite different potential ways the world really might have been.