Government Without Government

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The biggest obstacle to living altogether without political government as we now know it is the fear or reluctance to live in freedom. The second biggest obstacle is the risk of changing from the present condition of society to a condition of freedom.

Consider the second obstacle. No one knows what conditions will prevail if government suddenly disappears, or even if a serious cutback is made in its size. There is an infinite range of possible future outcomes that anyone might face, and they are uncertain. Should a person choose doing away with or limiting government or not? This is a problem that is analogous to the standard finance problem of investing under conditions of uncertainty. No one knows what price Google stock will have tomorrow. People are risk averse, which means they seek to avoid risks and uncertainties. When buying stocks, they demand a higher return to compensate for the higher risks. The possibly better conditions by diminishing government have to outweigh the possibly worse conditions by a very wide margin before risk-aversion is overcome and a person chooses less or no government.

Most of us will not choose to do away with government in one fell swoop. Most of us do not even want to cut government back by any significant amount. This is one reason why fast and thorough revolutions are infrequent. It is easier to gain broad acceptance of a slower step-by-step revolution. We already have had a Second American Revolution that has overturned the First American Revolution and gone in the opposite direction of the First. We got where we are today in American government by a more or less gradual process, beginning with the replacement of the Articles of Confederation with the Constitution. That step began the Second American Revolution.

According to this decision-making model, risk-averse people do not want and will not support quick and radical changes in the social and political landscape unless the prospective returns compensate for the perceived risks. The potential gains they perceive have to outweigh the potential losses. In the stock market, the expected gains have to be 2—3 times the (absolute) size of the expected losses before people take on the risk. In a situation like 1932 in which times are very bad and the country is thought to be near death, the losses being incurred loom very large in people’s minds. They want to get rid of them. They will then be far more likely to choose radical change that they think is for the better. Almost any new situation that promises some gains will look better than the existing losses, even if it is achieved by radical methods that were previously rejected.

Fast forward to this century. The situation is reversed. As long as this country remains reasonably prosperous, people will not risk their gains, especially if they might incur large losses. They will not endorse quick and large changes. But they can be and have already been led gradually to all sorts of radical changes in their lives during the prolonged and ongoing Second American Revolution. A Third American Revolution can occur if it is carried out gradually. On the other hand, if there should be a Greater Depression, then people will be open to more radical and fast change. People at that point will be open to all sorts of ideas and men on white horses.

What appears as a long-term process of gradual change is actually not always gradual (although often it is) when seen close up, as Robert Higgs has shown. Gradualness is punctuated by discrete jumps or ratchets of substantial size, usually during wars or times of stress. Social logjams of reluctance to change are overcome as each of these jumps to bigger government occurs. To break up each logjam of risk aversion, it takes some sort of perceived crisis. People have to perceive a very big problem and want to get rid of some perceived loss or threat of loss. At that point, they become willing to endorse change. If over and over and over they hear about x million uninsured Americans, where x is a large number, they will eventually favor a national health insurance program if they have not already done so. It doesn’t matter whether x is fabricated or whether their perceptions are false, it is what they believe that matters. Americans didn’t want to go into World War II, but a single event, Pearl Harbor, changed all that, even if it was spurred on by Roosevelt’s policies. In the reverse direction, the Abu Ghraib event triggered a sharp drop in Bush’s popularity. More people began to view the Iraq situation as a loss, not a gain. They became more willing to risk a change, which in this case means withdrawing.

Once a given logjam of risk aversion is overcome, then the status quo once again rules. The risk-aversion factor again operates, and people are reluctant to change the social conditions.

Fear of freedom

Reducing government’s size also faces the first obstacle, which is that people in their present states of mind want states. With their current psychology, which can in time change, they do not want to live in complete freedom or even close to complete freedom. They want to be slaves in part, even if by endorsing it at the ballot box. They want to submit and obey a government. I offer three proofs of these statements. The first proof is that virtually the entire world is organized into states. The second proof is that whenever a state breaks up, the people in it immediately rush to form a new state or several new states. The third proof is that nearly all states absorb a substantial fraction of people’s incomes. Additionally, people endure a huge amount of direct regulation. This makes people into slaves, and people vote for this outcome.

People are willing slaves. Slavery has not disappeared from the world, not by a long shot. Modern chattel slavery may have about disappeared, and the modern slavery may not be exactly like the ancient slavery; but it is still a variety of slavery. With all our blarney about equality and rights, we simply bury this fact. We do not want to face this fact. We are all slaves and we choose to be.

As against this tendency to endorse slavery and states, we need to recognize that psychology can change and has changed. The Soviet Union did break up, and a good many of the new nations became much more free. A number of these countries have much more economic freedom. The people are progressing rapidly. Major countries like India and China have liberalized. Vietnam is liberalizing. East Germany is gone as a separate country. Under certain conditions, we go for more freedom.

Yet, by and large, modern mankind still lives in states and wants states, and often wants these states to be welfare states, by dint of force; or wants these states to be armed beyond any conceivable defensive purposes.


The Mayflower Compact offers an early and fairly clear-cut example of how men submit to government.

When the Mayflower landed in Cape Cod in 1620, there were about 102 passengers on board, of which about 80 were Pilgrims or Separatists, who had earlier left England for Holland. Among the 80 were 41 adult men, the remaining being women and children. The other 22 settlers, who were called "strangers" by the Pilgrims, were single men. They were a variety of craftsmen, workmen, indentured servants, and merchants, recruited by the Pilgrims.

The ship was supposed to have landed in Virginia, where Jamestown had been established in 1607. According to Bradford’s account, the strangers argued that since they were outside the jurisdiction of the Virginia Company, its rules no longer applied to them. They wanted their freedom. He writes:

"Occasioned partly by the discontented and mutinous speeches that some of the strangers amongst them had let fall from them in the ship: That when they came ashore they would use their own liberty, for none had power to command them, the patent they had being for Virginia and not for New England, which belonged to another government, with which the Virginia Company had nothing to do."

To forestall this feared division, the Pilgrims decided to enact the Mayflower Compact, which formed a government. Subsequently, the colony held together. Bradford reports: "In these hard and difficult beginnings they found some discontents and murmurings arise amongst some, and mutinous speeches and carriages in other; but they were soon quelled and overcome by the wisdom, patience, and just and equal carriage of things, by the Governor and better part, which clave faithfully together in the main."

The Mayflower Compact was designed to pressure those strangers who wished to separate from the Separatists. Its intent was to create a kind of semi-legal extension of the Crown’s authority in New England until such time as an official document based on a grant would be forthcoming. Through the formation of a government and the "just and equal carriage of things," a division of the colonists was avoided. Under pressure, the strangers submitted. Nevertheless, this early experiment in government turned sour when the first governor adopted a commons strategy for food production and distribution that contributed to starvation. Lives may have been spared had the colonists split up at the outset.

The 41 adult male Pilgrims signed the Compact, which reads as follows:

"In the name of God, Amen. We, whose names are underwritten, the Loyal Subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord, King James, by the Grace of God, of England, France and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith, e&. Having undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honour of our King and Country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia; do by these presents, solemnly and mutually in the Presence of God and one of another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick, for our better Ordering and Preservation, and Furtherance of the Ends aforesaid; And by Virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions and Offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the General good of the Colony; unto which we promise all due submission and obedience. In Witness whereof we have hereunto subscribed our names at Cape Cod the eleventh of November, in the Reign of our Sovereign Lord, King James of England, France and Ireland, the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth. Anno Domini, 1620."

This is an extremely interesting document. Unlike the U.S. Constitution, the Compact presents itself as a covenant undertaken "for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith,…" And it is those two ends, and also the end of "our better Ordering and Preservation," that the signers conceive as the virtues of forming a "civil Body Politick."

The document is very brief, but the signers pledge "all due submission and obedience" to the Body Politick. The power of that body is open-ended. No sooner have the colonists escaped one government, then they set up another. It is their own and this makes them feel better or hope for better, but does it bring them better? That is the $64 question, for once the government is formed, there is no getting off and no going back. It is a long road, and one must travel it to the end of the line. Is this what is meant by "tacit consent?" I think so. It means "all due submission and obedience." It means tacit submission. Why does it happen? Not solely to keep the strangers in line. It is for order and preservation (or security.) There is a fear and/or an expectation that unless there is an official body making laws and ordinances, survival is jeopardized.


The readiness to give up freedom, to submit to a body politick, without putting in place adequate safeguards is remarkable. The fear factor seems paramount. We are social creatures used to huddling together. Does this translate into sheepishness and an impatient desire to crown and follow authority that goes well beyond wanting the utility of order and security? Why is modern man so fearful that he must have big government? Did we not also get on board this train out of misplaced utopian hopes of creating an earthly paradise by this means? Aren’t we now afraid to slow down the train, much less stop it and reverse direction?

Big government is a modern phenomenon. For we can have government without government as we know it. We can govern ourselves by decentralized rule of law, with limited objects over which such law rules, without the heavily centralized and large-scale political governments we have seen in the last 500 years. The evidence grows that 800—1000 years ago and more, the Celts, the Anglo-Saxons, the Icelanders, and the German tribes governed themselves without government as we know it, without big government.

We can have government without government if we want to, but the title has two meanings. We already have government without government. We have a big and centralized apparatus that we call government that follows no rule of law and justice. We have government without government.

Michael S. Rozeff [send him mail] is a retired Professor of Finance living in East Amherst, New York.

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