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Hayek’s Case for Decentralized Communities

In Arts & Letters, Christianity, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, liberal arts, Libertarianism, Philosophy, Religion, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Western Philosophy on January 16, 2019 at 6:45 am

This piece originally appeared here at Mises Wire.

My talk today is about decentralization and epistemology. At the outset I wish to disclaim any specialized expertise in this subject. I’m a lawyer by training who loves literature and earned a doctorate in English. It would be a stretch to call me a philosopher or a political theorist, hence this anchoring disclaimer to prevent me from sailing too deep into philosophical seas.

I have divided my argument, such as it is, into two parts: the impersonal and the personal. The former is a philosophical case for decentralization; the latter involves private considerations about intimate human relationships around which communities of common purpose organize and conduct themselves. In the end, the two approaches are mutually reinforcing, yielding, I hope, benevolent and humane considerations. Presenting them as separate, however, signals to different audiences whose tolerance for appeals to feeling may vary.

The Impersonal

The impersonal argument boils down to this: decentralized systems of order are more efficient, and hence more desirable, because they better account for and respond to dispersed knowledge across diverse communities with unique customs, ambitions, and values. Heterogeneous, bottom-up systems governed by local institutions that reflect native knowledge, talent, and choices more effectually serve humanity writ large than centralized, top-down systems that are unaccountable to local norms and mores.

Polycentric law, or polycentrism,is the term I use to describe this organizational arrangement. Other names that suggest themselves fail to express the dynamism of polycentrism. Federalism, for example, confounds because of its association with the early American Federalists. It presupposes, moreover, even in its articulation by the inaptly named Anti-Federalists, too strong of a central authority, in my view, beneath which local authorities contend as coequal subordinates. Localism, for its part, suffers from associations with protectionist, anticompetitive economic policies. Other names such as confederation, city state, or anarcho-capitalism likewise have their drawbacks.

So I’m stuck with polycentrism as the operative label for the working system of small and plural authorities that I seek to describe. The chief value of this system is its propensity to temper and check the natural ambition and pride that lead humans not only to aspirations of power and greatness, but also to the coercive institutions and machinations that inhibit the voluntary organization of individuals around shared norms and customs. An optimal polycentric order consists of multiple, competing jurisdictions of humane and reasonable scale, each with their own divided powers that prevent the consolidation of authority in the form of a supreme ruler or tyrant (or, more likely in our age, of a managerial, administrative, and bureaucratic state) and each with a written document outlining governing rules and institutions while affirming a core commitment to common goals and a guiding mission. To speak of an optimal polycentric order, however, is problematic, because polycentric orders enable distinct communities to select and define for themselves the operative assemblage of rules and institutions that fulfills their chief ideals and favored principles.

F. A. Hayek’s price theory provides a useful starting point for discussing the benefits of bottom-up, decentralized modes of human ordering that represent polycentrism. This theory holds that knowledge is dispersed throughout society and incapable of being comprehensively understood by any one person or group of people; therefore, centralized economic planning inevitably fails because it cannot accurately assess or calculate the felt needs and coordinated activities of faraway people in disparate communities; only in a market economy where consumers freely buy and sell according to their unique preferences will reliable pricing gradually reveal itself.

Hayek’s theory of knowledge is predicated on the fallibility and limitations of human intelligence. Because the complexity of human behavior and interaction exceeds the capacity of one mind or group of minds fully to comprehend it, human coordination requires deference to emergent or spontaneous orders, rooted in custom, that adapt to the dynamic, evolving needs and preferences of everyday consumers. Hayek’s articulation of price theory contemplates collective and aggregated wisdom—i.e., disembodied or embedded knowledge—and cautions against grand designs based on the alleged expertise of a select class of people.

Michael Polanyi, another polymath and an ardent anti-Marxist, exposited related theories about polycentricity, spontaneous order, central planning, and knowledge, but he focused less on economic theory and more on scientific discovery, independent inquiry, and the free, systematic exchange of research and ideas. Scientific advancement, in his view, did not proceed as the construction of a house proceeds, namely according to a fixed plan or design, but rather by a process analogous to, in his words, “the ordered arrangement of living cells which constitute a polycellular organism.”1 “Throughout the process of embryonic development,” he explained, “each cell pursues its own life, and yet each so adjusts its growth to that of its neighbors that a harmonious structure of the aggregate emerges.”2 “This”, he concluded, “is exactly how scientists co-operate: by continually adjusting their line of research to the results achieved up to date by their fellow-scientists.”3

Polanyi labored to show that “the central planning of production” was “strictly impossible”4 and that “the operations of a system of spontaneous order in society, such as the competitive order of a market, cannot be replaced by the establishment of a deliberate ordering agency.”5 He described the inefficiencies of purely hierarchical organizational structures within which information rises upward from the base, mediated successively by subsequent, higher tiers of authority, arriving ultimately at the top of a pyramid, at some supreme authority, which then centrally directs the entire system, commanding orders down to the base. This convoluted process, besides being inefficient, is susceptible to disinformation and misinformation, and to a lack of reliable, on-the-ground knowledge of relevant circumstances.

While Polanyi points to mundane instances of spontaneous ordering, such as passengers at train stations, without central direction, standing on platforms and filling seats on the trains,6 he also examines more complex forms of behavioral adaptation to interpersonal interactions that, over time and through repetition, emerge as tacitly understood habits and rules that gain acceptance by the larger corporate body.

Centralization concentrates power in fewer people in smaller spaces, whereas decentralization divides and spreads power among vast networks of people across wider spaces. Under centralized government, good people who enjoy power may, in theory, quickly accomplish good, but evil people who enjoy power may quickly accomplish evil. Because of the inherent, apocryphal dangers of the latter possibility, centralized government must not be preferred. Our tendencies as humans are catastrophic, asserting themselves in the sinful behaviors we both choose and cannot help. There is, moreover, on a considerable range of issues, disagreement about what constitutes the bad and the good, the evil and the virtuous. If questions about badness or goodness, evil and virtuousness are simply or hastily resolved in favor of the central power, then resistant communities—threatened, marginalized, silenced, and coerced—will eventually exercise their political agency, mobilizing into insurrectionary alliances to undermine the central power. Centralized power therefore increases the probability of large-scale violence whereas decentralized government reduces conflicts to local levels where they tend to be minor and offsetting.

Polycentric orders produce self-constituting communities that regulate themselves through the mediating institutions they have voluntarily erected to align with their values, traditions, and priorities. Their practical scope and scale enable them to govern themselves according to binding rules that are generally agreeable to the majority within their jurisdiction.

A man alone in the wilderness is vulnerable to threats. When he enters into society, however, he combines with others who, with common interests, serve and protect each other from outside threats. If society grows large, materializing as vast states or governments, the people therein lose their sense of common purpose, their desire to unify for mutual benefit and protection. Factions and classes arise, each contending for power. The people in whom the sovereignty of the central power supposedly resides may become disempowered and marginalized as the network of bureaucratic functionaries proliferates. The people are displaced by arms and agencies of the central power. Although progress cannot be achieved without constructive competition among and between rival groups, societies cannot flourish when their inhabitants do not share a fundamental sense of common purpose and identity.

Centralized power may at first blush seem to be more efficient because its decision-making process is not complex, consisting as it does of top-down commands to subordinates. Theoretically, and only theoretically, ultimate efficiency could be achieved if all power were possessed by one person. But of course in reality no one person could protect his or her power from external threats or internal insubordination. In fact, the concentration of power in one person invites dissent and insurrection. It is easier, after all, to overthrow one person than to overthrow many. Therefore, in practice, centralized power requires the supreme authority to build bureaucracies of agents and functionaries loyally and dutifully to institute its top-down directive

But how does the central power generate a sense of loyalty and duty among and between these subordinates? Through patronage and political favors, pensions, rent seeking, influence peddling, immunities, cronyism, graft—in short, by strengthening the human urge for self-aggrandizement, elevating select people and groups to privileged positions at extraordinary expense to ordinary people or consumers. Accordingly, centralization as a form of human organization incentivizes corruption, malfeasance, and dishonesty while building convoluted networks of costly officials through whom information is mediated and distorted. The result is widespread corruption, misunderstanding, and inefficiency.

Even assuming arguendo that concentrated authority is more efficient, it would ease the ability to accomplish evil and mischief as well as good. The purported benefits of consolidated power presuppose a benevolent supreme authority with comprehensive knowledge of native circumstances. Whatever conceivable benefits may be obtained through hypothetically quick decision-making are outweighed by the potential harms resulting from the implementation of the decision as binding law. The limited and fallible knowledge on which the decision is based amplifies the resultant harm beyond what it might have been in a decentralized system that localized power and thereby diminished the capability of bad people to cause harm.

The efficiency, if any, of commanding orders and setting policy on a top-down model is therefore neutralized by the resulting inefficiencies and harmful consequences that could have been avoided had central planners not presupposed knowledge of local circumstances. Absent an offsetting authority, any centralized power may, without just cause, coerce and molest peaceful men and women in contravention of their distinct laws and customs. Naturally, these men and women, combined as resistant communities, will contest unwarranted, unwanted tyranny that threatens their way of life and understanding of community. Disturbance of social harmony and backlash against unjustified coercion render inefficient the allegedly efficient operations of the central power.

It becomes apparent, after long consideration, that centralized modes of power are not more efficient after all, that in fact they are inimical to liberty and virtue when compared to their decentralized alternatives. But that is not the only reason why the decentralized model is superior.

The Personal

You don’t enjoy fine wine merely by talking and thinking about it, but by actually drinking it, sniffing its aromas, swirling it in your glass, wetting your tongue and coating your mouth with it. A true appreciation of wine is experiential, based on the repeated pleasure of tasting and consuming different grape varieties with their distinctive flavor components. Most people develop their loves and priorities this way. They do not love abstractions, but they love their neighbors, families, and friends. They prioritize issues that are to them near and daily. They have done so from an early age. “It is within families and other institutional arrangements characteristic of neighborhood, village, and community life that citizenship is learned and practiced for most people most of the time,” said Vincent Ostrom.7 “The first order of priority in learning the craft of citizenship as applied to public affairs,” he added, “needs to focus on how to cope with problems in the context of family, neighborhood, village, and community. This is where people acquire the rudiments for becoming self-governing, by learning how to live and work with others.”8

I learned to accept defeat, not from national election campaigns, foreign wars, or too-big-to-fail banks that nevertheless failed, but from little-league baseball, when my third-grade team, the Cardinals, lost in the semifinals, and when my freshman basketball team lost in the finals. I still dream about that championship basketball game. My coach had put me in the game for the sole purpose of shooting three-pointers, my specialty, but the defense double-teamed me. I was unable to get a clear shot. Every time I passed the ball away my coach yelled “no,” commanding me to shoot. Earlier in the season, before he knew my skill behind the three-point line, he shouted “no” whenever I took a shot.

I learned about injustice when my first-grade teacher punished me in a manner that was disproportionate to my alleged offense, which to this day I deny having committed, and about grace and mercy when my mother forgave me, without so much as a spank, for an offense that I had most definitely committed.

I learned about God and faith while having breakfast at my grandmother’s kitchen table. She kept a Bible on the table beside a bookshelf full of texts on Christian themes and teachings. At the middle of the table was a little jar of Bible verses. I recall reaching my hand into the jar and pulling out verses, one after another, weekend after weekend, reading them to her and then discussing with her what their meaning might be. This mode of learning was intimate and hands-on and prepared me to experience God for myself, to study His word and figure out my beliefs about Him when later I retired to places of solitude for silent contemplation. These experiences meant far more to me than the words of any faraway televangelist.

Whenever I stayed at my grandparents’ house, my grandfather would awaken early and start the coffee pot. My brother and I, hearing him downstairs, would rush to his side. He shared sections of the newspaper with us and allowed us to drink coffee with him. He made us feel like responsible adults, two little children with newspaper and coffee in hand, pondering current events and passing judgment on the latest political trends and scandals. This indispensable education did not come from public broadcasting or from some expensive civic literacy project orchestrated by the National Foundation for the Arts or the National Foundation for the Humanities. It came from family, in familiar spaces, in the warmth of a loving home.

Mrs. Stubbs taught me manners and decorum at cotillion, although she never succeeded in teaching me to dance. I learned etiquette on the golf course where I spent my childhood summers playing with groups of grown men, competing with them while learning how to ask questions about their careers and professions, staying silent as they swung or putted, not walking in their lines, holding the flagstick for them, giving them honors on the tee when they earned the lowest score on the previous hole, raking the bunkers, walking carefully to avoid leaving spike marks on the greens, fixing my ball marks, and so on.

I learned about death when a girl I carpooled with to church passed away from cancer. She was only four or five when she died. Then there was the death of my great-grandmother, then my great-grandfather, then my grandfather, and so on down the line, which to this day approaches me. In the South we still open our caskets to display corpses and remind ourselves of the fragility of life and the inevitability of death. This solemn ritual keeps us mindful of our purpose in life, draws us closer to our friends and family, and ensures that we contemplate the gravest and most important questions.

My two grandfathers meant the world to me. Both of them wore suits and ties to work every day. They dressed professionally and responsibly for every occasion. I copied them at an early age. In high school, while the other kids gave themselves over to the latest fads and fashions, I wore button-down shirts tucked neatly into slacks. I thought I wouldn’t score points with my peers by dressing up for class, but before long many of my friends adopted the practice as we began to think of ourselves as little men in pursuit of an education. Because we were athletes, our clothing was not just tolerated but eventually mimicked. When the other basketball teams showed up at our gym, we met them in coat and tie while they wore t-shirts that were too big and breakaway pants that sagged beneath their rear ends. Our team might have startled them by our formal attire. But we startled them even more after we removed to the locker room, put on our jerseys, stormed the court and then beat the living hell out of them.

I could go on. The point  is that felt experience defines who we are and shapes how we behave. As Justice Holmes remarked, “What we most love and revere generally is determined by early associations. I love granite rocks and barberry bushes, no doubt because with them were my earliest joys that reach back through the past eternity of my life.”9 What he says next is more important:

But while one’s experience thus makes certain preferences dogmatic for oneself, recognition of how they came to be so leaves one able to see that others, poor souls, may be equally dogmatic about something else. And this again means skepticism. Not that one’s belief or love does not remain. Not that we would not fight and die for it if important—we all, whether we know it or not, are fighting to make the kind of a world that we should like—but that we have learned to recognize that others will fight and die to make a different world, with equal sincerity or belief. Deep-seated preferences can not be argued about—you can not argue a man into liking a glass of beer—and therefore, when differences are sufficiently far reaching, we try to kill the other man rather than let him have his way. But that is perfectly consistent with admitting that, so far as appears, his grounds are just as good as ours.10

I take these words as cautionary—as a stark reminder of the horrifying potential for violence that inheres in the attempt of one group of people formed by certain associations to impose by force their norms and practices on another group of people formed by different associations. It is the distinct virtue of polycentricity to accommodate these differences and to minimize the chances of violence by diffusing and dispersing power.


The polycentric order I advocate is not utopian; it’s concrete and practical and exemplified by the mediating institutions and subsidiary authorities such as churches, synagogues, clubs, little leagues, community associations, schools, and professional memberships through and with which we express ourselves, politically or otherwise, and to whose rules we voluntarily submit.

When we turn on our televisions in the evening, we are, many of us from this part of the country, disturbed by the increase of lewd conduct, divisive rhetoric, mischievous behavior, and institutionalized decadence that are contrary to our local norms yet systemically and vigorously forced upon us by foreign or outside powers. Turning off the television in protest seems like our only mode of resistance, our only manner of dissent. Disgusted by mounting evidence that our politicians have marshaled the apparatus of the mighty federal government to achieve personal fame and glory, many of us feel exploited and powerless. In the face of massive state bureaucracies, large corporations, biased media, tendentious journalists, and commanding militaries, we nevertheless exercise our agency, bringing joy and hope to our families, friends, and neighbors, tending to concrete circumstances that are under our direct control. The promise of community reinvigorates and refreshes us.

Recently I strolled around Copenhagen, Denmark, on a bright Sunday morning. Though the church bells rang through the streets, echoing off buildings and cobblestone sidewalks, silencing conversations, and startling some pigeons, the churches themselves remained empty. I saw no worshipers or worship services. Some of the churches had been repurposed as cafes and restaurants with waiters and waitresses but no pastors or priests; customers drank their wine and ate their bread at fine little tables, but there were no communion rituals or sacraments.

A month later, also on a Sunday, I flew into Montgomery, Alabama, from Dallas, Texas. As the plane slowly descended beneath the clouds, the little dollhouse figurines and model buildings beneath me snapped to life, becoming real people and structures. I gazed upon the dozens of churches dotting the flat, widening landscape, which grew nearer and bigger as we approached the airport. And I observed, sitting there, stock still yet propelled through space, that the parking lots of each church were full of cars, that there were, at this early hour, hundreds if not thousands of my people there before me, worshipping the same God I worshipped, the same God my parents and grandparents and their parents and grandparents had worshipped; and I sensed, right then, deeply and profoundly, for the first time in years, a rare but unmistakable feeling: hope not just for my community, but for community.



  • 1.Michael Polanyi, The Logic of Liberty (Indianapolis Liberty Fund, 1998) (1951), p. 109.
  • 2.Ibid.
  • 3.Ibid.
  • 4.Ibid at 136.
  • 5.Ibid at 137.
  • 6.Ibid. at 141
  • 7.Vincent Ostrom, The Meaning of Democracy and the Vulnerability of Democracies (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1997), p. x.
  • 8.Ibid.
  • 9.Oliver Wenell Holmes Jr. “Natural Law.” Harvard Law Review, Vol. 32 (1918-19), p. 41.
  • 10.Holmes at 41.

What Is Polycentric Law?

In Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law on May 2, 2018 at 6:45 am

“‘Polycentric law’ refers to the overlapping and amalgamating of rules and jurisdictions, in contrast to the legislating of a monolithic legal code that denies cultural particularities. Polycentric law is not centrally planned.”[1]

In other words, there is no one uniform system that can be called polycentric, because polycentrism involves multiple centers of control competing with one another, sometimes merging, sometimes coinciding.

History has demonstrated that legal and normative orders tend to centralize. Polycentric law materializes when each of these centralized orders remains competitive, kinetic, viable, and characterized by bottom-up customs and traditions.

Pluralism inheres in polycentric orders in which the power to coerce or control is dispersed, neutralized, or offset through competition and private adjudication according to embedded cultural standards and practices.


[1] Allen Mendenhall, Literature and Liberty: Essays in Libertarian Literary Criticism (Lexington Books, 2014), p. 67.

The Oft-Ignored Mr. Turton: Part One

In Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, E.M. Forster, Eastern Civilizaton, Economics, Fiction, Humane Economy, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Law-and-Literature, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Philosophy, Politics, Western Civilization on April 12, 2012 at 7:44 am

 Allen Mendenhall

The following originally appeared here at Libertarian Papers.  Full Works Cited to appear in Part Three.

There it was. Bombay. E.M. Forster, affectionately called Morgan by his friends, hurried to the railing of the ship to get a better view. The blue sparkling water stretched out before him until it met land on the horizon where buildings and bustling communities nestled among green trees. Forster had been sailing for two weeks. He was tired and dirty. The heat bothered him. It had forced him to sleep on deck where he could catch the occasional cool breeze. His friends Robert Trevelyan and Goldworthy Lowes Dickinson, or “Goldie,” were with him at the railing. The three men chirped about the welcome scene of city life. Forster breathed a sigh of relief. Here he would be liberated from the constraints of Britain. Forster achieved some celebrity after the recent publication of Howards End.  This getaway would enable him to escape the public gaze. Soon he would see his friend and sometime lover Syed Ross Masood, and also his friend Malcolm Darling, who had recently attained a favorable post in the Indian Civil Service. On this autumn day in 1912, Forster did not know that his journey would inspire his best fiction yet.

Forster made two long trips to India during which he observed district collectors, local laws, and local courtrooms at work. He spent most of his time in territories ruled by Hindu maharajahs. His experiences in India suggest that his familiarity with colonial law was greater than that of the average Englishman living in India and certainly greater than that of the average Englishman living outside India. This familiarity manifests itself in A Passage to India, published in 1924. Forster’s knowledge about district collectors in particular allowed him to use the character Mr. Turton as a site for critique. Nevertheless, Forster transmogrifies the district collector and the legal system in several passages in the novel.

In light of his knowledge of the colonial experience, including the colonial legal experience, Forster’s rejection of verisimilitude seems intentional and not the consequence of misunderstanding. Forster allows enough actual law into the novel to ensure his and his characters’ credibility, but he does not go so far as to depict the legal system as it appeared on a day-to-day basis, perhaps because the routine workings of law did not always excite. Forster gives us enough real law to make his story and characters believable, but he does not bore us with total accuracy. His hyperbolic depictions of Turton and the law invest the novel with political significance. This essay examines how Forster uses Turton to portray colonial law and rule of law discourse as dispensable flourishes of liberal ideology. It argues that Passage challenges the idea that law is universal and can be universally applied. Forster shows instead that law is entrenched in discourses of religion, race, community, and culture. To this end, he holds up Brahman Hindu as an alternative to British rule of law and to the reforming utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham. He contrasts the coercion and compulsion of rule of law to the emergent orders attendant upon Brahman Hindu. Although Forster later championed Mulk Raj Anand’s novel The Untouchable (1935), which attacked the endemic injustice of the Hindu caste system, he held out Brahman Hindu as a distinctive category of Hinduism that, in its inclusivity, rejected caste and exclusionism. His was not a referential but an idealized conception of Brahman Hindu; nevertheless, the signifier “Brahman Hindu” seems less important to the novel than the concept Forster summons forth: that of spontaneous order rather than of the centralized, artificial construct of British rule of law. This order represents a polycentric system.

The characters in Passage demonstrate that the colonial encounter is too complex for grand schemes of criminal and civil law. Unlike utilitarian jurisprudence, Brahman Hindu accounts for the complicated nexus of interrelated people and processes that shape Indian society. Utilitarianism and rule of law jurisprudence are closely related, especially in the British-Indian context, and Forster rejects these braided concepts in favor of the multiplicity of Brahman. Forster extols Brahman Hindu philosophy because it exalts the variety of human experience and, unlike the despotism resulting from Benthamite utilitarianism, embraces emotion and romanticism. For Forster, a one-size-fits-all legislative calculus simply will not do.

Rule of Law and Utilitarian Jurisprudence

Outside of Forster’s novel, there is not, to my knowledge, a jurisprudential school of Brahman Hindu. Yet Forster uses Brahman Hindu in a fictional medium to register an alternative to rule of law discourse. It is impossible to say whether Forster believed that an actual legal system predicated on Brahman Hindu would be viable or efficient. It is clear, however, that Forster uses Brahman Hindu in the novel to point out the insufficiencies and bigotry that rule of law discourse perpetuates. Forster may not have been literally advocating a Brahman legal system, but instead for any kind of system, like Brahman, that refused to universalize laws into ultra-rigid codes of behavior. He seems to have pointed out what Murray Rothbard recognized many years later: that Bentham’s “consistent philosophical utilitarianism” is bound up with “intensified statism” that opens “a broad sluice-gate for state despotism” (49).[1]

Even if there is no jurisprudential school of Brahman Hindu, the makeup of colonial courts under the rule of the East India Company included Muslim Maulavis and Hindu Pandits who advised British magistrates on legal matters. Thus, there was a definite set of procedures, rules, and laws with which Hindu law participated.[2]

The concept of rule of law has become increasingly dubious among jurisprudents. According to John Hasnas, rule of law is the belief that “law is a body of consistent, politically neutral rules that can be objectively applied by judges” (5). Figures as wide-ranging as Carl Schmitt (McCormick 205-248) and Judith N. Shklar have criticized rule of law for the ideological freight that it carries.[3] Brian Z. Tamanaha calls rule of law an “exceedingly elusive notion” (9). Hasnas suggests that the belief in rule of law goes “a long way toward explaining citizens’ acquiescence in the steady erosion of their fundamental freedoms” (5). For Hasnas, rule of law is a “powerful” and “dangerous” myth that “can command both the allegiance and respect of the citizenry” (5). Richard Posner refers to rule of law as “the central tenet and aspiration of the American legal ideology” (43), a “complex of beliefs” (45), a “body of myth” (45), and “a cornerstone of liberal polity” (45). Posner’s indictments might apply not only to the American legal landscape but also to early 20th century British advocates of rule of law such as Albert Venn Dicey (1835-1922), who published some of his most influential work while Forster published his most influential novels (Dicey died in 1922, the year Forster visited India for the second time).

Dicey is perhaps best known for popularizing rule of law. He incorporated three kindred principles in his definition of rule of law. For the purposes of this essay, the first principle—”absence of arbitrary power on the part of the government” (183)—is the most instructive. This principle implicates the awkward interface between the British and their Indian subjects in Chandrapore. It pits arbitrariness and predictability against one another. Of this principle, Dicey claims, “In this sense the rule of law is contrasted with every system of government based on the exercise by persons in authority of wide, arbitrary, or discretionary powers of constraint” (184). In other words, rule of law is stable and steady whereas legal systems instituted upon flexible and case-by-case bases are too free from external controls to function smoothly or properly. Taking into account the prominence of Dicey’s dissertations about rule of law, and also the fact that those beliefs are firmly rooted in utilitarian and positivist traditions of jurisprudence dating back to Bentham,[4] we may assume that Forster considered rule of law to be a product of, or justification for, colonial rule in India. If Forster did not think as much, he at least considered rule of law an apt starting-point from which to critique various formations of British imperialism. Put another way, rule of law provided Forster with a motif and theme that differed wildly from the motif and theme of Brahman Hindu that he wished to explore if not exalt. For Forster, either rule of law was a vehicle to glorify Brahman Hindu, or Brahman Hindu was a vehicle to disparage rule of law. Either way, rule of law appears in his novel like an archetypal prescription that he seeks to ward off and run down.

Forster undoes the privilege of Dicey’s rule of law and instead extols the arbitrariness and variety intrinsic to Brahman Hindu. Forster even has the Muslim Aziz reflect admiringly that “Hinduism, so solid from a distance, is riven into sects and clans, which radiate and join, and change their names according to the aspect from which they are approached” (265). Hinduism, although divided into subcategories, is inclusive in nature—so inclusive, in fact, that Aziz himself could be considered Brahman by way of Godbole (265). Aziz’s reflection is even more telling for its juxtaposition of the laws of Hindu states with the British legal system in Chandrapore. The problems in Hindu states were “totally different” because “here the cleavage was between Brahman and non-Brahman; Moslems and English were quite out of the running, and sometimes not mentioned for days” (265). The rulers in Hindu states are still Hindu people sharing a common culture. They are not a foreign power seeking to impose values upon an alien culture. Nevertheless, the “fissures in Indian soil are infinite” (265) such that even non-Hindus are incorporated into Hindu society. All are fused into the transcendental, absolute philosophy of Brahman. All are subject to the order—the laws—of the universe.

Whereas Dicey defends positive rules laid down by humans, Forster celebrates ordered chaos, a paradox that needs no resolution because it is the ultimate resolution. Chaos brings about order and justice; the British insistence on human-made order results in disorder and injustice. Therefore, British rule of law seems little more than a rhetorical flourish and a pretext for colonial rule, or else a grave mistake.

Forster and District Collectors in India

During the early weeks of his six-month visit to India, Forster enjoyed a country expedition, arranged by Masood, with a district collector, the local magistrate and revenue administrator. Attentive as he was, Forster must have scrutinized this collector as he scrutinized other figures he encountered (Furbank 226). Forster often recorded his observations of people and based fictional characters on those observations.[5] He even seemed at times to blur the distinction between reality and fantasy. “Forster conducted his life as if everyone lived in a novel,” submits Wendy Moffat, adding that he carefully observed every occasion and subjected “even the most clear-cut matters” to interpretation (12). This trait was not lost on those who encountered Forster in India.[6] After the publication of Passage, many of these individuals saw themselves in the various characters of the novel. Forster did not even bother concealing the identity of Mr. Godbole, a Brahman whom Foster met in Lahore (Sarker 50 and Furbank 249). Godbole appears in the novel with his name and identity intact.

During his second trip to India, roughly one decade after his first trip, Forster visited with Rupert Smith, a former assistant magistrate who had since become a district collector. Smith’s house, befitting his social station, was impressive. Smith was “rather proud” of this house, but was “later annoyed to see [it] vilified in A Passage to India” (Furbank 92).[7] It would, I think, be fair to say that Smith and the other collectors whom Forster observed in India served as models for Mr. Turton, the fictional collector in Passage. Forster’s acquaintance with collectors suggests, at any rate, that he was at least aware of collectors’ official and legal responsibilities. Forster exaggerated and ridiculed these responsibilities in the novel. His portrayals ruffled the feathers of more than a few British readers both in Britain and in India. He received, for instance, the following letter from H.H. Shipley, a gentleman recently retired from the Indian Civil Service who had read Passage with disgust:

Frankly, your Collector is impossible. There is not a Collector in India—not an English Collector—who would behave as he does. No Collector in his senses would go to the railway station to witness the arrest of a Native Asst. Surgeon. Nor would he discuss a case ‘pendente lite’ publicly at the Club. Nor (incidentally) do Collectors clap their hands at such meetings to enforce silence or attract attention. […] If a Collector behaved as Turton did he would be written down as a madman. And pardon me if I say that the idea of the members rising to their feet at Heaslop’s entrance made me roar with laughter. In our Indian Clubs a member is a member, not a God, whether he be Collector or Merchant’s Assistant.  We are not such bum-suckers as that, if you will excuse the expression. (Furbank 126–27)

Shipley’s take on Turton typifies the British outrage that Forster faced after the publication of Passage. Shipley’s perception of Turton as a real-life figure and not as a memorable or hyperbolic creation of fiction not only fails to account for narrative technique but also points to the urgency with which British readers in India sought to counter threats to existing social and legal orders.[8]

Referred to as “the Collector” by the narrator and the other characters, Turton is an aptronymic figure in that his nickname signifies not only his job but also his “collected” demeanor. He is rich in contradiction and uniquely situated vis-à-vis the law. More or less in charge of the local government, this oft-ignored figure aspires, with limited success, to neutrality—as well he might, for the job of collector called for strategic, intercultural maneuvering. We first hear of Turton by way of three prominent Indian characters—Hamidullah, Mahmoud Ali, and Dr. Aziz—who casually discuss whether Indians and Englishmen can become friends. “Why, I remember when Turton came out first,” one of the men (it is unclear which) announces, adding, “You fellows will not believe me, but I have driven with Turton in his carriage—Turton! Oh yes, we were once quite intimate. He has shown me his stamp collection.” “He would expect you to steal it now,” counters another. This dialogue indicates how India transforms the English; it is perhaps Forster’s way of indicting the system rather than certain individuals. Forster invites readers to think of Turton as a decent man spoiled by dislocation and desensitization—as a victim, in other words—and not as an instinctively villainous oppressor. This scene also reveals the hypocrisy of the imperial legal system as manifested by a glaring double-standard: Mrs. Turton’s acceptance of a sewing machine from “some Rajah or other” in exchange for running water in the Rajah’s territory (4–5). The men remark that the law would not tolerate such bribing by an Indian, thus foreshadowing the law’s double-standard as applied to Aziz. Read the rest of this entry »

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