by Benjamin Marks, Economics.org.au editor-in-chief

Even absolute government fails to escape anarchy. The supreme judge has no superior authority; he is in a state of anarchy.1 Every criticism of anarchy in defence of government therefore fails, for no one ever governs the governors and we never really get out of anarchy; yet it is precisely for the combating of anarchy that government is defended. Edmund Burke called this the “grand Error upon which all … legislative Power is founded”:

It was observed, that Men had ungovernable Passions, which made it necessary to guard against the Violence they might offer to each other. They appointed Governors over them for this Reason; but a worse and more perplexing Difficulty arises, how to be defended against the Governors? Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? [Juvenal’s who will govern the governors?] In vain they change from a single Person to a few. These few have the Passions of the one, and they unite to strengthen themselves, and to secure the Gratification of their lawless Passions at the Expence of the general Good. In vain do we fly to the Many. The Case is worse; their Passions are less under the Government of Reason, they are augmented by the Contagion, and defended against all Attacks by their Multitude.2

If government is defended by arguing that without it there is an endless war of all against all or a primitive state of nature, then government — if not of divine right3 — does not get out of this state of affairs at all, for government is made up of these same people that are argued to need a government. “The same interest,” said David Hume, “which causes us to submit to magistracy, makes us renounce itself in the choice of our magistrates.”4 Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard made the same observation:

[I]t is not easy to silence the voices of those who ask whether it is not paradoxical to entrust the nation’s welfare to the decisions of voters whom the law itself considers incapable of managing their own affairs; whether it is not absurd to make those people supreme in the conduct of government who are manifestly in need of a guardian to prevent them from spending their own income foolishly. Is it reasonable to assign to wards the right to elect their guardians?5

[P]roponents of government intervention are trapped in a fatal contradiction: they assume that individuals are not competent to run their own affairs or to hire experts to advise them. And yet they also assume that these same individuals are equipped to vote for these same experts at the ballot box. We have seen that, on the contrary, while most people have a direct idea and a direct test of their own personal interests on the market, they cannot understand the complex chains of praxeological and philosophical reasoning necessary for a choice of rulers or political policies. Yet this political sphere of open demagogy is precisely the only one where the mass of individuals are deemed to be competent!6

John Locke made the same point also:

As if when Men quitting the State of Nature entered into Society, they agreed that all of them but one, should be under the restraint of Laws, but that he should still attain all the Liberty of the State of Nature, increased with Power, and made licentious by Impunity. This is to think that Men are so foolish that they take care to avoid what Mischiefs may be done them by Pole-Cats, or Foxes, but are content, nay think it Safety, to be devoured by Lions.7

Most people do not know what they want, what makes them happy, what is good for them, what to do to defend themselves adequately, etc. Most people think government is supposed to remedy this. Avoiding the vagaries of those people who do not know what is good for them through the use of force is the idea underlying all government. But, as de Jouvenel said, “there can never be a government of pure force, for this force must come from somewhere.”8 Similarly, G.K. Chesterton said:

Government does not rest on force. Government is force; it rests on consent or a conception of justice. A king or a community holding a certain thing to be abnormal, evil, uses the general strength to crush it out; the strength is his tool, but the belief is his only sanction. You might as well say that glass is the real reason for telescopes.9

Since it is not pure force that government is composed of, whatever overriding attribute of voluntary interaction that the use of force is supposed to combat cannot be overcome by force, because, to repeat, it is supported voluntarily by a majority or critical mass.

Government amounts to two assumptions: (1) that those in government are more capable to run the affairs of civilians than civilians themselves, therefore its use of force is justified; and (2) that this superiority of government is proved because it is approved by civilians. This is not merely circular reasoning; it is self-defeating and impossible.

It is unsurprising that these people who do not know what is good for them both support and constitute government. The only problem with government is those who compose it. They have shown their theories to be both true and misguided by practicing what they preach. It is peculiar that these people think no one knows how to look after themselves, yet everyone knows how to look after each other; again this shows them to be practicing what they preach, and so they cannot defend their own reasoning by their own admission. Although they are practicing what they preach, they are unable to walk their talk without tripping over.

Footnotes

  1. Alfred G. Cuzán, “Do We Ever Really Get Out of Anarchy?” Journal of Libertarian Studies, vol. 3, no. 2 (Summer 1979), pp. 151-158; and Leonard Brewster, “The Impossibility of the State,” Journal of Libertarian Studies, vol. 16, no. 3 (Summer 2002), pp. 19-34.
  2. Edmund Burke, A Vindication of Natural Society, in his Pre-Revolutionary Writings, ed. Ian Harris (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 42.
  3. In some circumstances that would be miraculous to recur today (ignoring some minor, though by no means surmountable, scriptural discrepancies), a Christian government would be possible, because they have the keys to heaven (Matthew 16:19). A Jewish government, however, is impossible; Jewish theocracy amounts to anarchy. For a historical survey of scripture-based arguments against Jewish government see Gershon Weiler, Jewish Theocracy (Leiden, Netherlands: E.J. Brill, 1988); and with greater emphasis on modern sources and the modern Israeli government see Yakov M. Rabkin, A Threat From Within, trans. Fred A. Reed with author (London: Zed Books, 2006). I am unsure of the position of other religions on government. I have also ignored any discussion of G_d vis-à-vis “its” unimaginable incorporeality.
  4. David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, ed. Ernest C. Mossner (London: Penguin, 1985) p. 606, book III, part II, sect. X.
  5. Ludwig von Mises, Human Action (Auburn, Ala.: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 1998), p. 613.
  6. Murray N. Rothbard, Man, Economy, and State with Power and Market (Auburn, Ala.: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2004), p. 1302.
  7. John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, ed. Peter Laslett (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 328, bk. II, ch. VII, para. 93.
  8. Bertrand de Jouvenel, Sovereignty, trans. J.F. Huntington (Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 1997), p. 28.
  9. G.K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World, part three, ch. VIII, in vol. IV of The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987), p. 136.
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