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Government is not a monopoly

In Ideology, Law And Order on October 1, 2010 at 4:23 pm

David Weber

Part of September’s* Law and Order season

I’ve been gently reminded by Stephen that I have yet to fulfil my promise, almost a month ago, of a second article setting out my philosophical ideas about Government in more detail. Having chewed this over, I grudgingly decided for that for once I should actually be as good as my word, and use some late night reflections to finish off the season with aplomb. (Stephen’s forthcoming article excepted.)

My first observation is that the common anarchist refrain that government is a monopoly is actually misplaced. True, that government is a monopoly on legitimate violence is technically accurate. But ask yourself this: if government did not exist, what violence would be ‘legitimate’ to begin with? The answer is none. Legitimate violence without a monopoly is a contradiction in terms, as it is only made ‘legitimate’, in a way distinct to bog standard violence, by law.

If law was not a monopoly, then, ideas of violence’s “legitimacy” would be entirely subjective. Hence no violence could have a claim to being truly legitimate. Even with the existence of sophisticated models of private law, I cannot see how this would fail to be the case.

So government is a monopoly on legitimate violence, but this in reality is fairly meaningless. What does carry meaning, and practical weight, is if government is a monopoly on violence. And this is patently not the case. Indeed, in common law and constitutional systems, such as the USA, there are often legal protections of the right to violent behaviour. Is this then a “monopoly on the protection of violent behaviour”? Government suddenly seems less terrifying and more fluffy.

Sarcasm aside, it should be clear that government is not a monopoly on violence but a competing form. For ultimately, from a perspective of applied violence, government only exists with the implicit support of its citizens. The relationship can be extreme (a tolitarian regime) or more balanced (a constitutionally limited government). But government still competes within a marketplace, no matter how big or distorting its presence.

This relationship with its people is important, as it strikes a powerful argument against the views of many libertarians and anarchists. I’ve been reading James Tooley’s The Beautiful Tree, and I’d like to cheekily cite it in support of my argument. In it, Tooley scrutinises the impact of the sudden transition to ‘free’ primary education in Kenya, and shows what happens when a government institutes sweeping change without bringing its citizens with it (or, indeed, having any understanding of their needs). But although his argument is against a policy of sudden intervention, the same argument can be applied against a sudden withdrawal of the state. Unless politicians bring people with them, then change itself can be a more dangerous policy than any particular political direction.

Our relationship with government is, in fact, notably absent from most modern libertarian and anarchist arguments. Government is often described as an alien force, imposed externally through no involvement of people present or past. This allows for its inevitable condemnation without the asking of awkward questions.

Yet if you scrutinise such an attitude for but a moment, it falls down like house of cards. This is because of two fundamental flaws with the idea of a society or market functioning without government:

1. Competition without success is meaningless; Competition with success is dangerous.

2. The historical prevalence of government in human society.

With regard to the first point, if competition gained no reward, then there would be no incentive to compete. Apart from this patently not being the case; it would prove fatal to any idea of a market economy. Incentive is vital to success. Without it development would be slow and sporadic, relying entirely upon serendipity. Yet success in the market economy provides the means for establishing one’s position — the establishment of power.

And humans seem to have an almost universal addiction to power. I never fail to find it amusing that the powerful arguments libertarians always marshal in favour of the legalisation of drugs are almost never applied to the legitimisation of violence.  Power is, in essence, a drug. Violence is one of its many symptoms. Illegalising it – even if abolishing government could achieve that end – would merely drive it underground. In the place of legitimate violence we would have illegitimate violence. Instead of an inefficient monopoly, we would have an efficient marketplace for violence. I am not convinced this would be for the better of humanity.

Surely if there is one place the inefficiency of government could theoretically do some good, it is in the application of violence? After all, government rarely ever does things as well as the private sector. And violence is one area where I am happy for this to be the case.

There is, of course, a serious point to my ironic citation of anarchist arguments. To come to my second point, which I believe is infinitely more powerful, as it relies on the citation of history rather than one person’s philosophy about human nature — the establishment of power has played a role in the structure of almost every society known to history. It exists in modern capitalism. It exists in all attempted forms of socialism. It existed in feudalism. It existed in ancient societies, and tribal structures. It has shown resilience, in fact, in every group structure with a moderate level of population density and interdependence. Most groupings of humans, even units as small as the family, have instituted some form of government**. Far from society not being the same thing as the state, there is a close and inseparable relationship between the two.

For this reason, it should be clear that if we learn anything from history, it is to pick our battles. Government is undefeatable and indestructible in today’s world because no human can defeat or destroy human nature. Therefore to attempt this would not only be pointless, but quite possibly counter-productive. Instead, what is surely necessary is to work out the best way of taking control of government and subjecting it to our accountability. And this is what philosophers, politicians, activists, and yes, the wealthy and successful, have been doing for centuries. It is not just the State, as I commonly love to argue, that is a check on the private; but the private which is also a check on the State. This separation of powers is essential to keeping power divided and distributed within society, and abolishing it would be disastrous.  Slowly but surely the race of history has been in the right direction, and this is why it is only a minority who want to return to the thinking of the past.

*Yes, I am aware that it’s October 1st
**Kudos to polarii for that sentence

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