The Irrelevance of Government

2017-01-21

Imagine life a thousand years ago in, say, France or Italy. The society and culture in which you are immersed is deeply focused on religion. The words of your local priest have great significance, a bishop or archbishop is a personage of divine importance, and the Pope is like a spiritual emperor. Those wishing to effect social change, or tell other people what to do, or pursue their own personal advantage, necessarily use the tool that is ready to hand, and that is the apparatus of the church.

Now imagine that somehow you conclude that God does not exist. Everything around you and within you would resist this notion. You would feel utterly isolated from your fellow men. If you dared to express this heretical thought, immediately and from all sides would come objections that the church, the Pope, the monasteries, the saints and martyrs, and the very order of nature and society disprove you. And then most likely you would be burned at the stake.

It seems to me that we are at the same place with regard to the state: governments are all around us; mayors and governors and senators hold great power; the President is practically a secular emperor. Those wishing to effect social change, or tell other people what to do, or pursue their own personal advantage, necessarily use the tool that is ready to hand, and that is the apparatus of government.

Yet does the state really exist as an independent entity? Or is it just that generations of individuals, working together, have built up an apparatus of temporal power, just as generations of individuals, working together, previously built up an apparatus of spiritual power?

I wonder.

It is extremely difficult in today's society to break out of a state-centric worldview, to recognize that perhaps there is a right to ignore the state (as Herbert Spencer once put it), to consider the apparatus of government as a primitive superstition, to judge those who use that apparatus (no matter what their ends and intentions) as misguided or immoral, and to treat government as irrelevant to life - to be, in short, a non-statist and thus similar in one's social philosophy to the non-theists I wrote about a few weeks ago.

I cannot say that I have quite concluded that the state does not exist, although I've been toying with the idea for a long time - and the more I ponder it and the more experience I have of a state-centric society the more plausible it seems. That doesn't mean I have figured out how a fully voluntary society could be turned into a practical reality! Yet I would agree with Ursula K. Le Guin, who once said of her anarchist novel The Dispossessed that it presents "a necessary ideal"; for without the ideal of truly voluntary interactions among free people, life would feel awfully dark at times.

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