Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Be your government

An old friend called me out of the blue to announce that he's running for office, in association with a group/site/platform called (identity of friend and office is secret for awhile, since he hasn't officially announced anything yet). I liked the name of this group, because one thing I keep hammering on here (partly to convince myself I suppose) is that there always is going to be some kind of government, that is, there will always be some institutional mechanisms by which societies regulate themselves. This doesn't mean they have to be the size of states or have the structure of states, but there's always something. And if you, the individual, are not part of that government, then you are merely subject to it. Since we live in a society in which everyone ostensibly can be part of the government, then if you aren't you deserve what you get.

That's me in idealist mode. I still have a large cynical streak where my the attitude is more that government is an unpleasant fact of life; that one should avoid it when possible; tolerate when necessary; not be in the least surprised to find it doing damaging, stupid, or evil things. And one should busy oneself with living one's life despite all these things, rather than obsessing over them. That is a a form of disgust with government that at least seems honorable, and has a long tradition in this country.

But what absolutely infuriates me is the hypocritical institutionalized cynicism and moral preening of libertarianism. I've gone over the reasons why often enough, I guess I won't repeat myself here. The essence of libertarianism is the denial of the social sphere and the consequent repudiation of democracy. Government to the anarchists of the right is some kind of alien destructive force that has imposed itself on society, rather than a key functional part of society. Libertarianism smugly complains about the failings of government while taking for granted the benefits it brings.

This critique applies to a good chunk of the left as well, of course.

Let me try another wording: the problem is both the perceived and real alienation of government from the governed. So the slogan of BeYourGovernment is a nice, accurate, and concise blow against this attitude.


scw said...

I have met very few people who call themselves libertarians that could truly be called anarchists, i.e., that desire a complete disappearance of government. It is always possible to reduce an idea to absurdity by extending it to its logical extreme, and that is what you have done.

What most self-described libertarians really believe is no more than what George Washington did:

"Government is not reason, it is not eloquence, it is force; like fire, a troublesome servant and a fearful master."

Like fire, that troublesome servant, government works best when it is kept within strict limits. Fire is useful inside a fireplace or furnace - frightful on the floor, furniture, curtains, etc. Similarly, government is useful when it is confined to the purposes of defending the country against foreign enemies, stopping the depredations of murderers and thieves, protecting private property, adjudicating disputes between citizens, and otherwise enforcing that modicum of stability and order necessary for civil society and its institutions (which long pre-existed any current government) to survive and prosper. When it strays beyond those bounds, it becomes rather like fire which has leapt from the stove to the rest of the kitchen.

Of course, limitations on the scope of government are a sort of "repudiation of democracy." Pure democracy is a tyranny of the majority - two wolves and a lamb taking a vote on what to have for lunch. Democracy, too, can be extended to extremes that no reasonable person would desire. We quite sensibly repudiate that.

TGGP said...

Wouldn't we see the same idea from left anarchists that society is good and natural but government is bad and alien?

To me the dispute over democracy should have more citations to Exit, Voice and Loyalty. I place very little faith in voice, but it's better than nothing (you have a bastard you can't even throw out). But if there's any hope of exit, we need to leap at that.

mtraven said...

@tggp: I did mention that my critique/complaints applied almost as well to the left as to the right.

Exit is a fine strategy for atomized individuals. For real people who live in communities and have social connections, it doesn't really work. And then there's the question of where you end up after you exit and whether you just have the same set of problems (I fantasized awhile back about exiting to Europe, a strategy which looked a lot more attractive a year ago than it does now).