Enlist the old (and why being libertarian is not enough)

by | Mar 2, 2009

Over at The Interpreter, Sam Roggeveen objects to Jules’s call for national service to be used to toughen up the youth in the face of a changing climate.

This strikes me as completely contrary to the spirit of ‘resilience-ism’ (sorry; ugly, I know), which emphasises local knowledge rather than a top-down approach — giving communities the tools to help themselves rather than waiting for government to do it for them. It also raises my libertarian hackles (again): there are few better ways to empower the state at the expense of the individual than to have it conscript its youth.

Two points. First, why do we always want to conscript the young? To be sure, they make excellent cannon fodder, which is why national service was vital to the ‘total wars’ of the late 19th and early 20th century. But modern challenges are knowledge-intensive, needing people with much greater experience and skills.

So if we’re going to have compulsory service of any kind, let’s impose it on the post-war, baby boom generation – surely the most narcissistic generation of them all (in the spotlight as teenagers in the sixties, hippies in the seventies, yuppies in the eighties, middle aged and smug in the 90s, early-retired victims of age discrimination in the noughties)? 

And second, I want to pick up on his Sam on his comfortable equation of resilience with bare-chested libertarianism. Alex and I began to delve into the politics of resilience in the most recent issue of Renewal. Our conclusion? Resilience is tough on all major strands of political thinking – libertarianism (or what Brits still think of as liberalism) included:

For conservatives, resilience’s appeal to tradition and identity is a strong one. However, the conservative instinct to resist change of all kinds is a clear threat to a system’s ability to adapt. Two quotes from the conservative philosopher, Michael Oakeshott, capture this dichotomy well. On the one hand, he writes that: ‘In place of a preconceived purpose… such a society will find its guide in a principle of continuity (which is a diffusion of power between past, present and future) and in a principle of consensus (which is a diffusion of power between the different legitimate interests of the present)’. On the other: ‘Change is a threat to identity, and every change is an emblem of extinction…Changes, then, have to be suffered, and a man of conservative temperament (that is, one strongly disposed to preserve his identity) cannot be indifferent to them’ (Oakeshott 1991).

Liberals, meanwhile, have long argued for the diffusion of power. As Hayek argued, centralised control is not possible over systems ‘which no brain has designed but which [have] grown from the free efforts of millions of individuals’ (Hayek 1974). He, after all, was awarded a Nobel prize over thirty years ago for his ‘penetrating analysis of the interdependence of economic, social and institutional phenomena.’ Classical liberalism, however, has consistently been troubled by government attempts to create public goods. The result is an instinctive opposition to regulation, which leaves little room for attempts to manage unstable global systems.

Social democrats, finally, understand the importance of public goods and are prepared to act forcefully to protect the vulnerable. They are also willing to act boldly to manage global instability. However, they have the weakness of being instinctive meddlers, crowding out the initiative of other actors and risking over-centralisation in the face of distributed risks. This is a time when states will be under pressure to take on new, and onerous, responsibilities, such as taking responsibility for regulating carbon and other scarce resources. Unprecedented institutional innovation will be needed if these responsibilities are to be discharged without imposing unsustainable levels of cost. It is surely therefore time to put the ‘nanny state’ out of her misery, while we search for a more sustainable relationship between government and state. 

Resilience requires an effective integration of large and small scale systems (a concept known by the ugly neologism – panarchy) and a robust application of the principle of subsidiarity (a Catholic principle). Yes, that can mean devolving power down. And yes, professionalization of modern societies has often stripped self-reliance out of communities. But it also requires devolving power up, creating systems of governance able to produce higher forms of public good. Doing the former and not the latter will not be enough to dig us out of the various messes we’re in.


  • David Steven is a senior fellow at New York University, where he founded the Global Partnership to End Violence against Children and the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies, a multi-stakeholder partnership to deliver the SDG targets for preventing all forms of violence, strengthening governance, and promoting justice and inclusion. He was lead author for the ministerial Task Force on Justice for All and senior external adviser for the UN-World Bank flagship study on prevention, Pathways for Peace. He is a former senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of The Risk Pivot: Great Powers, International Security, and the Energy Revolution (Brookings Institution Press, 2014). In 2001, he helped develop and launch the UK’s network of climate diplomats. David lives in and works from Pisa, Italy.

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