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Thinking Outside of Government

why protest is overrated


Our mothers often told us that violence never solved anything. They were, of course, wrong. Violence solves a lot of things. Violence solved the problem of German expansionism. I don't think there's a square inch of inhabited land on Earth that does not fall to it's present owner due to some historical act of violence. Every day our legal system resolves the question of who should and should not be in prison with violence.

I might surprise you by going so far as to say that one of the dominant ideas of the previous century was that violence can solve nearly everything. Indeed, it is widely believed that there is very little that can be solved by anything other than violence. In America, we tend to call that belief Liberalism, although, in recent years, it has become so wide spread that it probably transcends labels.

The key to making sense of the previous paragraph is to understand that government is synonymous with violence. Seriously. The only satisfactory definition of government may be: "a group of individuals who succeed in institutionalizing their use of violence with impunity".

The Coercive Power

Violence is a necessary part of any recognizable definition of government. If I and a group of associates were to form a new Government of the United States which declared all taxes of the present federal government of the United States to be null and void, what would be the inevitable result? Violence, or, at least, the threat of violence.We would refuse to pay our taxes, the present government would find us to be in arrears and garnish our wages and possess our property, and we would be presented with a dilemma.

We could either allow our property to be confiscated, in which case we are admitting that we never seriously aspired to self-governance, or we can resist the confiscation of our property and violence will ensue. In the first case we are nothing but a group of cranks sitting around making unenforceable decrees. In the later case we make a bid for being an actual government. If, in the case that we choose to resist, we are crushed by the present government, then we are merely a failed criminal enterprise for the evasion of taxes. If, on the other hand, we succeed and it is the present government who are forced to back down, then we become a legitimate state in our own right. The critical step on our road to becoming a real government was defeating the present government in battle and thus proving that we have the credible capacity to use violence in enforcing our decrees. Any organization can promulgate rules, but a necessary condition for such an organization to be called a government is that they have enough people with guns and billy clubs to enforce those rules.

Not only is violence necessary to government, but the purposeful use of violence is a sufficient condition for being a government. Imagine an island inhabited by a handful of individuals each going about their days providing for themselves by combining their labor with the natural resources available. They may occasionally hang out, or even voluntarily cooperate with one another, but never has one coerced action out of another via the threat of violence. Now introduce a new group of castaways. This group has a different attitude toward violence. They feel that it is their right to give orders to the existing islanders and, through the use of raised eyebrows, flexed biceps, and the occasional violent act, see that those orders are carried out. It doesn't matter whether these newcomers are pirates who just want to live easy, or a naval captain and his crew who earnestly believe that the island would benefit from some organization and discipline. In either case we would say that their will has become law. Their leader is king, and his associates are now constables. If you give orders that are ultimately backed by the use of force, and people obey them, then you are a government.

Here I also appear to have indirectly defined law: a rule which, if violated, will bring violence down upon you. It's important not to be confused by the frequent absence of violence in practice.

In most cases the governed will assent to the decrees of their governors habitually. Most will never even consider the possibility of revolt, and most will never resist persistently enough to receive anything more than the occasional veiled threat. But that does not mean that violence does not underlie the whole system. It just means that the vast majority of people will naturally refrain from incurring the wrath of the most powerful organization in society.

Nor does the consent of the governed contradict this definition. If it is true that all of the governed agree with a rule, then that rule is not really a law in the political sense, and those who promulgate it do not necessarily constitute a government. I could, for instance, at this very moment declare it to be law that, in order to be allowed to continue living, all Americans should be required to breathe on a regular basis. In spite of the fact that I have made a rule and everyone is now following that rule, I don't think anyone would believe that I should now be considered a government in any meaningful sense. Similarly it would be meaningless for me to declare it illegal for people to subsist by eating grass, or dress entirely in steel wool. These rules are non-binding. Nobody was going to do those things anyway.

In order for a rule to be a law, there have to be some people who don't consent to it willingly, and who are forcibly punished for violating it, or who refrain from doing something that they'd like to do out of fear of such punishment. Certainly some people would choose to go bare faced, abstain from drug use, or refrain from practicing abortion for their own reasons, and thus are not subject to any form of coercion when laws are passed prohibiting burqas, pot, and abortions. The entire purpose of such prohibitions however, is, through the threat of violence, to change the behavior of those unconsenting individuals who would choose to violate them. A credible threat of violence is a violent act, regardless of whether or not the threat ends up needing to be carried out.


Understanding the connection between government and violence is important because it can help us understand how and when to use government.

Using government to solve a problem is often seen as being synonymous with solving the problem at all. If we agree that there is a problem, and that something should be done, then all that remains is to determine what government policy would be best suited to solving the problem. But, according to the preceding discussion, this only considers a narrow range of solutions to any given problem. Specifically, it narrows our search to those solutions that rely on violent coercion.

There is a confusion about means and ends here. If we agree that an endeavor is important and that we should strive to maximize the success of that endeavor, we have agreed on an end. The use of government to achieve that end is a choice of means. If I say that I don't think that government is the appropriate tool for achieving X, people will often jump directly to the conclusion that I don't view X as an important goal. They are implicitly assuming that a government policy is the only effective means for achieving X.

Coercion is actually a very poor means of achieving most things. Which, incidentally, is probably what our mothers meant when they told us that violence never solves anything. Very little of the improvement in human well being over recent centuries was mandated by government. Most of it was the result of people developing new ideas and approaches for solving the problems of their own lives, or exploring the workings of the natural world out of curiosity. I think that's one critical distinction. Government changes the world by creating extrinsic motivations: the carrot and the stick. Most great human achievements however are the result of intrinsic motivations: passion and dedication.

In this sense you could divide all human activity into two spheres, one in which our choices are constrained by the threat of violence, which we could call government, and another in which our choices are unconstrained (other than by physical law), which we could call liberty. The term liberalism originally referred to the policy of extending the scope of the later sphere to the greatest reasonable extent. At present, at least in the United States, it has come to mean almost the opposite: something along the lines of "improving society by extending the scope of government". In this sense I would say that my political philosophy differs from modern American liberalism by replacing "extending the scope of government" with "the most expedient means". That is, focus on the end, but be flexible about the means.

In a communist country, since virtually all decisions are ultimately the province of government, coercion pervades every aspect of life. If you don't like your apartment and the government declines to grant you a different one, your only choices are to accede to it's judgement or begin plotting the violent overthrow of the government. The same would apply if you don't like your job, or would like to go on vacation to a destination of your choice, or have your writing published. Effectively, such a society offers its citizens a dichotomous choice between total submission and violent suppression.

I used to say that Jesus was a communist. After all, he advised the rich to give their wealth away to the poor. If everyone followed that policy, the distribution of wealth would be equalized. He said that the meek would inherit the Earth. Again and again he stood up for the weak and disenfranchised while castigating the wealthy and powerful. Those seem to echo statements of communistic ideals. So, it seemed logical enough to shock religious conservatives by saying that Jesus was, in fact, a communist.

I have since realized that I was wrong about that. Communism, at least as envisioned by Marx and implemented in the 20th century, was proposed as a form of government, and hence, was a policy of violent coercion. Jesus on the other hand was a consistent proponent of nonviolence. Even though Jesus advised the young rich man to sell his possessions and give to the poor, he did not advise his followers to forcibly take from the rich and give the spoils to the poor. The former shows that Jesus embraced the ethics of charity and equity, the latter however shows that he did not go so far as to endorse what we would call communism.

This example highlights the distinction I am trying to draw. Most American liberals would equate government mandated charity with charity itself. That is, if a person opposes the use of government to redistribute wealth, then they must lack empathy for the poor and disagree with the basic principle of charity. But the endorsement of voluntary charity and the endorsement of charity mandated by use of force require two fundamentally different ethical considerations. While most people would agree that putting money in the cup of a poor old beggar was a good and kind act, only a smaller subset of people would agree that standing alongside the beggar with a stick and threatening to break the ribs of any passerby who does not put money in the cup is also a good and kind act. I'm not saying that an argument cannot be made for the latter act, just that it's important to recognize the distinction between the two.

In fact I would suggest that the entire purpose of civil disobedience is to illuminate this distinction by bringing the violent nature of government to the fore. As long as everyone just goes along, it's relatively easy for most people to support a law or policy. But if some people publicly and visibly disobey and force the government to use it's coercive power to bring them into line, suddenly a lot of other people become much less comfortable supporting the policy. They may agree with the law in principle, but find it hard to support hurting people and locking them up to achieve the goal.

Thoreau argued that “under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.” Thoreau observed that disobedience to government is exceedingly rare because we “dread the consequences to [our] property and families of disobedience to it." If you oppose the war on drugs, or the war in Iraq, or any other policy, Thoreau would have you light up a joint on the capital steps or refuse to pay your taxes until that policy ends. There are very few causes for which the majority would tolerate the imprisonment of even a small minority in this way. Though Thoreau would argue that it would be morally correct for you to throw yourself into the gears even if you doubted it would change the policy. If people consistently followed this approach and acted their conscience, government would do far less than it does today. Because there are very few issues about which people feel strongly enough to deprive their fellow citizens of life and liberty. While we seem to feel quite comfortable threatening our fellow citizens, most of us are bluffing.

In particular cases where an individual's actions would bring harm to others, I, and I think most other people, would feel that threatening that individual with harm actually is ethically justified. For instance, it seems clear to me that government has a legitimate role to play in coercing individuals into complying with rules to protect the environment. After all, destruction of the environment threatens us all.

Of course there's still a lot of gray area here. Aren't you harming my child if you eat a twinkie (or other less than nutritious fare) in front of him? Are you not leading him to believe that twinkie eating is acceptable and thus reducing his resistance to a habit which could reduce his long term health and ultimately do him harm? Am I not reducing the old beggar's well being by declining to give him money and thus, in some sense, doing him harm? Is there something fundamentally different about these sorts of harm and the harm people do with fists and guns?

The point of this essay is not to answer those questions, but rather to point out that they should be asked. I think people should be more conscious of the role that the state plays in their thinking about social problems. I want people to make more effort to consider whether there's some non-violent non-coercive approach that may solve a problem better.

Indeed I think that there is a new type of liberalism already forming that is beginning to leave statist liberals behind. Many young reformers are turning to social entrepreneurship, non-governmental organizations, and other voluntary forms of organization, not as second best approaches, but because they believe such tools are the preferred way to change the world. This allows many innovators to seek solutions to hard problems in parallel. Whereas a government driven approach is monolithic, and, being the product of democratic consensus and bureaucratic implementation, rarely innovative. The core difference is between persuading, enabling, or enticing people to do things as opposed to making them do things whether they want to or not.

I was recently reading a book about the problems of post secondary education and one thing the author lamented was the absence of significant modern protest movements among students. He equated this with a lack of interest in social issues. But I think he's making the error of thinking of government as the only true agent of change. It's the flip side of government paternalism. Government is the loving father and we, as the helpless children, have no means to help ourselves. So, if we want to change the world, our only recourse is to complain loudly and hope that government changes direction as a result.

Protest is ingrained in the identity of modern American liberalism. But I'm saying that its centrality represents tacit acceptance of the belief that all change must come through appeal to the coercive power. Really though, change through independent initiative and direct appeal to the hearts and minds of our fellow citizens would be more likely to bring about the sort of social revolution the hippies, those mythologized icons of the American liberal movement, hoped for. I think that those who are serious about changing the world have begun to realize this.

That's really a message of empowerment. We don't need to appeal to the people with the guns to make the world a better place. We can create voluntary organizations that bring people together to create change. The original liberals—I would be inclined to call them the true liberals—changed the world by writing books, thinking great thoughts, exploring their world, and founding associations, clubs, hospitals, libraries, and universities. The government centered world view tends to make everything someone else's problem. For those who aren't interested in brandishing signs to get the attention of that someone else, the natural response is, “it's too big, what can I do?” But a liberal world view says that a better world won't come at the point of a gun; it will come through the personal choices of individuals. Society after all is just our term for the aggregation of the individuals around us. Social problems can and should be fixed by helping those individuals to make better decisions, not by pushing monolithic prescriptive solutions on them against their will.



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Re: Thinking Outside of Government (Rating: 1)
[Sun May 6 16:57:30 2012] mamadoodled wrote:
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In rereading this essay...I am struck by it's potential to appeal those who might think of themselves as Tea Party types.  I am not saying this as a criticism of the essay or necessarily the Tea Party but as an attempt to understand what these people have stuck in their craw.  The threat of raw power to tax and create policy and law embodied in government can be scary to us all when we see it taking actions with unconsidered consequences (think the financial bailouts or Iraq war).  I certainly felt that way when Bush and the Republicans held the White House and Congress.  At that time it seemed like anything that could be done to stop more Government action would have been good.

Instead of taking from these things a lesson that a more centrist, less partisan form of govt. is better many people have taken the lesson that more idealogical warfare and extreme partisanship was required.  This has only mucked things even more.

Pandora's Box (Rating: 1)
[Mon May 7 16:29:46 2012] hank wrote:
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I've often thought of government as being Pandora's Box. Imagine a bunch of people on an island with crate of guns in the middle. It's tempting to break out the guns and use them to get something you want. But what if you lose control of the guns? There will be no putting things back. 

We tend to create government power to get something we want, but others don't, and are then surprised when those others turn around and use the same power to get something they want that we don't. In any society, the more powerful government becomes, the more that society devolves into a perpetual wrestling match for the control over it.

Someone always opens the box (Rating: 1)
[Thu May 24 02:42:59 2012] joe wrote:
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First, I should say I generally agree with the idea that we should consider whether private or public action most efficiently addresses any particular issue (though I have some criticisms there that I may write about separately).  However, your hypothetical above gets to my central criticism of this essay (and most libertarian theories for that matter):  Someone will always open that box and take the guns.  The temptation is too great.  Even if you didn't want to wield them against the others, you would want to have some to defend yourself in case someone else decided to open the box.  Well, perhaps you can envision a (somewhat utopian) scenario where the island is populated by highly educated modern people with sensibilities about violence and coercion who could resist that temptation.  Even so, the real world is contingent upon our past.  And in our past every society larger than a tribe has opened the box.  Consequently, our choices have been about how to shape something that already exists, not about whether it should exist.

When you say that government hasn't solved any problems, I have to strenuously disagree.  Government has evolved over the last several hundred years in ways that have yielded vast benefits to human welfare, producing direct benefits and promoting the ability for private sector actors to innovate and prosper.  You might counter that much of what government has done over that span has been to change course from prior government policies that were, in hindsight, oppressive, unfair, cruel, and stupid.  And that would be mostly correct, insofar as it goes.  However, that leans on the assumption that there is a scenario where our ancestors did not open the box.  If, on the other hand, you take the view that is inevitable in any sufficiently large social group someone will open the box (which, again, history seems to support), then efforts to reform government from something that is brutal, autocratic, and oppressive into something more enlightened can yield massive benefits.

Thus my overriding criticism of libertarian theory:  The power of coercion exists and will be exercised.  The only real questions, to my mind, are by whom and to what purpose. Tightly constraining the coercive power of democratically-managed actors does not eliminate the exercise of coercive power, it merely shifts it to other, non-democratic actors.

It is generally accepted (perhaps especially by libertarians) that people will generally seek to exercise whatever resources they possess to their own advantage.  I believe that many people would, if they possess the power to do so, exercise coercive power to their own advantage.  This is not always bad.  Contracts, for example, borrow the coercive force of government to enforce private actions.  And contracts are a necessary feature of a prosperous economy.  Moreover, people do exercise coercion to enforce them.  Until we went all soft and allowed people to declare bankruptcy, there were prisons for people who did not pay up on contracts. 

Additionally, I would argue that wealth is a form of coercive power.  Wealth can pay for the direct exercise of coercive power, legal or not (see Pinkerton Guards).  In many places in the world (including arguably in the United States), wealth can purchase government policies and favorable legal decisions bending coercive force of government to its ends.

I know I'm cutting this far shorter than it should be, but I have other things I would like to get to tonight and want to cut to the chase -- my basic view is this:  unless government takes an active role in promoting social welfare and limiting disparities in economic power, economically powerful parties will find ways to co-opt and/or circumvent the government and exercise coercive force to their own advantage, thus undoing the central benefit that the libertarian approach is intended to provide.  You get all of the coercion, but less (or none) of the accountability and democratic management. That struggle between those who possess private wealth and power and institutions embodying public power has always gone on and will always go on.  All the libertarian approach does is handicap one side of the fight.  And I, alas, am not nearly rich enough to favor the private side in this struggle.


Re: Someone always opens the box (Rating: 1)
[Fri May 25 02:28:19 2012] hank wrote:
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I agree with a lot of what you're saying. A society without violence is inconceivable. That's the fundamental logical flaw in anarchism. People will always be tempted to use force to get what they want. Those people living on the island in harmony are really just a hypothetical construct. Inevitably people would have heated disagreements and somebody would knock someone else down, or take what some other person thinks is rightfully her own.  Things would come to a head, the strongest would prevail, and a government would thus be established. A state of anarchy (the absence of established power) is unstable and can never last long. Where one person or group of people is stronger than another (that is, everywhere) there is government.

I think good government should be designed to act like a referee. It should stand watch over the guns and stop people from pushing each other down and taking their things. I know that a government that follows this principal entirely is not really possible. Governments are, after all, composed of people, and even the best people are by nature partial to their own interests. Institutions like democracy, and property, and contract, and law, and rights all play the role of locks on the box. They make people go through longer and more laborious processes in order to get access to the guns. They are the true innovations in government. They give people confidence that they will be allowed to live in peace and thus the incentive to build fruitful lives and communities.

Really what I'm saying is that, although the ideal of a totally free society is unattainable, our objective ought to be to make those locks as numerous and obstructive and difficult to open as possible. While the intent is to create a level playing field, you may be right that it would handicap one side. But I think it would be the economically powerful who would be handicapped. I think that the same skills and savvy that make some people and groups winners in the sphere of liberty (by which I mean all nonviolent human interaction) are likely to also enable them to be winners in the sphere of government (they're clever, ambitious, they have resources, concentrated interests, and good lawyers). If we loosen control over the guns, they will likely be the ones who end up in control of them. As governments grow stronger economic mobility declines because the winners can use the coercive power to lock in their gains.

I would frame it as competing default responses to inequalities of power. If group A is overpowering group B we could either strengthen group B or weaken group A. Should we open the box up and hand more guns to group B or confiscate some of group A's guns and put them back into the box? I'm saying that setting the latter default is socially optimal (both because coercion is a negative sum game and because it's more work for group A to get the guns back out of the box than to steal the new guns from the feckless group B).