A startling, truly revolutionary idea burst upon the world in the 1700s, and it badly needs re-stating today: that government is by no means indispensible. The possibility of doing without any, or at least with making governments accountable in some degree to the productive people whose meager resources were bled to support them, had never been achieved in recorded history; and yet, from the philospohical parlors of France to the correspondence committees in the American Colonies, realization dawned that governments have no moral authority whatever beyond the wrong end of a musket.
Nobody put it more plainly than a self-taught Englishman who had, like me, chosen to live here rather than in his native land: Thomas Paine. And no one was more influential than Paine in his pamphleteering during those heady days leading up to the Revolution. And none of his writings was more succinct than in his "Common Sense": that whereas "society" was everywhere desirable, "government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil". Wow!!
First notice that he recognized that "society" and "government" are two different, separate entities. People nowadays confuse them, as they did then. Paine cut through that confusion with the sharpness of his extraordinary mind. Once we do that, we can see the possibility of government without society (that would be some kind of dreadful tyranny worse than any yet experienced) and of society without government (that's what I'd like to see.) The two are related, arguably, but are separate. Paine saw it. We've forgotten it.
Second he saw that every government then known was intrinsically "evil". That must have sent shock waves through the monarchies of Europe, once the large sales figures for "Common Sense" became known. That's not quite the way the Head of the Church of England saw himself, nor any of his Ministers or Colonial Governors. "Evil"! Yes, he was exactly right. Thoroughly, irredeemably evil.
Why? - I'm not sure that Paine saw all the reasons, or even the basic one; but he did see, clearer than anyone in his era, that all governments always DO evil things; and that sufficed. Every war in history, for example, has been started by governments. How much more evil can one get, than to set out to slaughter human beings? Paine couldn't know it, but the twentieth century has exceeded all others, for the sheer volume of senseless, bloody slaughter that governments have unleashed - not just on their enemies, but even on "their own" people. Only a few weeks ago, the leader of one such (Pol Pot) reached the end of his murderous life; and he died only of old age, accountable to none.
What Paine may have missed - but what we need not miss - is the fundamental reason why all governments are always evil: by their intrinsic nature, they exercise unaccountable force. Every other participant in any society interacts with his fellow human beings by persuasion - or if he does use force, he must account for it. Government does not need to persuade, and even operates its own Courts; it has only to issue an edict, and punish any who disobey. THAT is the distinguishing feature of a "government", and THAT is why they are all inherently evil. They dehumanize everyone under their domination, by removing the power of choice, which is the distinguishing characteristic of all humans.
So, they are all utterly evil, even more so perhaps than Paine perceived. But are they nonetheless, as he went on to say, "necessary"? - indeed is it not an oxymoron, to say that something evil is necessary? - an oxymoron, recall, is a phrase internally contradictory, like a "square circle." Can something evil ever also be indispensible? Surely we ought at least to try to find some higher moral good than that? Can we not have some hope, of building a "good" society?
In fact, if an evil institution truly were necessary, as Paine thought, would that not be saying that mankind also is inherently evil, because he "needs" something inherently evil to sustain his otherwise civilized society?
Yes, I think that that is what it is saying, and I don't buy it. Do you?
Not, mind, that I'm blaming Paine; on the contrary, he came far further than almost all thinkers of his era, and we would not have even the tatters of a free country left if it were not for him and his few friends. But yes, I do think that he gave up his thought-experiment too soon, and failed to see that calling "evil" "necessary" was a terrible commentary on humankind. The rest of his book "Common Sense" was devoted to how he thought this evil thing could be chained up so that it could do what he thought necessary without disgorging much that was evil; and those chapters were hugely influential on the formation of the US Constitution a decade later. Though doomed, it was a brave try.
We now have what Paine did not: the wisdom of two centuries of hindsight. He and the other Founders thought government could be used for benefit but kept in check - by the chains of the Constitution. Alas, they were wrong. Those chains were broken long ago. Politicians swear to obey it, then immediately go about the urgent business of breaking it every which way they can. Their courts will literally shut their ears to arguments based on the Constitution (go try it for yourself, in a traffic court or a tax court!)
So this time round, we have to do better; and we can. We can do without it altogether. Government is NOT "necessary", it is just an evil appendage that we can very well cut off. Instead, we can take charge of our own lives.
The principle presented in these columns is that of self-ownership; that each one of us has sole ownership of his or her own life. That's the only principle society needs, for if we each believe that, none of us will trespass on someone else's self-ownership rights; for if we do, we prove we don't really believe it. And this vital, central principle has to be true, when we think clearly; if you don't own you, who does? - whose life is it, anyway? And if it really is yours, why not get serious and take your life back?
|© Copyright Jim Davies 1999|
Jim Davies lives in New Hampshire,
and enjoys contemplating which way is up.
The above is Edition # 262
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