from The Psychology of Liberty
The Nature Of Present Government
A prevalent idea in our culture is that governmental and political issues are more complex than issues on the individual level. Yet as we deal with society as a whole, the topics need not become more difficult and the opinions more obscure. Politics is not a realm for only the so-called experts to discuss. We each need a clear understanding of our social context. So at this point, we have to inquire about the nature of government.
In essential terms, any present form of government is a group of individuals that acts as an unsolicited agent of the people in a specific geographic area. This agent performs the duties assigned to it, usually by a constitution and various democratic processes. Typically, governments duties are derived from a hodgepodge of traditional beliefs that include many unscrutinized philosophical assumptions (which will be explored shortly). Both common and statutory laws provide a formal basis for governments functioning.
Any government (totalitarian or democratic) postures as the final legal authority in human relationships. Governments determine essentially what people residing within their geographic borders can and cannot do. They attempt to establish certain ethical and legal guidelines for the behavior of their citizens. Yet they often render themselves unable to differentiate ethical issues from legal issues. Oftentimes, they pass and enforce laws that try to restrict or direct behaviorirrespective of whether or not such behavior is, by objective standards, rights-respecting. This is supposedly done in order to keep society under control and cater to particular needs.
Actions involve (if only implicitly) moral decisions, that is, decisions that affect or have implications for ones mental and/or physical well-being. A law that infringes on the rights of the individual is necessarily an attempt to run the life of the individual (i.e., an attempt to direct morality). Thus, criminal acts and governmental laws that infringe on individual rights can be logically viewed as controlling the inherent freedoms of the individual. In contrast, the invaluable activity of exacting justice represents the defense of individual rights. It upholds moral freedoms by preventing injustices.
Governmental control has regularly been viewed as the best way to ensure a civil society. Yet this tends to engender both compliant and rebellious attitudes. As a result, such attitudes lead typically to more regulatory measures, which come to be viewed as appropriate. Fostering a society of enlightened people is quite another matter. Primarily it involves treating human beings with respect (i.e., as their nature demands). Bakunin stated the following about the nature of government:
Since childhood, we have been taught political ideas that defy logic in many respects. Possibly these ideas carry with them a secret hope by their disseminators that none will question the system, the system purportedly designed for everyones benefit. But we are not everyone and neither is anyone else. Regardless of the type of government or country, this is a reliable way to create intellectual dependency. Perfection of collectivistic thinking occurs when we do not desire to realize the nature of our dependency. Lesser perfection occurs when we argue and quibble about political nonessentials and minutiae, while overlooking the main ideas that have contributed to our predicament.
All of us were probably taught to take for granted that coercive government is necessary and proper for people to live togetherand to overlook the coercive aspect. Because large populations and advanced economies have so many interactions and business activities, the potential for greater social problems and legal disagreements is augmented. However, we ought not draw the conclusion that we need even more government for things to operate smoothly.
Also, we need to question the idea that a governing body, which supposedly represents the people and their interests, is the best prescription for any society desiring to be civil. As in the book Lord of the Flies, we need to reflect on the nature of humans in relation to government. Briefly, this book is a story about a group of children who get stranded on a deserted island. In order to survive, they deem it necessary to form a kind of government with a designated hierarchy of leadership. Soon the system formed to protect the interests of the group becomes the childrens worst enemy. Horrible cruelty and vicious brutality eventually envelop their social system, until it becomes every man for himself and survival of the fittest.
Many draw the conclusion from this that somehow, in some way, human nature is flawed, and that the only way order can ever be maintained is by creating a better way of governing people. In this story, as in numerous others, the blame falls on human nature rather than on contradictory ideas. Where did the children get their ideas about devising a system of government? Obviously, they obtained them from the society from which they had been separated, the same social system that their parents and teachers had told them was required for tranquility and peaceful relations. The typical response in defense of the system is that in theory it works; we just have to be careful about applying it wrong. But a theory that produces bad results ought to be rejected. Naturally, a contradictory theory will yield bad results.
The popular assumption that a government should preside over civilization arises mainly from the idea that law and order would not exist without government. The underlying premise is that government has the right to determine the fate of people within its boundaries (i.e., to rule over those in a certain geographical area). Let us examine the salient implications of the law and order idea and see how much law and order government provides.
Government is a group of individuals designed by themselves, the people at large (the majority), or both, for the purpose of passing and enforcing laws of the country, state, county, or city. The services provided by government vary from country to country, but at a bare minimum usually include (in concert with headquarters and branch offices) police forces, law courts, and a military. Since government is the sole provider of these services, government holds a legalized monopoly on them.89 So, plainly, government acts as the involuntary agent of the populace. Governments are explicitly designed to deny any competition within their arbitrarily designated political and geographical boundaries. Those who disagree with this state of affairs have no alternative in their particular governed region.
Present and past governments share another key problem. Many of their laws are non-objectivethat is, they are not validated by the process of logic and do not follow from the principles that ensure human survival. Since non-objective laws are not based on the method of determining truth, they cannot possibly uphold the fundamental principle of rights. Non-objective laws by definition violate peoples rights.
Every form of government must initiate force to maintain its non-objective laws. Force is permitted not to ordinary criminals (at least in principle), but instead to government itself. One can see what sort of double-standard this sets up in civilization: Governmentally declared criminalsa group consisting of violators of others rights as well as nonviolators of others rights (declared so by non-objective laws)are to be penalized for their acts, while government is able to commit similar crimes (albeit on a far greater scale) without a question. Usually if there are any questions, they have little to do with the fundamental contradictions involved.
Probably no political contradiction is worse than the idea that aggression towards others is wrong for criminals but somehow moral and just for government. The foremost enactment of this is the method by which every government is currently able to function: taxation. If taxation were actually voluntary, it would not be a crime to prevent government from taking ones property (viz., money).
Essentially, government provides services that have not been chosen by the recipients. Chosen services imply voluntary, contractual payment for them. Taxation does not involve voluntary, contractual payment for services rendered. Rather, it involves the imposition of governmental activities on individuals and the requirement of compensation for those activities.
A concrete example is in order. Suppose some people whom you neither know nor have solicited come to your house one day and begin repainting it, say in a different color. In spite of your initial questions about their actions and then your protests and demands for them to stop, they continue until the job is finished. (On the other hand, you could have tried to force them to stop and tried to make them leave. If you had done so, they would likely have respondedif you did not thwart themby arresting you and locking you in a prison.)
Upon completion, the painters demand payment for their services. Actually, the cost does not really matterit could even be freebecause it still involves trespassing and meddling with your property. Nonetheless, they will not leave you alone until they have extracted payment from you. You rightly state that what they have done as well as what they are demanding is preposterous, and it is in violation of your inalienable rights (viz., to property).
Since you refuse to pay, they require you to go to court and face numerous fines and incarcerationon the grounds that you are in violation of their rights to your money. After attempting to explain the nature of your case in court and stating intransigently that you will not pay for (or accept) services for which you did not contract, the painters and their loyal subordinates proceed to take some of your possessions or seize your bank account and/or incarcerate you. What is their main explanation? The taking of your propertynot to mention your time spent in this episodeis necessary for the common good.
Interestingly, the only painters who get by with this sort of theft are those called government. Of course, this means that some individuals are permitted to initiate force against others solely by virtue of the title they hold. Tucker put it this way many decades ago:
Yet to keep its power, government endeavors to remain immune from accusations of criminal activities in a fundamental philosophical sense (not merely in terms of violating current statutes). Government seeks to retain an unfounded connotation of law and order. Of course, no rational justification can ever be made for this disregard of the facts of reality and human beings basic tools of survival.
Imagine the confusion created in the minds of children when they are taught that it is normal to accept contradictions of this magnitude. Soon, to not question the morality and function of government becomes a matter of psychological habit. The role of government is continually thrust into the not to be questioned realm of ideas. The terms morality and justice acquire such tenuous and vague meanings that eventually most minds give up the search for a clear sense of them. Usually what remains is the inarticulate and sometimes overwhelming feeling that something is wrong with society and strange about human relationships.
The words of anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon describe in detail what government has the power to do (depending on the laws it does or does not uphold and enforce). Although Proudhon held some highly contradictory political beliefs himself, his description here is rather timeless. It informs us of our responsibility to never misunderstand the ominous nature of coercive government:
Probably most people believe that the United States governments policies should not be included in the majority of these depictions. After all, the United States was the first country ever to devise a bill of individual rights and a constitution of checks and balances. These documents were devised to ensure that government serves and protects people, rather than oppresses them.
As mentioned, the authors of these documents deserve enormous respect for what has been, so far, the greatest political achievement in the history of the human race: the Bill of Rightseven though it has been continually misconstrued and thus depreciated since its implementation.
However, the sort of government that exists presently is far different than the initial U.S. government. As noted by many present advocates of governmental reform, the degree of governments encroachment on its citizens has greatly escalated over the last 200 years. Men such as Thomas Jefferson, John Hancock, Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Paine would likely be appalled about the present condition of politics. Perhaps they would be stunned to see how their ideas have been twisted, manipulated, and misinterpreted by all the power-hungry bureaucrats who have held political office and lobbyists who have pandered to them.
So, the all-important question arises: Where did it all go so wrong? Logical examination of the Constitution and related political documents enlightens us about the crack in the foundation of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
In addition to its immediate authorization of taxation on the public, the Constitution grants to government powers that no individual could ever legally possesson account of their rights-infringing nature. Since aggression in human relationships destroys a rational beings ability to function, the creation of laws that uphold this subhuman act are inherently flawed, regardless of their intent. Contrary to the Machiavellian principle The end justifies the means, the illogical initiation of force nullifies any end sought because it is a self-refuting means.
Again, Democracy, in which the majority rules and implements laws, represents a futile attempt to circumvent the immutable laws of nature. It says, in effect, Might makes right. The same applies to a democratically elected Republic such as the United States. Even though it seeks to create a nation of laws, not of men, law must be objective in order to uphold individual rights and prevent corruption.
Sanctioned aggression was the crack in the foundation of the Constitution. Once created, the task of securing individual rights became hopeless. Rights that were open for amendment to satisfy anyones contradictory vision of the just, moral, or needed replaced the absolutism of rights. Because of this, it was only a matter of time for the political system to erode and erase the however benevolent intentions of the Framers.
For the most part, the system of checks and balances was, at best, a weak inhibitor of tyranny. However, it did slow the process of decay. The creation of inherent functional inefficiencies and cumbersome decision-making abilities, coupled with usage of common law, restrained the power of the State. Corrupt power was not allowed to run rampant, as in dictatorships. Additionally, valuable policies and various good ideas were able to surface on a large and complex forum of debate. But this system also hindered peoples ability to see the roots of political problems and, hence, discover basic solutions.
Most of the thousands of intricate laws passed from one part of Congress to another, from one legislature to another, from one committee to another, from one debate to the next, from one vote to the next vote, have been merely variations on the same themetreating human beings in an involuntary manner. Since such laws were non-objective from the start, they would be non-objective at the end when they were enforced. Even when brought to the judiciary system, their objectivity was not typically questioned. Mainly the legality of their essence or applications was interpreted (validated or invalidated, upheld or reformed) throughout the considerable array of state and federal courts. A few were given the final stamp of approval or disapproval by the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court, although popularly held in high regard, has a long record of expedient and arbitrary rulings (majority as well as unanimous) over state laws. Many vague and inconsistent interpretations of constitutional amendments have also been bequeathed to the justice system and to the American public.
All these troubles merely reflect the contradictory nature of non-objective law. Instead of interpret laws from a logical perspective, the courts typically have judged whether or not they conform to the Constitution. Yet something declared constitutional may not necessarily be logical, and something declared unconstitutional may not necessarily be illogical. The Constitution has been used as a replacement for logical thinking involving adjudication of rights. It was problematic precisely because it did not (nor will it) fully respect the concept of rights. Since the government and its law courts have been, and still are, the largest violators of rights, their authority to make rulings concerning rights should have been held suspect from the beginning.
Although many view it as a contractual agreement between the populace and government, the Constitution of course cannot be considered a valid legal and binding contract. Only a handful of individuals signed the document a couple centuries ago. It certainly cannot have contractual validity for hundred of millions presently. Yet a trust is placed in the Constitution to be an upholder of rights. After all, a populace does need to outline and concretize its laws.
To have objective laws codified and written for people to embrace is helpful as well as necessary. The fundamental question concerns how such laws are established, and by whom. Since only individualsnot a coercive governmentcan own anything in the strict sense, only they can ensure peace and tranquility in their environment. The property that people own constitutes the domain on which they can enforce whatever personal rules they think are appropriate. Since infringement of the rights of others in this process would be contradictory, rules must involve informed consent; contractual relationships (both implicit and explicit) become the norm.
Property owners and those with whom they contract can therefore maintain law and order. They can devise a system of justice to uphold and protect individual rightsfor ultimately, only each individual who understands the meaning of and reasons for rights can uphold them.
Nonetheless, many fervent and passive advocates of the Constitution overlook these observations. In No Treason: The Constitution of No Authority, Spooner scornfully distinguished three types of constitutional supporters. During his lifetime though, the nineteenth century, the scale of corruption was obviously much smaller:
The rejoinder might be made, however, about the good intentions and effects of many laws that have been passed and enacted in society. One could say that many laws resulting from the Bill of Rights are both effective and beneficial. Could not, for instance, involuntary servitude laws, free speech laws, gun ownership laws, self-defense laws, and so forth, be viewed as ensuring rights and creating a society of fairness? But this is really epistemological stealing of the concepts of law and rights. Laws are designed to protect rights that we already possess by virtue of being human. Laws cannot create rights. Again, rights cannot be given to us as a privilege or favor, even though all governments that disregard them pretend to.
Since government-provided rights are likely to be undermined or even erased as time goes on, they usually are written down and established in law. Of course, such rights are also susceptible to a lot of misinterpretation. The framers of the Constitution were well aware of this dilemma, so they created the Ninth Amendment. It states: The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people. Yet, the system supposedly designed to prevent rights from being erased is the same non-objective system that erases them (the image of the fox guarding the chicken coop comes to mind). Moreover, the various rights enacted by government are often granted to some at the expense of others.
Law and order are terms associated with government because it has chronically had a monopoly on the particular services catering to law and order. Government has normally been the sole agent for people in matters concerning their liberties. However, the idea of agency implies that one chooses another individual (or group of individuals) to act on ones behalf and in ones best interests. Government, being a coercive monopoly of select individuals (placed there by voting procedures), for all practical purposes nullifies the concept of agency.
The individuals in government are not voluntarily selected. Many gain positions through secret ballot (and others are, in turn, hired by them). Basically, an unseen majority selects agents for everyone, and it disregards what the minority desires. Such a process clearly denies the idea of personal contracts. Spooner assessed these practices in the following way:
Such statements appeal to the self-respect and responsibility of individuals. Most individuals in their private lives generally take responsibility for their actions. For instance, most would wince at the thought of breaking into someones home (or bank account) and taking a percentage of his or her possessions. Most would also be repulsed at the thought of clubbing a peaceful person over the head and holding him or her captive on account of not doing what was demanded.
On the other hand, most people do not seriously examine the propriety of various forms of taxation and coercive rules and regulations. In fact, most people steadfastly advocate such actions. Yet ironically, often much time and effort is spent cheating on taxes, for instance. This, of course, is where moral uncertainty generates irresponsibility.
For those in government, the matter of self-responsibility is just as vital. Government is by far the largest employer in the United States (not to mention in other countries). It has progressively increased its share of the job market, which definitely makes self-responsibility in the economic realm difficult. Many appealing financial opportunities and employment positions are connected to government, with which the so-called private sector cannot compare or compete. Even so, governmental employees need to be aware of the political contradictions that entail infringement of others rightsas well as the deleterious consequences of such contradictions. This would enable them to consider the real alternatives to the present system. To take full responsibility for ones actions is to pass judgment when and where it is needed.
Self-responsibility relies on the conviction that one is both the voluntary creator and voluntary inhibitor of ones actions. The correctness of ones premises should determine whether or not one takes an action. Ultimately, one is responsible for ones own actions, no matter what another person requests or offers. For instance, to act on a request to commit a crime makes one responsible for itregardless of the intent or consequences. (Of course, this assumes that one is not brain damaged or mentally crippled in a way that diminishes or incapacitates volitional functioning.) In a trial, however, the level of intent (mens rea) determines the nature of criminal accountability. The perpetrators knowledge of the consequences of his or her action and the degree of recklessness or carelessness tied to that knowledge are factors to be considered in a court of law.
The military has provided numerous examples of what can happen when individuals shirk responsibility. Some of the worst improprieties and unspeakable atrocities known to the human race have resulted from following unquestioned orders from above. The factors involved in soldiers carrying out their ordered duties are certainly complex. Soldiers rely on contracts of trust in superiors to make competent and legal decisions. Yet such decisions often demand logical justification.
In any job, a person assumes responsibility for the activities performed. Part of ones job is to become informed, instead of acting blindly. Thus, military soldiers need to be just as knowledgeable about the ramifications of their actions as military leaders.
The nature of justice demands it. This is all the more true in our worlds currently depraved socio-political context. Holding war machines accountable for heinousness is nonsensical, because those who take the actions are responsibleas are the persons who give the orders.
In general, government can be used by some as a shield that protects wrong actions. The anonymity of collective force directly diminishes both self-responsibility and personal accountability. Yet wrongdoing is often rationalized. Be it individual or political, it is typically painted in the best light possiblein order to seem either right or unintentional. Persons may try to make themselves oblivious to internal and external signals warning them of contradictory activities.
Those in government are no less human than the rest of our species. They are just involved in the destructive nature of a coercive system. Government really offers a mixed bag of services; some are logical, while some are contradictory. Still, many of the services they offer use retaliatory force to defend individual rights.
Rights-respecting services must be in the range of choice for the individual. But choice is not a concept to which government by nature is friendly. Real and whole people welcome choice. Independent and sovereign minds can think and judge for themselves. Indeed, to consider ourselves capable of making choices on this fundamental level is to resolve many contradictions and internal problems. Such an attitude can only broaden our horizons and expand our possibilities.
Let us explore further what acceptance of coercive government entails. Government decides for citizens what is right or wrong, legal or illegal, through the Constitution and laws of the rulers. Citizens are supposed to be placated by being allowed to vote for these rulers, who in turn appoint their own servants. The implication is that people outside the governmental group are incapable of making important decisions to provide for their well-beingincapable of choosing what is right for them. Most laws will be decided arbitrarily by the governmental group and enforced by them, because only they are capable or good enough to devise such laws. The implication is that people outside the group cannot think for themselves on such matters and draw sound conclusions.
The governmental group then contends that they must deal with people by force in order to achieve ends sought by themselves or by the majority. In other words, people are to be treated as means to other peoples ends, as sacrificial animalsnot as human beings. The implication is that people outside the governmental group are not capable of beneficial self-regulation and are unable to function properly in realityunless they are continually beaten over the head with a club (both figuratively and actually).
Ironically, the Constitution requires governmental officials to include themselves in the system designed for everyone elsethe supposed society of incompetents. If all of the above were true, why would those in government contradict their ideas by allowing themselves to also be governed by government? By admitting that they are the same as everyone else, the following query arises: If people need to be governed in principle, then who governs the governors?
Caring about contradictions is not likely to be on the governmental systems agenda. Spooner stated the following about one of Homo sapiens greatest contradictions:
Since human beings cannot change their nature, all are fundamentally the same (regardless of how they look, think, or behave); they all possess a rational faculty. What they choose to do with this faculty might make them quite different from each other, but that does not change their fundamental nature.
Fundamentally then, do people need other people to govern them? Do people need to be forced to accept the choices of others concerning their rights? Do people need to be forced to do things for their own good, or for the common good? Do people need to be treated in an involuntary manner? Do people need to be taken care of, no matter at whose expense? To be sure, the issues here are metaphysical, moral, and psychological, not merely political.
Regardless of our circumstances and of all the possible ways we can be impaired, the principle remains. Forcing peaceful individuals to behave in desired ways is contradictory. Even if we are in a condition that requires physical or mental assistance in order to survive (which incidentally happens to be the case of every child), we have no right to use force. In reality, all the preceding about fundamental human incompetence, weakness, and iniquity becomes self-fulfilling prophecy for those who agree with it, whatever their motivations. Certainly, to treat people essentially as unreasoning animals does not encourage moral behavior. We have already noted that contradictions by nature do not work. They will always be psychologically and existentially destructive.
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