Federalism Theory Part 1: Johannes Althusius

My next three posts will discuss theories of federalism. The ultimate goal of these next posts is to establish an understanding of federalism before addressing the American Federal Republic. To accomplish that goal I will examine the federalist theories of Johannes Althusius, Niccolo Machiavelli and Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de La Brede et de Montesquieu. This first post will explore the political ideas of Johannes Althusius' book, Politica.

Before getting to him, let me clarify what I believe about federalism. Generally speaking, federal systems are voluntarily entered into by the constituent parts of a planned union. The parts create a governing body over the union for express reasons, which usually also includes express authorities. The specific purposes of unification vary, but the general purpose is mutual commerce and protection. While the parts of the federation retain some level of autonomy and sovereignty inside their borders, their interactions with each other are governed by the union government. The voluntary nature of the union rationally and logically allows for its dissolution or alteration. That means that the parts can change the union or the authorities of the union government if necessary. Furthermore, if the union government becomes tyrannical, the parts can dissolve the union by mutual agreement, by individual secession or by violent revolt. At the end of this post, I'll explain how Althusius' theory fits into this conception of federalism.

The Symbiotic Nature of Political Life

Politica contains Althusius' general theory of politics. For him "[p]olitics is the art of associating... men for the purpose of establishing, cultivating, and conserving social life among them." In this sense, each constituent part of political and social existence is a symbiote. Symbiotic politics is the idea that people associate with others and "pledge themselves each to the other, by explicit or tacit agreement" to communicate--that is, to provide--all that is necessary for harmonious social life. He explains that people form political and social associations because no individual is self-sufficient or able to exist in solitude as we are not "adequately endowed by nature." All the useful and necessary things for comfortable social life can only be obtained through social and political existence.

These symbiotic relationships involve things, services and common rights. The "communication of things" is how useful and necessary goods are provided by and for the symbiotes, individually and collectively. Symbiotes contribute their energy and industry for the good of the whole through the "community of services." And the "communion of right" is a system of just laws by which the symbiotes "live and are ruled... in a common life among themselves." It is the foundation of a political association that orders society. Already we can see a federal system: Because individuals are incapable of acquiring all that is needed for a harmonious existence, they form various associations that provide things and services within the confines of the communion of right, which establishes and limits authority. These various associations may be private or public, each with its own sphere of authority.

Private Associations: The Family and the Collegium

Althusius recognizes two kinds of private associations: the family and the collegium. The family is the primary association. All other associations are derived from the family. Through it, people learn how to interact with others, how to follow the rules governing associations, and about the symbiotic nature of politics, society and life in general. The head of the household sets the rules, and dictates to the family members what function they will perform. He also leads the family in meeting their duties of “forethought, care and defense.” Elders are given the duty of “correcting and reprehending their younger kinsmen for mistakes of youthful indiscretion and hotheadedness.”

Once a person is old enough, they enter a collegium--a private organization akin to a guild--as an apprentice. Having already been taught how society works, they can follow the rules set by the collegium and help make the association harmonious. Collegia are temporary, and the leader is chosen by the colleagues. The rules of the collegium are set by the leader and approved by the colleagues. The colleagues communicate to each other the things (colleague contributions and acquisitions from other sources), services (duties that some number of the collegium need to do to promote the association), right (rules and laws that govern the association) and mutual benevolence (brotherly love) needed for a harmonious association. Collegia can be dissolved when their goal has been achieved, or its existence ceases to promote that goal.

Families and collegia operate under separate rules and leaders for the good of themselves, but they also operate symbiotically for the good of the larger associations in which they exist.

Public Associations: The City, Province and Realm

Althusius also identifies three forms of public association: the city (including towns, villages, and the like), the province, and the realm. The city is an association of collegia and families. Althusias quoted Nicolaus Losaeus to describe the city as "a coming together under one special name of many bodies each distinct from the other." The various collegia and families communicate to each other the useful and necessary goods to provide for a harmonious life for individuals and the whole. The government is created "by the city out of its general and free power" and can be dissolved and replaced by the citizens, because, as Althusius points out, the city is superior to individuals of the city but not the collective of collegia and families. The government is limited in its authority by the “communion of right” involving the collegia and families that formed the city. The rules made by the city government are either made with the direct consent of some number of the citizens or the representatives thereof.

A province is an association of many cities. It covers a large enough territory that it must be split into orders for the sake of good administration. There are two broad orders, ecclesiastical and secular. The ecclesiastical order provides for the religious education of the province. The secular order is further divided into the nobility and the commons. The nobility provide the military defense of the province, while the commons, which is an association of burghers and agrarians, provide for useful and necessary goods through various occupations, including "merchants and businessmen,... farmers and herders, and finally craftsmen and mechanics." One single ruler is put in charge of the province to "hold the others, both orders and individuals, to their duties." This ruler is sovereign in the province, but has no authority or sovereignty outside the province. The orders act as a sort of council and gather to vote on the proposals of the provincial leader.

All the provinces make up the realm. The realm is the largest association in which the things, services and common rights necessary for harmonious existence of the whole are communicated. The governing authority of the realm may be either monarchical or polyarchical. It is established by the many cities and provinces that agree "on a single body constituted by mutual union and communication." What holds this universal association together is "a tacit or expressed promise to communicate things, mutual services, aid, counsel and the same common laws to the extent that the utility and necessity of the universal social life in a realm shall require."

Althusian Federalism: Analysis

Althusius' federal design contains all the elements of federalism I explained at the start of this post. All associations are voluntary, except the family. The symbiotes of each association constitute a governing body and grant it some authority. Each association is sovereign within itself, but is governed by a larger association outside itself, up to the realm. The governing authorities have express purposes for existing, are inferior to the collective of the symbiotes and can be altered or dissolved by the collective. Indeed, when discussing the realm he said that there are multiple methods to dealing with a tyrant should one arise. Most of the ways were diplomatic--restrain the tyrant through the communion of right already established, or alter the arrangement so the tyrant is no longer legally a tyrant, etc.--but if the tyrant is violent towards the constituent parts, they can fight back, and, if necessary, a province can leave the realm and establish its own sovereignty.