Mormons frequently invoke the idea of “agency” (whatever that means) in political discussions. We generally invoke it in liberal ways, as a justification for not regulating some for of behavior. What I want to question is this easy link between “agency” and liberalism.
In the formulation given by John Stuart Mill, liberalism invokes freedom as a reason to abstain from regulating self-regarding activity. I think that when Mormons invoke the idea of “agency” to make liberal arguments they generally do so in some sort of a vaguely Millian way. However, given the theological uses to which the concept of “agency” is put, I don’t think it fits nicely into some version of John Stuart Mill. Here’s why.
Mill explicitly limits freedom by invoking the “harm principle.” Freedom cannot provide a reason to abstain from regulating activity that hurts others. Rawls provides an alternative formulation that seems to avoid some of the ambiguity of the concept of harm by saying that we should maximize the liberty compossible with the like liberty of others. Thus, on this version of liberalism, freedom has limited justificatory force.
The problem is that theologically, “agency” has a much broader reach. This is because they concept generally gets invoke in the context of a theodicy that seeks to explain why God allows the evil choices of others to harm the innocent. The answer is that it is only by allowing such moral evils that we can have the freedom to sin, repent, be righteous, etc. The theological concept of “agency” is invoked to JUSTIFY God’s refusal to exercise his power to keep the wicked from violating the liberty of others. In other words, “agency” is invoked to REJECT the Millian harm principle. Extending the theological concept of “agency” niavely into the political realm seems to counsel in favor of anarchy (it its darkest, Hobbesian version) rather than liberalism.
So is there any use to which the idea of “agency” can be put in political theory? I think so, but it is difficult. If you look at the Mormon speculation on the idea of “intelligences” you find a metaphysical concept of agency. (The key text here is B.H. Roberts, “The Immortality of Man”.) In at least some of this thought, the “intelligences” that are co-eternal with God are seen has having freedom and self-awareness without beginning or end. It might be possible to build this metaphysical claim into a political theory. But it will be difficult, at least in part because we cannot view God as the author of this freedom, and it therefore lacks whatever normative force might come from such authorship.