Let It Be. But How?

On State Capacity Libertarianism and Gelassenheit

The phrase “Let it be,” popularized first by the Beatles and now by new-age gurus, has a dual (and paradoxical) meaning. “Let it be” can mean “leave it alone, don’t intervene, don’t worry, don’t get in the way.” But “Let it be” can also mean, “Help it be. Assist it. Cultivate and nurture it. Bring out its latent potential.” Letting a plant be in the first sense means letting it die. Watering it and giving it sunshine require action, but allow the plant to flourish.

The Americanized phrase, “Let it be,” shares much with the German term, “Gelassenheit” (releasement, serenity) popularized by Meister Eckhart and Martin Heidegger.

Gelassenheit is tough to translate but is formed from the passive form of “lassen”—to permit, or allow. Gelassenheit is a reflexive state of being allowed, of being opened. A person in a state of equipoise between effort and surrender can be said to be gelassen. Eastern commentators on Heidegger connect Gelassenheit to Wei-WuWei (effortless effort), a state of being neither slack nor uptight.

But how can we define or apply such a paradoxical term in practice?

Tyler Cowen defines state capacity libertarianism in a way that reminds me of Gelassenheit. He says something along the lines of “Capitalism and free markets are good, but state intervention is sometimes needed to ensure that they work.” In other words, the free market left to its own devices is not free. Meanwhile, the state is paradoxically justified by its ability to intervene on behalf of the free market. The state is like a yoga teacher who gives a student (capitalism) an assist. The assist shouldn’t be so violent or aggressive that it injures the student, but should instead reveal the student’s own inner capacities. An advanced student may not need assists, but occasional assists may be necessary to catalyze self-reliance.

It takes a skilled intervener to assist in such a way that the assisted doesn’t become overly dependent on the assist (hence the word capacity in state capacity is doing a lot of work). This skill we might say is Gelassenheit.

But Gelassenheit is originally a mystical concept and super-difficult to define. It follows an “I know it when I see it” rubric. If so, we should expect state capacity libertarianism to be a theoretical ideal that, in practice, can have a range of debatable expressions. Reasonable people can disagree about whether state capacity libertarianism requires intervention or abstention on any given issue. All we know is that plants need some water, but not too much.

Gelassenheit is a difficult enough standard to apply to personal domains like craftsmanship or parenting or religious observance. To apply it to the state is a fascinating and provocative call.

Perhaps you disagree with Cowen that the goal is free markets. Maybe the telos you favor is something more socialist, or alternatively, more moralistic. Still you might ask what it might mean to see the state as a means rather than an ends. Perhaps we should speak not just of state capacity libertarians but of state capacity socialists, state capacity traditionalists, state capacity artists, state capacity philosophers.

Contained in the paradox of Gelassenheit are two problems:

1) What is the social goal to which we ought to put the state?

2) How much state intervention constitutes the correct amount?

Do you think Gelassenheit is a useful frame for engaging in political thought? And if so, how do you answer questions 1 and 2?

What is Called Thinking? is a practice of asking a daily question on the belief that self-reflection brings awe, joy, and enrichment to one’s life. Consider becoming a subscriber to support this project and access subscriber-only content.

You can read my weekly Torah commentary here.