Anti-Politics

2002-12-01

I just finished reading an online version of Albert Jay Nock's book Our Enemy, the State, a mind-opening exploration of the nature of government (first published in 1935). Actually Nock draws a distinction between government -- by which he seems to mean fundamentally self-government, and highly local forms of governance that spring out of self-government and universal consent -- and the State. He argues persuasively that the State (i.e., government as we know it) is, always has been, and always will be an instrument of force, coercion, violence, and domination, and that the State is diametrically opposed to the health of human society (i.e., voluntary relations among individuals).

Similarly, in his essay Politics, Emerson calls the State "the system of force" and argues that "every actual State is corrupt". He envisions a time when the state will disappear, for "with the appearance of the wise man, the State expires. The appearance of character makes the State unnecessary." But this occurrence depends on a high degree of ethical advancement: "there will always be a government of force, where men are selfish; and when they are pure enough to abjure the code of force, they will be wise enough to see how these public ends of the post-office, of the highway, of commerce, and the exchange of property, of museums and libraries, of institutions of art and science, can be answered."

Of the American Founders, it is Jefferson who came closest to understanding this code or system of force. I've been reading a bit in his selected writings, and they are instructive. Here is a quote from his letter to Joseph Cabell, in which he advocates that as much power as possible should reside in the smallest possible political unit, which he calls a ward (the immediate context is a proposal of his for funding elementary education):

Declare the county ipso facto divided into wards for the present, by the boundaries of the militia captaincies; somebody attend the ordinary muster of each company, having first desired the captain to call together a full one. There explain the object of the law to the people of the company, put to their vote whether they will have a school established, and the most central and convenient place for it; get them to meet and build a log school-house; have a roll taken of the children who would attend it, and of those of them able to pay. These would probably be sufficient to support a common teacher, instructing gratis the few unable to pay. If there should be a deficiency, it would require too trifling a contribution from the county to be complained of; and especially as the whole county would participate, where necessary, in the same resource. Should the company, by its vote, decide that it would have no school, let them remain without one. The advantages of this proceeding would be that it would become the duty of the alderman elected by the county, to take an active part in pressing the introduction of schools, and to look out for tutors. If, however, it is intended that the State government shall take this business into its own hands, and provide schools for every county, then by all means strike out this provision of our bill. I would never wish that it should be placed on a worse footing than the rest of the State. But if it is believed that these elementary schools will be better managed by the governor and council, the commissioners of the literary fund, or any other general authority of the government, than by the parents within each ward, it is a belief against all experience. Try the principle one step further, and amend the bill so as to commit to the governor and council the management of all our farms, our mills, and merchants' stores. No, my friend, the way to have good and safe government, is not to trust it all to one, but to divide it among the many, distributing to every one exactly the functions he is competent to. Let the national government be entrusted with the defence of the nation, and its foreign and federal relations; the State governments with the civil rights, laws, police, and administration of what concerns the State generally; the counties with the local concerns of the counties, and each ward direct the interests within itself. It is by dividing and subdividing these republics from the great national one down through all its subordinations, until it ends in the administration of every man's farm by himself; by placing under every one what his own eye may superintend, that all will be done for the best. What has destroyed liberty and the rights of man in every government which has ever existed under the sun? The generalizing and concentrating all cares and power into one body, no matter whether of the autocrats of Russia or France, or of the aristocrats of a Venetian senate. And I do believe that if the Almighty has not decreed that man shall never be free, (and it is a blasphemy to believe it,) that the secret will be found to be in the making himself the depository of the powers respecting himself, so far as he is competent to them, and delegating only what is beyond his competence by a synthetical process, to higher and higher orders of functionaries, so as to trust fewer and fewer powers in proportion as the trustees become more and more oligarchical. The elementary republics of the wards, the county republics, the State republics, and the republic of the Union, would form a gradation of authorities, standing each on the basis of law, holding every one its delegated share of powers, and constituting truly a system of fundamental balances and checks for the government. Where every man is a sharer in the direction of his ward-republic, or of some of the higher ones, and feels that he is a participator in the government of affairs, not merely at an election one day in the year, but every day; when there shall not be a man in the State who will not be a member of some one of its councils, great or small, he will let the heart be torn out of his body sooner than his power be wrested from him by a Caesar or a Bonaparte. How powerfully did we feel the energy of this organization in the case of embargo? I felt the foundations of the government shaken under my feet by the New England townships. There was not an individual in their States whose body was not thrown with all its momentum into action; and although the whole of the other States were known to be in favor of the measure, yet the organization of this little selfish minority enabled it to overrule the Union. What would the unwieldy counties of the Middle, the South, and the West do? Call a county meeting, and the drunken loungers at and about the courthouses would have collected, the distances being too great for the good people and the industrious generally to attend. The character of those who really met would have been the measure of the weight they would have had in the scale of public opinion. As Cato, then, concluded every speech with the words, "Carthago delenda est," so do I every opinion, with the injunction, "divide the counties into wards." Begin them only for a single purpose; they will soon show for what others they are the best instruments. God bless you, and all our rulers, and give them the wisdom, as I am sure they have the will, to fortify us against the degeneracy of our government, and the concentration of all its powers in the hands of the one, the few, the well-born or the many.

Jefferson's thinking here is so different from the ways of our "modern" administrative state as to be thoroughly alien. He is proposing to fund elementary education not from the general funds of the government located in the District of Columbia, in Richmond or some other state capital, or even in the local county seat, but to raise the necessary funds from among the people of a ward (or, if those people so choose, to have no school whatsoever). And how large is a ward? Its boundaries are co-equal with those of a militia captaincy! Yes, back in those days (1816) there were no standing armies in America, and the defense of the nation rested with local militias consisting of every able-bodied man with a gun. Jefferson generalizes his proposal and ends up advocating that fewer and fewer powers be delegated to more centralized bodies -- and indeed this was nearly the reality of life in those days. Oh, how far we have come! Now the entire life of the republic is centralized, centralized, centralized -- government of the Beltway, by the Beltway, for the Beltway. The national government takes some 25% of economic output, a state government perhaps 10%, and local governments much less. Our priorities are exactly inverted. And there is absolutely no sign that this sorry state of affairs will change anytime soon, because most everyone (and certainly the two major political parties) are perfectly happy with this arrangement.

Ah well, enough political musings for today. I need to think about the sphere of things that I can influence, and focus my energies there....


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