Anything peaceful and voluntary.

Beyond Government

The idea of society without government can give people a sense of vertigo. We often think of government as a framework or structure that holds society in place and keeps it orderly; remove it, and everything becomes chaotic!

But there’s something odd about this way of thinking. Because government isn’t some kind of external constraint on society, separate from it and free from its limitations. It’s just a particular way (a fairly nasty way, unfortunately) that people interact.

Napoleon as Jupiter

By contrast, imagine a government run by Superman. Now there’s a ruler who really could enforce his will on millions of people by his own personal might. He could hear your whispers of dissent with his super-hearing, zip over in an instant with his super-speed, incinerate you with his heat vision or level your building with a blow of his fist – and be back home within a minute.

But we’re not ruled by Superman. No ruler has the ability to impose his or her will without the support of lots of government employees – and those employees, being vastly outnumbered by those they rule, cannot impose their will without the acquiescence of the populace. All that maintains the powerful in power is a generalised habit of deference.

We libertarians sometimes say that government is maintained by violence. That’s partly true and partly false – partly insightful and partly misleading.

It’s true that those who disobey the government’s edicts, even when the disobedience is peaceful and harms no one, are repaid with cudgels, bullets, or prison bars; this is why government is such an uncivilised mode of human interaction. (The use of force should be reserved only to combat those who initiate force themselves.)

But governments can coerce the few only because the many go along with it. If the populace were to ignore the government en masse, the rulers would be reduced to the status of crazy people shouting on street corners – as in the Monty Python sketch where Hitler returns from the dead, changes his name, and runs for office in England, giving his usual style of speeches, attended by only a handful of bored, puzzled spectators who watch his antics for a bit while passing by.

And what that shows is that the idea that government is necessary to maintain order is a myth. They’re not maintaining order. We – all of us – are. And we can keep doing it without them.

But aren’t the rulers necessary to coordinate our activities? On the contrary: voluntary, distributed networks – markets, internets, etc. – are far more effective at coordination than are coercive, centralised command-and-control systems. And there is a long history of voluntary associations of individuals efficiently providing even judicial arbitration and security services for themselves, without government or in defiance of government.

Thomas Paine

As Thomas Paine wrote in The Rights of Man:

Great part of that order which reigns among mankind is not the effect of government. It has its origin in the principles of society and the natural constitution of man. It existed prior to government, and would exist if the formality of government was abolished. The mutual dependence and reciprocal interest which man has upon man, and all the parts of civilised community upon each other, create that great chain of connection which holds it together. The landholder, the farmer, the manufacturer, the merchant, the tradesman, and every occupation, prospers by the aid which each receives from the other, and from the whole. Common interest regulates their concerns, and forms their law; and the laws which common usage ordains, have a greater influence than the laws of government. In fine, society performs for itself almost everything which is ascribed to government. …

If we examine with attention into the composition and constitution of man, the diversity of his wants, and the diversity of talents in different men for reciprocally accommodating the wants of each other, his propensity to society, and consequently to preserve the advantages resulting from it, we shall easily discover, that a great part of what is called government is mere imposition. …

For upwards of two years from the commencement of the American War, and to a longer period in several of the American States, there were no established forms of government. The old governments had been abolished, and the country was too much occupied in defence to employ its attention in establishing new governments; yet during this interval order and harmony were preserved as inviolate as in any country in Europe. … The instant formal government is abolished, society begins to act: a general association takes place, and common interest produces common security.

The only amendment I would make to what Paine says here would be to eliminate the phrases “[a] great part of” and “almost.”

It’s common for people to distrust noncoercive solutions to social problems, because such solutions don’t guarantee that the problems will be solved. That’s true enough; but what the objection misses is that governmental mandates don’t guarantee anything either. Government doesn’t stand outside of society, shaping patters of human interaction; it is itself just one more pattern of human interaction. Whatever government mandates is enabled and sustained by voluntary cooperation. And since centralised, coercive, monopolistic systems are notoriously beset by informational and incentival perversities, what the government decrees is actually far less guaranteed than the services that a freed market would provide.

Rulers have power only because we all continue to act as though they do. And what we thereby maintain in existence is a system in which powerful elites (both those holding actual government office, and the nominally private corporate plutocrats who benefit from governmental privilege) regulate our lives, drag us into sanguinary wars, and expropriate the products of our labour.

In the words of Gustav Landauer, just over a century ago: “The state is a relationship between human beings, a way by which people relate to one another; and one destroys it by entering into other relationships, by behaving differently to one another.”

Further Reading:

Market Anarchism As Constitutionalism
The Economic Dissolution of the State
Libertarian Anarchism: Responses to Ten Objections
Art of the Possible Essays
Invisible Hands and Incantations: The Mystification of State Power
Rule-following, Praxeology, and Anarchy
Left-Libertarianism, Class Conflict, and Historical Theories of Distributive Justice

Roderick T. Long will be speaking at Libertopia Festival 2011 in San Diego

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8 responses

  1. Pingback: Let’s Ignore Hitler

  2. Ben

    Rod, have you read SUPERMAN: RED SON? Because it’s a govt. (a soviet govt. as a matter of fact) run by Superman, and as such an interesting extended version of the thought experiment you raise early on in this thought experiment.

    August 13, 2011 at 1:44 pm

  3. “Rulers have power only because we all continue to act as though they do” A very true statement.
    I’m reminded of Etienne de La Boetie’s essay on voluntary servitude. In the essay that I did for the Cato Libertarian Encyclopedia, I wrote (and quoted):

    “[La Boetie] called for people to resist oppression not through bloodshed but by withdrawing their consent. “Resolve to serve no more and you are at once freed.” “…[the tyrant] has indeed nothing more than the power that you confer upon him to destroy you…How would he dare assail you if he had not cooperation from you?”

    Foreshadowing modern social psychology research on obedience, La Boétie asserted that people do not simply obey out of fear. Rather, people obey out of habit, short-sighted self-interest, greed, and love of privilege or through the influence of State tricks, propaganda and symbols. ”

    The Berlin Wall went down because people (including the guards) stopped believing in it. The question therefore is–how do we convince people to stop believing in the State? Not at all easy and frankly much of what I have seen of libertarian tactics is sorely lacking. There needs to be a serious discussion of libertarian strategy and tactics that takes into account what appeals to the average person, not merely to other libertarians. Much of what I have seen falls into the latter category when it should fall into the former!

    August 13, 2011 at 6:26 pm

    • D. W. St. John

      I found Sharon Presley’s reply particularly interesting. The Berlin Wall parallel is striking, but problematic. For East Germans could see actual working models of what they wanted and lacked–roughly, what the people of e.g. Sweden already had. In other words they may not have sought Utopia or Heaven but simply a social-democratic government that led to prosperity and did not have a Stasi.
      It is not libertarian strategy and tactics that fall short. Rather, it is the absence of a persuasive model–whether actual, in the form of a society one could point to, or theoretical, but thickly descriptive and evocative–to move and inspire people.
      In today’s world, a “stateless society” brings to mind Somalia…a “failed state” seeming to most people the nadir of possible sets of conditions.

      August 13, 2011 at 11:27 pm

  4. “those employees, being vastly outnumbered by those they rule, cannot impose their will without the acquiescence of the populace.”

    This is sketchy. Even though the military is outnumbered by the general populace, it still seems that the military could impose their will, even in the face of widespread resistance. This is because resisters face a collective action problem: while collective benefit is greater than collective costs, the individual benefit is very small compared to individual cost.

    “But governments can coerce the few only because the many go along with it. If the populace were to ignore the government en masse, the rulers would be reduced to the status of crazy people shouting on street corners”

    It seems a more likely outcome would be that the government makes an example out of a few people, increasing the expected costs of resistance, and thereby convincing the rest of the resisters to give up.

    August 17, 2011 at 5:26 pm

  5. DW: I wouldn’t argue for the necessity of having realistic alternatives to point to. Most people are not persuaded by fancy rhetoric; they want to know will it work? I would like to see more libertarians involved in alternative solutions and not simply rhetoric. I don’t suppose the people of East Berlin were looking for Utopia; that wasn’t my point. They simply had had enough of tyranny and so said no, as La Boetie described.

    Michael: I agree that in many cases the scenario you describe is likely to happen but we have several examples in relatively recent times of how that didn’t happen or didn’t work–East Germany and Egypt. Obviously it didn’t result in a libertarian society; that will take far far more work and time. But tyrants were toppled.

    August 17, 2011 at 6:13 pm

  6. Pingback: Revolutionary Road « Libertopia Festival 2012 – Oct 11-14 San Diego

  7. Pingback: A Generalised Habit Of Deference | Beyond The Corral

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