Americans find it difficult to distinguish between a liberty and a right, and we find it impossible to tie a right to an obligation. One reason may be our failure to see that politics has always advanced from two sources of authority, not just one.
In the Top-Down form, the person ruling has a right to the government. This view is often further articulated: he has a right to the territory as a whole. It sounds authoritarian, but from the perspective of the average person, it was pretty reasonable to submit to. Most people accepted some form of primogeniture for inheritance, which meant that rights were more vertical than horizontal – received and transmitted, rather than an agreement between living persons. How can we take from the king what we did not give to him? Even when a ruler is dethroned, it was more a change in personality than in system – the new monarch assumed all the forms of the old in order to legitimize himself.
In the Bottom-Up form, people have always naturally assembled together in whatever living conditions they happen to be in, and it was not unusual for elections to take place in even “premodern” societies. In other words, people naturally try to order themselves when living together, and towns have often included councils to act on their own behalf, simply for the need of cooperative action. Both have been necessary in history, because some kind of ordering principle or authority is always needed; they existed roughly in conjunction, in varying ways, through the European Middle Ages. But while both were political necessities, it was really the Top-Down form that carried authority, perhaps because wealth and military power created very real distances between the ruler and the ruled.
But the whole interaction was changed by the growth of the State in the 16th and 17th Centuries, as the Top-Down form began to be more effective in extending down into the intricacies of life. The French example of this Absolutism (Louis XIV) is clear, but we should also recognize that the British growth of central government, lagging behind slightly, further included as one of its arms the increasing power of Parliament – not as an authoritative representation of “the People,” but as a part of the Top-Down form. Late eighteenth century British radicals rather saw Parliament as an obstruction to the reform and democratic ideology they lobbied for. On the opposite side, Rousseau transformed contract theory to negate any connections between Past and Future – for Jean-Jacques, political relations are solely horizontal, so the Bottom-Up form is the only legitimate one. This was a translation of Locke from “the people mutually partook in forming government, and its functions should reflect that” to “the government is the People.”
The growth of the State’s functions meant that everyone had to talk in terms of the State – and Bottom-Up could no longer coexist with Top-Down, because they lobbied for the same seats of power. Advances in liberty have come from both forms, though: Magna Carta and English religious toleration both needed concessions (involuntary or voluntary) from the king; on the other hand, the Bottom-Up forms have probably contributed to desires for self-government and the creation of political identity. At least until sometime in the 19th Century, more libertarian gains (negative liberties) were made from Top-Down forms, and more positive definitions of society (creating civic participation) were made from Bottom-Up forms.
As quoted in my earlier post, England has generally accepted these contradictions in her constitution. In America, while “democracy” was claimed by very few of the Founders, the Bottom-Up self-interpretation became standard in the 19th Century. We too are mixed, though; despite the rhetoric, representatives do not actually function as if their constituents were their bosses – just their electors. We give lofty respect to the office, if not the person, of president. In other words, our government is more than the people in it, and therefore it has more authority than the Bottom-Up could ever supply. It is vertically enduring. If we are to have a better understanding of liberty, we need to recognize not only its variety of forms, but its several sources. If the rhetoric of one form overruns our mixed practice, our liberty will perish with it.
Bryan Wandel works in government finance and has studied history, accounting, and religion. He is a member of the editorial board at Humane Pursuits. Bryan’s writing has appeared at Comment Magazine, First Things, and elsewhere.