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Twilight of Authority

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He loved liberty, hated war, and saw the state as universally destructive. In what sense is he not a libertarian?
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This classic occupies an interesting place in libertarian history. The author is a sociologist, one beloved by conservatives. But read closely: his view of what constitutes authority (legitimate authority) flows entirely out of the private sphere of life, not from the state. Indeed, he regards the state as the great enemy of social authority and civic association created by voluntary interaction..

As Alberto Mingardi has written:

Robert Nisbet was a well-known and influential conservative sociologist. But his analysis of the state as "nothing more, basically, than an institutionalization of the war-making power" is extremely useful for libertarians. In his Twilight of Authority (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, [1975] 2000), Professor Nisbet explores in depth two surprisingly related issues, which he has yet touched in other works such as the famous The Quest for Community: first, the aggressive habits of power, and second, the relationship between the decline of traditional morality and rise of the state. According to Nisbet, breaking down the traditional order--favoring at the same time a sort of egalitarian utopianism--was a condicio sine qua non for the state to take off: "the thrust toward equalitarianism inevitably led to a disintegration of old social unities, and only the power of the state was left to fill this vacuum." It is true that "the political state arose first in precisely those areas where the traditional kinship and religious system of a given people broke down as the result of strained imposed by warfare." We may understand the inherent military nature of the state by looking at the fact that "primordially military qualities such as centralization of command, unremitting discipline, a chain of power from military chief straight down to individual soldier, even communalism, were in course of time transmitted to the political state."

Nisbet argues that the "centralization, and, increasingly, individualization of power is matched in the social and cultural spheres by a combined hedonism and egalitarianism, each in its own way a reflection of the destructive impact of power on the hierarchy that is native to the social bond,” he writes. Nisbet offers no prophecy of inevitable decline; rather, he means to call attention to “the problem of finding the means of generating a social order within which the individual can live and derive a spirit of initiative.”

Robert Nisbet (1913–1996) was renowned worldwide for his scholarship in the history and philosophy of social and political thought. He taught at Columbia, the University of California at Berkeley, Smith College, and the University of Bologna, and was the author of several major works, including Social Change and History and The Quest for Community.

He loved liberty, hated war, and saw the state as universally destructive. In what sense is he not a libertarian?


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ISBN 9780865972124
Publisher Liberty Fund Inc.
Publication Date 2009
Binding PB
Page Length 400
Dimensions 6" x 9"