Dwarfing the State
by Erwin Haas | Posted March 25, 2011
I fantasize what the civic society should look like.
Libertarians, at a certain level, see liberal government as the community of peaceful people who would like to be left alone but who also believe that cooperation or agreement will diminish the cost of self-defense against criminals and foreign invaders, the coining of money, and possibly the maintenance of the commons such as roads, bridges, lighthouses and a few others.
These believers in a "grand narrative called government" (using postmodern lingo) are the community of the lawful. Part of enjoying this community is paying taxes in lieu of the perhaps greater cost of buying these services individually.
Those who do not fit into the community of the lawful are outlaws and can be punished or killed if they offend this community. Laws, in this narrative, are formulations that merely mirror the lived lives of the governed, and "legislators" (from the Latin, meaning "bearers of laws") do not make laws, but rather find them in the practices of the peace-loving community.
Note that this civic society encompasses all peaceful citizens in an area or realm of agreement. The key libertarian insight is that they will all agree to only a few things, and that this limits what the government can claim to span. But even this dwarfed government still has to hire officials to formulate and administer laws, and judges to mediate disputes. We in Western societies have adopted "democracy" (really we have a republic) as the mechanism for selecting these administrators, legislators, and judges.
The democratic selection of candidates does not confer on legislators any power to invent new laws, regulations, taxes, impositions, and troubles for the community of the peaceful, if these laws are not already part of the daily practices of the governed. The government should know no more about the citizens than is necessary to collect taxes.
A self-selected portion of the peace-loving citizens can of course voluntarily choose to burden themselves with compulsory healthcare, or a moral code forbidding abortion or abuse of drugs; it can enforce these burdens on consenting adults in the subgroup; but this does not obligate the entire community of peaceful citizens.
We classical liberals disagree with liberals and conservatives about the provenance of what the democratic adventure can claim to do for us. Peace-loving citizens rely on a neutral government to compel members to remit taxes to pay for coinage, a police force, and so on. Other common functions, such as streets, a postal system, and parks can be provided by a government and paid for by fees levied on users, if that be the democratically determined wish; alternatively, they can be provided by profit-making entities. (Streets are merely slits in an ocean of developed private land that landowners need for access. Landlocked land is famously worthless.) In this libertarian cosmos politicking among the peaceful is unnecessary.
The idea and purpose of government, however, have been perverted because significant minorities want help for their special projects, such as wars on concepts (drugs, poverty), foreign misadventures (Iraq), regulations of business, forced contributions for retirement . . . a nearly endless list. Mainstream politicians, anxious to gain election, use their power to appeal to these special constituencies.
As generally peaceful citizens encountered laws and impositions that were foreign to their customs, they realized that they had to shoulder burdens from which they didn’t profit, and more critically, that they too could live out some of their private fantasies if they invested in politics. Government, thus perverted, no longer cultivated agreement among the peaceful. Rather it fostered strife. The community of peace burned itself out in the zero-sum game of politics. Government thus perverted no longer equaled agreement among the peaceful.
In the real world, of course, the libertarian vision of a civic society never really existed, but its opposite, which was articulated by Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan, has prevailed for millennia. Hobbes deemed life lived in the “state of nature” to be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” He advocated a sovereign authority to control civil, military, judicial, and ecclesiastical power. For Hobbes, civil society was one in which all individuals had to cede some of their rights to gain protection. In practice, this perpetuated feudalism, with its kings, nobility, privileges, arbitrary laws with capricious enforcement, endless politicking, and discord, for another century.
In 1776, our Declaration of Independence shone a light on this Hobbesian creation and proclaimed a departure. The American Revolution and the subsequent Constitution crafted a restrained government in which the individual was sovereign. “Common law” evolved in courtrooms. Posses supported enforcement of criminal laws. Usual practices among businessmen were formulated in the Uniform Commercial Codes. Producers kept what they created.
However, within a few generations groups and individuals started demanding special favors and rewarded collaborating politicians at the expense of the many. They wrote laws that went beyond what everyone would have agreed to. Privileges, licensing, regulations, foreign entanglements, draconian punishments for synthetic crimes, taxes, programs, disinformation, bullets, breadlines, bribes, and bosses proliferated.
The remaining dwindling majority discovered that it was more profitable to squabble over its fair share of a fixed pie rather than work to increase its own wealth, and have it plundered. Peaceful society, tranquility lost, fragmented into hostile camps of winners and losers, a crapshoot of who was in the majority of the moment. Lawful society had arced back to Hobbes’s form of the feudal social contract and paradoxically a “war of all against all.”
Erwin Haas lives in Grand Rapids, where he writes, films videos, and plays at Libertarian politics.
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