Oakeshott on Civil Association

A trailer from Noel O’Sullivan‘s essay.

The distinctive achievement of Western political thought since the seventeenth century is the ideal of the limited state. Despite extensive theorizing about this ideal, however, there has always been profound disagreement about its precise nature and implications. The full extent of this disagreement has been especially evident during the decades since the Second World War, in the course of which sustained efforts have been made by a variety of thinkers to construct a coherent alternative to totalitarianism. In Friedrich Hayek’s view, for example, the limited state is principally characterized by a free market economy that facilitates human progress. For Karl Popper, it is characterized by commitment to creating an Open Society which rejects absolute truth and asserts the conditionality of all knowledge. In the early writings of John Rawls, the limited state is characterized by commitment to rational principles of distributive justice. For Robert Nozick, it means the minimal state. For Ernest Gellner, it is the political structure appropriate to what he termed “modular man.” For Jürgen Habermas, echoing Rousseau, it refers to a political order based on rational will formation. For Vaclav Havel, what characterizes the limited state is the promotion of spiritual integration instead of the spiritual fragmentation associated with totalitarian regimes. Still other interpretations of the ideal of the limited state are found amongst theorists of globalization and the European Union.