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Revolutionary Road

There’s a popular way of drawing the distinction between electoral politics and revolutionary politics that I think gets things almost precisely backward.

According to this way of thinking, electoral politics represents a peaceful, conversational way of settling disputes, whereas revolution represents an abandonment of persuasion in favour of violence.

The Athenian Assembly

According to the Greek orator Lysias, for example, singing the praises of Athenian democracy, it was “the way of wild beasts to be forcibly subjected to one another, but the way of human beings to define justice by law and to persuade by reasoned discourse” – where by “reasoned discourse” he meant the debates in the assembly that culminated in laws, decrees, and declarations of war.

Now certainly states that feature parliamentary debate are generally preferable to states where, say, a single dictator has sole decision-making power. All the same, a conversation that is going to culminate in a vote, where the result of that vote will be imposed by force of law on the dissenters (as well as on others who, whether by choice or by necessity, have not even participated in the vote), can hardly be a (more…)

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, (more…)