Anti-Government? Ain’t No Such Animal

I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.
— Grover Norquist, US politician and anti-tax crusader

Positions once regarded as indecently extreme even among staunch conservatives are beginning to make their way into public discourse. It’s becoming almost intellectually respectable to rail against all taxes of any kind, on principle, and even to object to government itself as an institution and a concept.

Over and over again we read about the “dead hand of government,” the argument that Government is doing this to us and doing that to us, that Government is interfering with and destroying prosperity, that taxation is barefaced theft, that gun laws are tyranny, that environmental regulation is fascism, etc. These are now almost standard tropes for the far right.

I invite anyone using this type of rhetoric to go and live for a period of time in any of the regions of this world where there is no taxation and no government: that is, in a failed state. A few weeks spent in the conditions of an actual “ungoverned” area might prove educational.

Let us be fair: government has its discontents. No one who’s been paying attention would deny that an other-worldly detachment from reality is, and always has been, one of the occupational hazards of professional politics. (Actually, it’s an occupational hazard of all professional over-specialization, also of excessive and especially inherited wealth.) Nevertheless, despite the occasional loopiness of bureaucrats, Government is not some bizarre intrusion by people from Mars into Earthly affairs.

Government is any and all of the ways that groups of people larger than Dunbar’s Number (approx 150) invent to manage their life together, to resolve their conflicting ambitions and desires well enough to function as a group. As soon as we are no longer able to negotiate all matters face to face, as soon as our numbers are too large to make a solid consensus possible, we have to introduce law, structure, representation and delegation to manage our activities as a community… and government begins.

Government is therefore not something that we can ever abolish or escape from. In a failed state where government-as-we-know-it has collapsed, new forms of government quickly arise: local strongmen claim territories, extort tribute, and make their personal whims the law. Left alone for long enough, these warlords may form alliances to become federations with treaty obligations and written codes of law (Magna Carta anyone?), and left alone for still longer (a few centuries, perhaps) they may form recognisable nation-states with (guess what) dedicated bureaucracies and managerial cadres to contend with the baffling complexity of human life in large groups. All of these options are Government, at different scales and in different styles.

Modern neo-conservatives such as Norquist tediously rail against taxation and regulation, against all restraints on trade and capital accumulation. They claim that such railings are “anti-government.” They are not. They are anti-democratic, but not anti-government. Such ranters are simply in favour of government by wealth instead of government by majority vote. The form of government they would prefer is called oligarchy; we have a shining example of it in Putin’s Russia, and what looks like an up-and-coming contender in the USA.

The hand of government is not dead. It is imperfect for sure: large bureaucracies are full of perverse incentives, inefficiencies, and conflicts of interest. (In other words, they’re human!) Moreover, the nature of the work (as with policing) attracts some people who probably shouldn’t be doing it. But democratic government, messy and imperfect as it is, offers features that other forms of government (feudalism, oligarchy, military junta, dictatorship, local warlords, theocracy) don’t offer. It offers the possibility of participation and influence by all people, by the people as a whole, rather than by a selected few with bigger guns, more wealth, or the right parents. It took us a long time to come up with this idea, and it’s a good one.

As a socialist libertarian (or libertarian socialist, if you prefer) I often find myself in opposition to contemporary bureaucracy. ‘Crats are not my favourite people. But I don’t kid myself that the forces I want to struggle with — those persistent temptations to micromanage, to elevate decision-making to a clueless organisational stratosphere — are flaws of Government as a concept. They are flaws of human nature in large structures, problems of scale: they happen just as much inside large corporations, large armies, and large religious institutions, as within the large secular bureaucracies of modern democratic states.

There’s one very important difference between the chronic clumsiness and stupidity of large secular democratic-state bureaucracies and other big, powerful agglomerations of humans: democratic states have constitutions and laws which, at least in theory, guarantee transparency and representation.

In other words, when facing a large secular bureaucracy doing something stupid I have some rights (a concept which has no meaning outside systems of law and government). I have some prospect of gathering information and making changes happen. Facing other large non-democratic bureaucracies, my resources and options would be fewer. Consider, for example, the plight of a peasant in conflict with the highly organized and specialized management cadres of the Edo period or the Tang Dynasty, or a lowly line worker facing the sclerotic management hierarchies of most large corporations, or a slave facing the intricate bureaucracy of Imperial Rome.

So let’s, please, stop talking as if Government came in ominous black ships from outer space and invaded Earth (possibly with cookbook in hand). It’s not alien, and it’s not dead. It’s the living, messy, imperfect, imprecise, ever-evolving, frustrating, inefficient, but often noble and inspired attempt to resolve our conflicts without too much violence and (in the case of democratic government) without too much injustice.

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NOTE: The photograph above is a still from the 1955 film Les Diaboliques directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot.

Retired; ex-software engineer. Paleo-feminist. Sailor. Arduino tinkerer. Enviro. Libertarian Socialist (Anarcho-Syndicalist, kinda). Writer. Altermondialiste.