Sympathy for the Rebel

I was pleased to read these statements in the textbook I’m using for intro IR (p. 241):

[I]deally, we would like to reduce the likelihood that bloody and destructive civil wars will break out in the first place. There are several challenges to this aspiration. . . [T]here are truly repressive regimes that deserve the opposition of their people. In these cases, reducing the risk of armed rebellion can have the unintended effect of diminishing the government’s incentives to liberalize.

When discussing civil wars in class, I found my students took a typically “statist” perspective on the problem. For them, the most important thing was strengthening security services and the government’s surveillance capabilities to make armed opposition unthinkable. Most of them seemed shocked when I said that higher civil war risk was probably a good thing in many places. Do we want to strengthen the North Korean state’s surveillance capabilities? Would North Koreans be better or worse off if there were an armed opposition and the government knew it?

You don’t have to be a right-wing gun nut to answer “no” and “better off,” respectively.

7 thoughts on “Sympathy for the Rebel

  1. The liberal state, rightly understood, is an attempt to chart a middle course between two “worst case” political extremes: civil war and tyranny. In this sense, the liberal state is a child of both Hobbes (who empowers the state to prevent the evil of civil war) and Locke (who limits the state to prevent the evil of tyranny). A libertarian will tend to think that tyranny is the greater evil, and a statist liberal will tend to think civil war (injustices committed by individuals and groups) is worse. Both are partly right: they’re both bad and need to be avoided.

    1. Certainly. But to make rebellion unthinkable in many places around the world should result in outcomes both statist liberals and libertarians would recognize as worse. In the same way, to make violent resistance to conquest unthinkable would surely have bad consequences for weaker states and their peoples.

  2. ^ of course, the modern state is not primarly aimed at either but to redistribute wealth from value creators to others (it is civil war by other means to use a Clausewitzian framework). The Farm Bill, protectionist policies, occupational licensing, ObamaCare, etc are hard to reconcile with either dual aim of liberalism as you state it. What say you to this?

  3. Grover, I say your description of the modern state is strangely conspiratorial — and rooted in the whining self-pity of billionaires. You sound like you’ve been brainwashed by Objectivists. “Value creators” versus the moochers? Jeez. I suppose we’ll hear more of this kind of thing from you as the GOP gets Cruzified for its idiocy and the country repudiates economic libertarianism more decisively than ever in 2016.

    More seriously, using my schema, the GOP is more Lockean on economic issues (becoming more so in recent years) and more Hobbesian on social issues (becoming somewhat less so in recent years). The Dems, meanwhile, are more Lockean on social issues and more Hobbesian on economic issues. That certainly seems truer to reality than the Atlas Shrugged knock-off you’re proposing in your comment. I think this nicely explains why you, as a Lockean classical liberal, prefer the GOP (and increasingly so in recent years). The reason you’re not more divided between the two parties is that you care MUCH more about upholding Lockeanism in the economic sphere than you do about pushing it when it comes to social issues. I’m the reverse. Which is one reason why we spend so much time bickering.

    1. I don’t know about all that; I read GC’s comment as more standard poli sci – “stationary banditry” as the rationale for gov’t (

      But I’m curious: in what sense are Dems Lockean? I interpret their positions on same-sex marriage and medical marijuana as being more socially progressive (approving of secularity and values of inclusiveness and egalitarianism) than stemming from live-and-let-live Lockeanism. (After all, progressive states are also more likely to ban private discrimination against same-sex couples.) I can’t really think of many other social issues on which Dems end up with classically liberal conclusions. Certainly not tobacco, guns, home schooling, prostitution, gambling, or even booze. Maybe asset forfeiture & police & prosecutorial abuse? But I’m not so sure progs are all that better than cons on those issues – c.f. the recent Alternet hit on Radley Balko. State-sponsored gender discrimination comes to mind. But not much else.

    2. Jason nails it. I trust, Damon, that you don’t consider the APSR to be a Randian-outlet! And I’m guessing that you would doubt the Nobel committee would give its prize in econ to Objectivist work (as it did to James Buchanan – a key public choice, not Objectivist, theorist). So while your argument is funny – and you admit half in jest – mine is clearly within acceptable elite discourse outside of the Cruzified Republican Party.

      I should also note that the Hartzian thesis you are partly parroting is not very compelling. There has been work done that shows that the blue states as socially liberal trope is a myth. Liberals and blue states tend to be economically interventionist AND socially/personal freedom interventionist (paternalistic) on all but a very few things (abortion). Outdoor (!) Cig bans = clearly Lockean. Soda size limits = clearly Lockean. The individual mandate = clearly Lockean. Etc.

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