Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried. – Winston Churchill
The bulk of my writing (and reading) time this last week has been occupied in an educational but otherwise fruitless discussion on the topic of the (il)legitimacy of government and the the fundamental “rightness” of anarchy (defined as “absence of a ruler,” not “chaos.”)
The discussion began, if you care (and if you don’t, why are you reading this?), over a piece at the group blog, No Treason concerning Al “Howlin’ Mad” Gore’s comment about “digital Brownshirts” and the reaction of many of the conservative bloggers to this calumny. That post went up June 27 and has garnered (as of this writing) 126 comments. If you’ll look below, you’ll find four posts, including one by my first guest blogger Aaron Gunn, on the same topic which have garnered (as of this writing) 77 comments. In addition to that, this conversation has inspired Francis W. Porretto to pen an essay on the topic.
Like there haven’t been enough words thrown around, I feel the urge to expand upon the theme myself, and since this is my blog and I can do what I want, so I shall.
I did a little reading around over at No Treason which, if you’re unfamiliar with the reference, is named after a treatise by Lysander Spooner. Spooner was a nineteenth century abolitionist – and a lawyer, among other things. Spooner’s treatise was, essentially, on the illegitimacy of any government that compelled anyone by force to support it. For those who have not read it, it is available in three pieces:
Law professor Randy Barnett wrote his recent book Restoring the Lost Constitution in part because of Spooner’s treatise, and dedicates the book to Spooner and to James Madison. In the preface to it, Barnett writes:
Growing up, I was like most Americans in my reverence for the Constitution. Not until college was the first seed of doubt planted in the form of an essay by a nineteenth-century abolitionist and radical named Lysander Spooner. In his best-known work, No Treason: The Constitution of No Authority (1870), Spooner argued that the Constitution of the United States was illegitimate because it was not and could never have been consented to by the people on whom it was imposed. Although as an undergraduate I found Spooner’s argument unanswerable (and I must admit so it remained until I was in my forties), the problem was largely theoretical. My mind may have doubted, but my faith remained.
Until I took Constitutional Law at Harvard Law School. The experience was completely disillusioning, but not because of the professor, Laurence Tribe, who was an engaging and open-minded teacher. No, what disillusioned me was reading the opinions of the U.S. Supreme Court. Throughout the semester, as we covered one constitutional clause after another, passages that sounded great to me were drained by the Court of their obviously power-constraining meanings.
I, myself have gone through a similar disillusionment. I began studying the law as it relates to the Second Amendment of the Constitution starting back about 1995, and the decisions of state, federal, and higher courts did for me what numerous Supreme Court decisions did for Prof. Barnett. (For anyone interested, Clayton Cramer’s For Defense of Themselves and the State: Legal Case Studies of the 2nd Amendment to the U. S. Constitution is an excellent compendium of the jurisprudence on this topic, though it was written as a Master’s thesis so it can be a bit dry in places. I understand Clayton has a few on hand he’s willing to sell at a reasonable price. He might even autograph them!)
Spooner had a similar effect on John T. Kennedy – one of the contributors to No Treason (the blog). John writes:
A little background: I’d been a liberal for most of my life. As a very young man I’d fancied myself a communist, I even carried Mao’s Little Red Book around with me for a couple of years reading it like scripture. But as I settled into making a living I embraced a more typical and pedestrian American liberalism. I felt the proper function of government was to help people. I always voted a straight democratic ticket up until 1992. Clinton was the very first liberal I couldn’t bring myself to vote for, but that was only because I didn’t trust him.
The launching of the Clinton administration was punctuated by the fiasco in Waco. I initially supported the government’s role at Waco, but at the same time I was haunted by the sense that something was terribly wrong with this government. Not something that could be blamed on a scoundrel like Clinton but something much deeper. I didn’t know precisely what it was but I knew I wanted a whole lot less of it. By 1994 I was gleefully cheering Republicans on in their crusade to cut back government. By 1996 it was pretty clear to me that their crusade was a scam.
This is about the time I was introduced to Spooner’s work.
I’d been thinking quite a lot about what the proper function of government was. I studied the Constitution and other works of the founding fathers to understand what they thought. The founding principle of American government was that just government required the consent of the governed. But there was a nagging question that kept coming up: Who consented to this constitution, this government? I couldn’t figure it out. I heard legal scholars describe the Constitution as a form of contract. When asked how a contract could be binding on people who had not even been born, they’d brush off the question with the assurance that an explanation of how such a contract was valid was too technical for the layman to understand.
But how could they consent to what they did not understand?
This was by no means the focus of my inquiries into the proper function of government, it was just a nagging puzzle that wouldn’t go away. I assumed the Constitution was a valid contract for reasons I didn’t yet fully understand.
So Lysander Spooner’s writing hit me like a truck. A big truck.
Spooner revealed the dirty little secret: There is no contract. The Constitution is not a contract, in substance it’s nothing like a contract and it has no morally binding force on anyone.
This didn’t instantly turn me into an anarchist, that came a little later, but it crippled me as an advocate of government. Never again could I propose any government activity without knowing that I was advocating that it be forced upon others regardless of consent.
I’ve undergone quite an epiphany myself, actually, in the ten or so years my political trek has taken. Mine has been quite recent, too, as evidenced by the four pieces I have displayed prominently on the left side of this blog, under the heading, The Courts Will Not Save Us Trilogy and The Denoument.
I am, however, still an “advocate of government,” unlike Mr. Kennedy et al. In comments one John Lopez and I had the following exchange:
(Lopez) That’s Barnett’s likely audience — folks who pointedly refuse to think. Barnett’s book is wonderful for folks who want to feel better about their preconceptions. And that category includes roughly, oh, 100% or so of voting conservatives, sitting around scratching their arses and wondering why Things Ain’t Whut They Used To Be. None of them want to hear that their precious Constitution, Bill Of Rights and all, is so much hot air. Their delusions are just too tender to be poked with a sharp truth. Look upthread at what started this discussion. D’ya think self-labeled “Digital Brownshirts” have *any* *ability* *at* *all* to deal with logic?
Not true, John. Not that the whole thing isn’t a delusion – it is. But it’s a shared delusion. Like money, it has value so long as enough people believe it has value.
Because if enough people lose their faith in the delusion, we devolve back to the age in which the world is only ruled by large men with weapons, and our illusions of “rights” vanish.
I think I’ve pegged the difference between our worldviews. You actually think that there are such things as “individual rights” that exist outside the belief systems of any culture. I don’t. But I’m all for maintaining the mass delusion, and improving it whenever possible. At a minimum I want to slow the decay of the delusion, because I think what actually happens over time is that the actions of the power hungry lead to the disillusionment of the masses, and the whole house of cards comes crashing down.
Freedom is magic, John. It works only so long as we believe.
And that is, in essence, my epiphany. Oh, the seeds have been there in the back of my mind for a long time. After all, I wrote the piece linked above there – What Is a “Right”? before I started this blog. I wrote another piece, Hoist the Black Flag! in the middle of the four pieces of “The Courts Will Not Save Us.”
But for me, it all boils down to Churchill’s quote at the beginning of this essay:
Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried.
All forms of government are coercive. There is no magic wand that will allow individuals to “protect their production” from the coercive State. Lopez and Kennedy et al. hope for one, but even they acknowledge that it doesn’t exist. I have referenced Tytler’s (probably apochryphal) piece on why democracies fail on several occasions, but the canvas of history shows that all forms of government are coercive, and all are transient. The more free, the more ephimeral. The more statist, the more brittle. The historical record indicates that the power of the individual has grown through each and every cycle of history, albeit with some horrifying conditions on the downturns. Our Constitutional Republic, flawed as it is, has produced the most free, most resilient, most powerful and most productive nation this world has yet seen. That cycle, by appearances, is closing. It may take another fifty years or another five hundred – that remains to be seen.
Or perhaps, just perhaps, the horse will learn to sing. Perhaps enough people will come stick their fingers in the dike, and stop it from crumbling. Perhaps enough will believe in the magic, and make the world be as it should, not as it is.
Because that’s the magic wand the Anarchists need to make the world work the way they want it to: A population that understands that it’s all a mass delusion – and that chooses to believe in that mass delusion with all its might.
But until then, the few of us who understand that it’s all a delusion and believe anyway would like the help of the ones who see the delusion, but won’t help sandbag the dike. Because the downturn promises to be very ugly, and putting it off as long as possible seems indicated.