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July 5th, 2010 Posted in Political theory by

kukathasKukathas is a professor of political theory at LSE and has previously taught in the USA and Australia.  He is a Malaysian Tamil in origin, and brings early memories of Malaysia into the book along with observations of issues around Aborigine rights into The Liberal Archipelago.  The book is written in a specialist academic style, with large parts of it originating in journal articles on the details of recent political theory.  Nevertheless, it does bring a personal passion and message with the specialist style.   This book maybe the best work of minarchist inclined theory (that is the theory of the state which only acts as a law enforcement agency) since Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia of 1974.  Like the first great minarchist, Wilhelm von Humboldt, Kukathas concedes that his position maybe more of an ideal than a likely real world state of affairs, but hopes to push the political world as far as possible in that direction.

Part of Kukathas’ minarchist orientation is that is sceptical about the political world, certainly as far as it concerns official state structures, and the questions of national belonging and identity which form part of political debate.  Kukathas refers to the ways in which the Malaysian state tries to organise and define sub-national groups, and his father’s experience of harassment by the police when writing journalism that seemed to challenge the state.  Kukathas’ point is that state policies which may start with good intentions to organise just relations between sub-national communities,  only aid state power and intrusion.  He also refers to the way that official attempts of the Australian state to give justice to the Aborigines, who have clearly suffered all kinds of extreme injustice since Europeans first arrived in Australia, have failed to produce good results.  Attempts to arrive at very official legal solutions from above and consult with community representatives, create new forms of intrusion and new forms of privilege for those with a close relation to the state.  Kukathas’s response to these kind of problems is to recall his father saying that while the state is not important, it is relevant in a negative way.  The point being that the state fails to connect with social reality, and organise it as it wishes, and it fails to create carefully delimited identities as it wishes, but can create all sorts of bad results in the attempt.

The best way the state can deal with communities which differ in some way from the community which seems to define national identity, that is minority groups or sub-national groups, is benign neglect.  Trying to compensate for injustice only produces new injustices and perverse incentives, as people try to get some advantage from membership, real or imagined, of a disadvantaged community, through public subsidies, state jobs and so on.  Benign neglect allows anyone who believes themselves to be members of a distinct sub-national community to organise education, cultural and communal life, free of state interference.  This itself produces an argument for minimising the state, since for example if the state does not provide education it cannot discriminate in education or encourage people to fight over who controls the education system.

Kukathas sometimes emphasises the idea that there are very well defined groups within nations, and across national boundaries, and sometimes emphasises that all identities and mixed, complex and ambiguous.  Kukathas suggests that the best way to deal with that kind of conflict is to limit the state and to promote the division of state powers through federalising nations, separation of powers between parts of the state system, transnational institutions.  If we look at history, we can see that there have always been multiple boundaries to sovereignty, different levels of sovereignty, and change in these arrangements.  Kukathas uses that to suggest his model of the ‘liberal archipelago’, that is a model in which sovereign entities are loosely associated like the islands in a archipelago, and may merge or split over time due to unplanned natural processes.  Individuals can move between the islands to live the kind of life they prefer. This is what has been happening in history, things go wrong when states try to freeze that process.

Kutathas does not claim that this is the only way of understanding liberalism in its original form.  He says that for thinkers like J.S. Mill and Alexis de Tocqueville, the state was understood to be bringing people together in common ideas of liberty to prevent injustice to any member of the community. This idea has origins in the kind of antique republicanism we have looked at in Aristotle and Cicero. Kukathas prefers liberalism to move in the direction of accepting the autonomy of an unlimited number of overlapping communities (something like utopia in Nozick); some of these may be unjust from a liberal point of view, but we should accept them if individuals are free to leave.  That is the ideal form of liberalism for Kukathas, but he concedes that it is likely that this will always exist in interaction with more integrating version of liberalism.

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