Political Theory: Theory of Government

Political theory is the theory of government. It is a sub-branch of ethics, and economics, in turn, is a sub-branch of politics.

Ethics — the science of human action — precedes politics because politics is the science of human action in societies, and societies are composed only of individuals. For this reason, the individual has hierarchical primacy.

Capitalism, socialism, communism, anarchy — these are all a species of the genus ethics, as is any specific political theory.

Governments, properly defined, are the body politic that have the power to make and implement the laws of the land, and humans are the only species who possess them. But what ultimately gives rise to these political bodies, and do we really need them at all? If so, why?

Some 40,000 years ago, when Homo sapiens sapiens first emerged, we existed exclusively in bands and small tribes.

A band is the smallest of societies, consisting of five to seventy-five people, all of whom are related either by birth or marriage.

Tribes, the next size up, consist of hundreds of people, not all of whom are related, although everyone is known by everyone else.

It is for this reason that conflicts in band and tribal life are resolved without the need of government. Indeed, it’s a well-established fact among anthropologists that governments do not exist in societies of this size.

As Jared Diamond appositely explains it in his otherwise overrated Guns, Germs, and Steel:

“Those ties of relationships binding all tribal members make police, laws, and other conflict-resolving institutions of larger societies unnecessary, since any two villagers getting into an argument will share kin, who apply pressure on them to keep it from becoming violent.”

Homo sapiens lived for approximately 40,000 years in just such non-governmental societies.

Around 5,500 BC, however, chiefdoms arose.

Chiefdoms are one size up from tribes but still smaller than nations.

These societies have populations that number in the thousands or even tens of thousands, whereas nations consist of fifty thousand people or more.

It is at the stage of chiefdoms that the necessity of government begins; for when populations increase to this size, the potential for conflict and disorder increases proportionally.

And here we get a glimpse of government’s primary function: to protect against conflict.

As long as the potential for conflict exists among humans, the need for protection and adjudication exists as well.

“With the rise of chiefdoms around 7,500 years ago, people had to learn, for the first time in history, how to encounter strangers regularly without attempting to kill them…. Part of the solution to that problem was for one person, the chief, to exercise a monopoly on the right to use force” (Ibid, p. 273).

The legal use of force is the defining characteristic of government.

It is also the fundamental difference between governmental action and private action.

In the words of Auberon Herbert, speaking over 100 years ago:

Nobody has the moral right to seek his own advantage by force. That is the one unalterable, inviolable condition of a true society. Whether we are many, or whether we are few, we must learn only to use the weapons of reason, discussion, and persuasion…. As long as men are willing to make use of force for their own ends, or to make use of fraud, which is only force in disguise, wearing a mask, and evading our consent, just as force with violence openly disregards it – so long we must use force to restrain force. That is the one and only one right employment of force … force in the defense of the plain simple rights of property, public or private, in a world, of all the rights of self-ownership – force used defensively against force used aggressively (Auberon Herbert, The Principles of Voluntaryism, 1897).

Among individuals, the initiation of force is illegal, whether the force is directly used, as in rape, or indirectly used, as in extortion (a crucial distinction, incidentally, which Mr. Herbert notes in his fraud-is-force-in-disguise example above).

People can only infringe upon the rights of other people by means of (direct or indirect) force.

In this sense, government is an institution whose function is to protect the individual against the initiation of force.

In the words of Thomas Jefferson: “The legitimate functions of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others” (Notes on the State of Virginia).

Around the same time that Thomas Jefferson was writing those words, another articulate fellow by the name of Wilhelm von Humboldt independently came to an almost identical conclusion:

Any State interference in private affairs, where there is no reference to violence done to individual rights, should be absolutely condemned…. To provide for the security of its citizens, the state must prohibit or restrict such actions, relating directly to the agents only, as imply in their consequences the infringement of others’ rights, or encroach on their freedom of property without their consent or against their will…. Beyond this every limitation of personal freedom lies outside the limits of state action (Wilhelm von Humboldt, The Limits of State Action, 1791).

What professor Jared Diamond incorrectly refers to as government’s “right to use force” (governments do not, strictly speaking, possess rights but only permissions) is a sentiment that has been stated more succinctly many times by Enlightenment thinkers, such as the best theoreticians among our Constitutional framers; but it was perhaps expressed most eloquently by the fiery political philosopher Isabel Paterson:

Government is solely an instrument or mechanism of appropriation, prohibition, compulsion, and extinction; in the nature of things it can be nothing else, and can operate to no other end…. Seen in this light, government is so horrific – and its actual operations in the past have been so horrible at times – that there is some excuse for a failure to realize its necessity (Isabel Paterson, The God of the Machine, 1943).

If, however, government only becomes necessary when societies reach the size of chiefdoms or beyond, what precipitated this sudden population leap, when for 40,000 years — by far the majority of our short history — human growth had remained relatively static?

Why, in other words, do we not still exist in bands and tribes, without the need of government?

The answer, it turns out, is food.

“We have seen that large or dense populations arise only under conditions of food production.… All states nourish their citizens by means of food production” (Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel).

When survival is made easier, populations increase. When populations increase, societies become more complex. When food production increases, mankind increases, societies become increasingly complex, and governments become necessary to maintain order. So it is with increased food production that the science of economics is born.

At root, economics is indeed the science of production and exchange.

Money, in the form of currency, is nothing more, or less, than a symbol of production — an invaluable one, to be sure, since money simplifies so drastically the process of exchange.

It also creates the possibility to store and save over long time periods and makes usury possible, which in turn creates more wealth. This is a crux because it illustrates the deep connection between politics and economics.

Thus, increased food production equals increased population equals increased production equals more people equals more societal complexity, and so on, reciprocally.

This is the process whereby societies develop the need for government.

This is why the fact of government is inescapable.

Whatever a society’s original size, smaller ones only make that initial leap to larger by producing more food.

(If they don’t make it, they are absorbed either by the actual use of force or by its mere threat, by the societies that do produce more food. For this reason, bands and tribes have become all but obsolete today, with a few Amazonian and New Guinean exceptions, most of which are also being swiftly amalgamated.)

Thereafter, in order for that society to flourish, it must now continue to produce food, but it must also efficiently manage its size increase, with all that ensuing complexity. Countless societies have foundered at this stage, as they still do today (see, for example, present day Yugoslavia, or Turkey, or Russia).

Advancements in irrigation, the domestication of animals, the introduction of fertilizers and pesticides, these things begin to make societies complex, because they increase food production. But with this added complexity come new challenges:

To thrive, these societies must sort out and solve a host of additional problems, ranging from mass uprisings, to increasing economic developments, to internecine warfare, to the threat of governmental takeovers, to crime and punishment, to many, many other things as well.

In the final analysis, then, we can say that governments are unique to humans because humans are the only conceptual species. We produce our food, we build our homes, we create our medicine, we extract our energy, and we deal with one another not as animals, by brute force, but as men, by agreement.

Trade is the natural drive of the conceptual mind.

So that at this point, our world without government would collapse into chaos — until, that is, the strongest faction seized control, forcefully, you can be sure, and then laid down its own version of order (see present day Somalia).

Who would stop them?

Other warring factions?

In the end, however necessary government may be, never forget this:

“In its best state, government is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one” (Thomas Paine, Common Sense).

Government, in short, is inherently dangerous because it holds exclusive power over the people.

The task, then, is not necessarily to do away with government altogether but rather to limit government in the extreme: to build a government which protects its citizens without, at the same time, creating oppression of any kind, including taxation to the point of plunder under that mythical guise of a “right” to redistribute your money – which is the symbol of your work.

16 Comments

  • BedazzledCrone

    March 18, 2010

    Good one – explaisn how we got here – & I do love the Diamond documentary! However, I really wonder what can be done. How does one keep empires from forming – the desire of some to always “get more”?

    Education certainly is an important function of changing a society; in fact, it is the key to keeping the monsters at bay. However, what do we do about states that decide to exclude the facts – not just reinterpret history but eliminate it? (See the following Texas Textbook Massacre http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/03/13/texas-textbook-massacre-u_n_498003.html – Texas is joining Kansas – for god’s sake, they are removing Thomas Jefferson from the history texts!) It was amazing to me what students in a U.S. state university didn’t know about their own constitution when I was teaching there. I knew more about American history than they did. This was not even esoteric history; it was basic historical facts. The resentment towards Canadian students who attended the university (at much higher tuition fees, just in case anyone wonders) was palpable. They actually gave me a really hard time in the class (women’s studies). We had a discussion in class one day, where they claimed, among other things that they could tell Canadian students because they always knew the answers (the problem was that Canadian students brought down their GPAs). They kvetched for a while then one of the more reflective students piped up and said, “I wonder what that says about our education system” [not something that I was willing to comment on]. She did well in the class (I suspect that she was quite surprised – she was very conservative and just assumed that I would mark her negatively because we disagreed on some major perspectives). However, she was able to argue her points effectively. She gave a brilliant dissection and defense of why the United States had not signed the United Nations’ Charter on the Rights of the Child for her final exam.

    That is what education is supposed to be about. We are supposed to be able to have the facts and then apply our abilities to interpret these facts in different contexts. We may not agree but we shouldn’t be so wedded to positions that we refuse to accept that other people have valid points of view. Education is not supposed to be about the indoctrination of a particular perspective. Leave that to the home and church, if that’s what they want to do.

    Ultimately, this is why we need a public education system that is not aligned to any political point of view. Personally, I feel that “private education systems” are more dangerous to individual privacy rights than the public system (but then, I live in Ontario where is education tax dollars are distributed evenly around the province – not perfect, but a reasonable choice to keep education an equal opportunity system)

    How will we ever get decent governments that actually restrain themselves from invading people’s Privacy? Years ago, Pierre Elliott Trudeau (RIP) said “The nation has no place in the bedrooms of the nation”, when he brought in a bill to remove homosexuality as a crime from the Criminal Code of Canada. All this to say that governments don’t have to be completely evil and can protect people’s rights. To quote from above, “governments do not, strictly speaking, possess rights but only permissions”. Democracies (when working properly) are probably the one form of government where rulers are reminded every now and then that they are only permitted to rule by the will of the people.

    There is a reason why many societies do not want universal education. They will resist it with all their will – particularly the education of the female populations (but that is a whole other story). People who are educated will question. People who know that there is more than one way to run the world and their personal lives will be less likely to fall under the spell of the “true believer” or the “hero” or the “miracle worker” or the latest “messiah”.

    Shall we all watch “We don’t need another hero”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TViZKt-AX6E from one of my favourite movies, Beyond Thunderdome.

    I’m back, miss me? :) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=41qMVqgCuQU&feature=PlayList&p=2E2F9CD600591713&index=9&playnext=10&playnext_from=PL (Lucille Starr, one of my favourites, my LS playlist was my background music for this comment! – I love YouTube!)

  • Ray

    March 18, 2010

    Miss you? My dear, that’s hardly the phrase for it. It was excruciating.

  • BedazzledCrone

    March 18, 2010

    I am soooooooooooo sorrrrrrrrrrry. I will whip myself with a wet noodle when I find the time. Heaven forbid that you should ever have such anguish again.

  • Dave Cochrane

    March 19, 2010

    @ BC. You said: “All this to say that governments don’t have to be completely evil and can protect people’s rights.”

    Protect people’s rights indeed. The preceding example you gave of the introduction of a “bill to remove homosexuality as a crime from the Criminal Code of Canada,” is hardly an example of a government “protecting [its] people’s rights.” I mean – whom, in this case, was the Government protecting homosexual people’s rights FROM exactly? The Government, clearly. Your example better serves the argument for LESS government in the first place, for it was the Government abusing its people’s rights (banning homosexual acts) – in the first place.

    But then, Governments love to meddle and create problems for societies, that they can then justify their existence in creating solutions (with more meddling) to the very problems they themselves created (and creating ever more problems in doing so). And so it goes on. And we thank them for protecting our rights and demand ever more from them.

    “People who are educated will question. People who know that there is more than one way to run the world and their personal lives will be less likely to fall under the spell of the “true believer” or the “hero” or the “miracle worker” or the latest “messiah”.”

    No argument there, brother. The first lesson should be: You should not trust governments with your education.

  • BedazzledCrone

    March 20, 2010

    Dave: I don’t agree with a number of things. (no surprise, I’m sure) & it’s “No argument there, sister” ( or Rev. BC in The Church of the Latter-day Dude)

    First, homosexuality has been a “moral” issue in Judeo-Christian (& now Muslim) societies since the Hebraic law codes came into force – approximately 3k to 3.5k years. See Lev. 20:13 for the main basis for the moral position. General consensus now (at least among secular religion scholars) is that this was more about reproduction than about sexuality (although the 2 are always closely aligned). Although there is no “New Testament” support for a condemnation of homosexuality, Christianity has kept this part of the Hebraic code almost 100% until very recently. As theocratic Christian governments, most western societies eventually made homosexuality illegal in their secular criminal codes, as well as part of their moral systems. This happened whether there were small or large governments. By the 19th century, they had to justify it for other reasons, bad mothering (see Freud or Generation of Vipers, for example), mental illness, etc. The society at large, that is, the individuals, supported this with few exceptions. I would hesitate to ever say that governments are responsible for the illegality of homosexuality – it was the will of the people – they believed what their God told them that homosexuality was a sin (Hell, here they come). Thank heavens that this has started to change, but it will be a long time before the religious stigma attached to homosexuality leaves the zeitgeist – look at what happened in California a couple of years ago (can’t blame the government on that one). So when PET (as he is affectionately know by many of us) brought this change to the Canadian legal system, it was in defense of individual rights – & long before the American Psychiatric Association, for example, finally pulled it out of their Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. In this case, the Canadian government (and a Liberal one at that) was well ahead of its time.

    Second, who the hell are you going to trust with an education system? Private schools that will have their own private agendas? Private schools that only educate the elite? Private schools that focus on a religious perspective that sends everyone that doesn’t believe like they do to hell, & therefore, they are fair game on the “killing fields”? Home schooling that teaches that dinosaurs and humans lived together and that dinosaurs died because there was massive climate change after the flood? Yes, believe it, folks, there were dinosaurs on Noah’s ark – I’m sure they were only baby dinosaurs, since we have the measurements of Noah’s ark in Genesis and it couldn’t have held grown dinosaurs (unless, of course, it was like Doctor Who’s time machine – but that’s not in the Bible, so, I don’t think so). How about private schools that teach that non-whites are less human than whites?

    I have serious, serious issues with the education system. I had more run-ins with the system than I could begin to write here – for myself and for my children. A public education system that has as its goal, the right of every child to be treated with respect and dignity is still the best option we’ve got in the world as it exists, and will continue to exist into the foreseeable future. Frankly, my heroes are Ivan Illich (Deschooling Society), John Holt (Escape From Childhood) and most of all A. S. Neill (Summerhill – & I forgive him his Freudianism & cut it out of the equation) when it comes to education. However, we live in a complicated society. Our world keeps changing, and that change comes faster and faster. We are not going to become Luddites anytime soon (unless the Apocalypse arrives tomorrow).

    I am a historian (specialized in religious history & theory – who’d have guessed). Women fought for education so that we could become part of the society as a whole. We were denied the same education as men for millennia and millennia. History teaches us that education is the key to becoming equal. I do not like the tendency of modern education to try to teach children how to fit into the system, rather than to question the system, but it has always been so. The public systems have their faults, (see my rant comment about “fat as an epidemic” on one of Ray’s earlier blogs – public education (& other) systems have too great a tendency to jump on the latest “epidemic” or “addiction” (anyone see this week’s South Park ? An absolute laugh riot & cautionary tale), but in the end, I do not see an alternative that can help to create a society that is supportive of one another rather than divisive.

    We have huge cities, we have large agglomerations of populations. Therefore, we will have governments, whether we like it or not. Education should not be about indoctrination, and to reiterate my point, it should be about the facts, and the different interpretations of those facts. I may not like what my government does some of the time. However, I vote, I am involved in the political process during and between elections, and I accept the principal that the majority rules. (& thus, I feel that I have the right to complain – you don’t play, you don’t get to complain as far as I’m concerned) This has to be part of how we organize ourselves so that we don’t kill one another. Sometimes, I win; sometimes I lose, and every now and then, I get to say “I told you so!” when things go haywire. Schadenfreude can be so satisfying!

    I have to pick the things that I want to spend time changing. In my case, that revolves around issues of children’s rights. I have to accept that people may not agree with me; that I may lose some of the battles; I may win some. Other people will focus on other things. We try to persuade others of the validity of our arguments. In some ways, that is what the blogosphere is all about.

    Damn, I have a union meeting at 10 this morning – yet another way to be involved (LOL)

  • Dave Cochrane

    March 20, 2010

    @ BC

    You state the obvious about homosexuality (or just sexuality in general) being a moral issue for religions. Dir. That’s not the point. It is governments that legislate (whether through their own religious beliefs or not). If I want to ignore a religious law then that’s up to me. If I wish to ignore a law of the land, then I get punished. It was laws laid down by Government that led to people being punished for committing certain sex acts, not any laws laid down by the Pope. When Governments repeal stupid laws that took away human freedoms in the first place, am I meant to be thankful?

    Who am I gonna trust with my education? ME of course!

    I’m not anti-government. I just think governments should be much more restrained than they are, and should not concern themselves with even a fraction of what they concern themselves with today.

  • BedazzledCrone

    March 20, 2010

    Hi Dave – I wish it were that simple

    The main point that I am trying to make is that governments were theocracies in western societies. And those theocracies made laws that were parallel to their religious beliefs. The problem is that the people willed it so – this was not big government (or small government) making a law that nobody agreed with (unlike taxation or the recent Health bill).

    In other words, they legislated morality (which is what PET was trying to say). When they ceased to be theocracies, the Power That Be, rather than getting rid of laws against homosexuality, looked for new justifications – mostly “scientific” – to keep a sexual preference illegal. Religious beliefs still played a major role (and continues to play in the United States) in the condemnation of homosexuality, even if it is couched in different terms – look at the latest attempt by a retired US general to keep “don’t ask, don’t tell” in the military by saying that the Dutch army was ineffective because it allowed openly gay men into their service. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/7478738/Gay-Dutch-soldiers-responsible-for-Srebrenica-massacre-says-US-general.html) & the Dutch response (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/7478738/Gay-Dutch-soldiers-responsible-for-Srebrenica-massacre-says-US-general.html)

    And what about California? Again, the will of the people (not the gvmt) made marriage between gays and lesbians illegal. And who was behind it, the religious right – why, because God said so. They might add other arguments to the mix, but the bottom line is “It’s in the book!” So, you can argue that the government of California made the legislation for greater equality for homosexuals and the people repealed the legislation. This is a religious law that if you are gay, you can’t ignore because it is now a government law.

    Government should not be concerning itself with morality, as such. I agree that governments are far too invasive in many areas. The problem is what is a moral issue – (or what is a sin) – someone defines these things and draws a line in the sand. We probably disagree on where (and probably who) we would draw the line. Who knows?

    I educate myself, as well – exposing myself constantly to ideas different than my own (why else would I be on Ray’s libertarian/von Mises website? or Peace, Order and Good Government or Vox Veritas). However, I am not 5 years old, nor am I 10 years old. I have children and I have grandchildren (pre-school age still). In this economy, it is unlikely that they will be homeschooled. To function effectively in a good part of our society, they will need to be educated. Ideally, I think that they should be in a school that allows them to develop as they want to(Summerhill model). But life is made up of wishes that don’t come true.

    Of course, they may grow up wanting to live completely off the grid as hermits or loners. It is a choice, but I suspect that both of them are so pro-social already, they would have a hard time with that choice.

    Then there are the horrors in Philadelphia that makes me wish that some people could be strung up by their toes forever & ever. See this story: http://www.prisonplanet.com/perversion-is-fine-so-long-as-youre-in-a-position-of-authority.html Watch the video clip and all the associated clips. It is just mind-boggling.

    Enough to make you want to run away and become a recluse!! Grab up the children and run like hell!

  • Your Mother

    March 20, 2010

    Honestly, Ray, this article was so boring I had to go watch paint dry to liven things up.
    Let me know when you get back to talking about cock pumps and cunnilinguous…

  • Redmond

    July 6, 2010

    Speaking of the Road to Serfdom…

    Arnolds gift to california

  • KJJ

    September 26, 2011

    -When survival is made easier, populations increase. When populations increase, societies become more complex. When food production increases, mankind increases, societies become increasingly complex, and governments become necessary to maintain order. So it is with increased food production that the science of economics is born.-

    I guess it’s time to cut back on food production then.

  • KJJ

    September 26, 2011

    By the way, I like the picture it made me giggle. Thanks for that.

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