Liberty in the Choice of Governance

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What is government? It is an organizational vehicle by which people hope to guide certain of their interactions. It is the framework and means by which they obtain governance. Governance, or the regulation of certain of their interactions, is the basic good they seek when they institute a government.

Liberty in the choice of governance has its roots in liberty of a person to decide the course of his or her own life. I regard liberty in the choice of governance as good in itself and as instrumentally good, both for persons and groups of persons. The basic political idea of panarchism that relates to government is that a person consent to his or her governance. Panarchism’s ideal is governance of one’s choice. Liberty in the choice of governance is the root of panarchism, as opposed to tyranny, or being forced to live under a government.

Ideas of force differ among different persons. There exists the possibility of a vast range of modes of governance, and history shows a number of different realizations. One person’s compulsion may well be another person’s liberty. Panarchy contemplates a variety of different and co-existing modes of governance.

The moment that an observer makes claims about what a government’s structure is or how it is to be formed, he is expressing a personal view with which others can differ. If John Adams should say that we need a constitution for Massachusetts and write one, or that it should be voted on using majority rule, or that it should guarantee certain rights, or that it should be perpetual, or that a particular set of people should vote on it, and so on, he is narrowing the possible frameworks and also their evolution over time. He is deciding in advance who the relevant persons are that will be in the group deciding the matter and even how their votes shall count. This runs counter to panarchism.

The panarchist does not seek to impose a form of governance for others, although she may certainly argue that some forms are preferable to others, not only for herself but for other persons. I call myself an anarchist (as well as a panarchist) because my personal preference is for no government-as-we-know-it. I want governance. I think governance cannot be avoided wherever people live together. The form of it, in my opinion, should be so decentralized and open to personal choice that it will hardly be recognized for being government. My anarchist opinions are not my views on panarchism. Panarchism takes precedence by far, for it is a general social theory. It logically precedes the choice of a particular form of governance.

Speaking as an anarchist, I have frequently criticized government-as-we-know-it. I still do. That is the voice of someone demanding liberty and seeking to persuade others of the same. But I wish to distinguish clearly my preferences from those who favor this government that we share. Since I am forced to live under a government, I do not regard it as government at all. I do not wish to be tyrannized by words. So I say that what we call “government” today I do not dignify by that term, inasmuch as it is tyrannical. People who feel that they are living under tyranny are prevented from choosing their form of government. For them, the “government” is not government at all: it is a whip and a chain and a jail. It is a power that robs them of their humanity. I define government as only being government when it is legitimated by consent of those governed. Being "ruled" by a gang or by a dictator or by a tyrant, without one’s consent, has nothing in common with legitimate government. It is a contradiction in terms to say that one is governed by a tyrant. One is not ruled by a tyrant. One is pushed around. The English language, unfortunately, lacks this distinction in the single word "rule." One can have certain social affairs managed by governance without being ruled by a sovereign power. To be controlled by force is not the same as being ruled by a legitimate form of government. One is a criminal endeavor, the other a peaceful and consensual matter. Confusing these two relations dulls the moral sense and places them on the same plane where they do not belong. This manner of thinking is an inheritance from Aristotle, perpetuated to this day. Let us bury it.

How does panarchism differ from anarcho-capitalism? Since anarcho-capitalism is a form of anarchism, it expresses a personal preference for a particular form of governance and government. It is too great a digression and task to discuss what anarcho-capitalism is or is not. For current purposes, I use a quote from Wiki: “Anarcho-capitalism (also known as free-market anarchism) is an individualist anarchist political philosophy that advocates the elimination of the state and the elevation of the sovereign individual in a free market.”

If the state were solely a tyranny, as I believe some prominent supporters of anarcho-capitalism see it and define it, then there would be agreement between panarchism and anarcho-capitalism on that score. However, the state is not solely a tyranny. It has many supporters. Many people vote for it and its programs. There exists a certain amount of consent and support for the state and what it does. There is a demand for states of various kinds, and we see this throughout the world and in history. The very variety of states indicates varying demands. We see this variety of demand in that some of those dissatisfied with the large governments of the present wish to go back to the smaller governments of the past. To advocate elimination of the state, as this quote suggests the anarcho-capitalist does, is to advocate the imposition of one’s own preference for a form of governance on others. Not everyone wants free markets in everything or the elimination of the state in its entirety. A panarchist does not advocate the elimination of the state as a general matter, even if as an anarchist that is his personal preference or even if he tries to persuade others to prefer living with a vastly reduced state or even no state.

The panarchist does not advocate elevating the sovereign individual in a free market. You may personally want a society with social relations of a particular kind, as may I, but a panarchist is not intent on making this happen for others, only for himself in conjunction with willing others.

The panarchist advocates liberty in the choice of governance.

Nowhere have I mentioned territory. It is implicit in the idea of panarchy that territorial borders that have been made by some men, more or less arbitrarily or by force of arms and other such means and not by legitimate means such as working the land, cannot be a basis for classifying and grouping people together against their wills or without their consent. In fact, no arbitrary criterion can be imposed from an external source and still maintain liberty in the choice of governance. Territory is one such criterion but there are others such as tribe, color, religion, ethnicity, class, population density, age, sex, and so on.

The anarcho-capitalist who advocates no state is implicitly assuming that all persons in a given territory that the state has proclaimed its own form a people that should be freed from that state and all its operations and programs. The libertarian who advocates the liberty to use any drug is implicitly assuming a territorial domain for this freedom. The expert on money who proposes a gold standard is implicitly assuming a territorial domain for its operation. Similarly, when John Adams proposes a constitution for Massachusetts, he is thinking about all the people within certain borders. In all these cases and more, the advocate of liberty is injecting her personal preferences. She is actually pointing out how she prefers to live and how she thinks others should live, and she is labeling this preference as liberty. Naturally, this approach is rejected by those who want certain features of the state. There are those who want drugs prohibited or abortion prohibited or who want social insurance through government. The "liberty" advocated by the libertarian or anarchist is compulsion from their viewpoint. It threatens their preferred way of life.

In trying to achieve liberty for all, the libertarian or anarchist is his own worst enemy. He alienates all those who feel threatened by some aspects of his liberty program that they dislike. Furthermore, he argues interminably with his fellow libertarians and anarchists over the 25 percent of issues over which they disagree.

The panarchist, by advocating liberty in the choice of governance, by implication does not place governance for others on a basis of anything necessarily territorial, religious, ethnic, or any other criterion. Those who create their own governance may willingly choose such a criterion, but the panarchist idea does not include any such basis in its assumptions.

If those who favor liberty are ever to make significant headway in gaining a greater degree of liberty, they cannot allow their personal preferences for living in liberty to override the fact that panarchy is the only logical ideal that is consistent with all kinds and stripes of personal preferences.

There will never be a successful liberty movement until there is agreement on a single overriding ideal; to be divided is to be conquered. Liberty in the choice of government is such an ideal. The problem of unifying has to do with what liberty means. Libertarians, anarchists, and panarchists cannot succeed unless they unite under one banner or one demand, which, as it now seems to me, is liberty to choose one’s governance. It means liberty to form a group (or associate) anywhere on earth, including dispersed over the earth’s surface, and within that group to have consent of the governed.

There are numerous libertarians in America, perhaps the majority of them, that want to change the Constitution or restore it or any number of other similar attitudes, or else they want to change the laws we live under. In seeking these changes, they assume that they will be bettering the lot of others by giving them liberty. They then run into enormous resistance, the reason being that there exists a vast range of personal preferences that cannot be worked out under any one form of government, including the libertarian form that brings its version of liberty to all. All of this effort seeks to work out our collective destinies within a single and same framework of governance. This can only be tyrannical insofar as many object to that framework and do not consent.

If the program for liberty were elevated to one overriding aim — liberty to choose governance — these difficulties would melt away. If all those who seek liberty made it clear that they only seek to govern themselves by their own consent and to let others govern themselves by their own consent, they’d be closer to the idea of the colonists in separating from Great Britain. They’d be united. They’d have a far greater chance of realizing an improvement in liberty. They’d no longer threaten others, and the resistance of others would have the ground cut out from beneath it. They’d have the high moral ground, for who can justifiably criticize someone who wants to have the liberty to choose his governance? Who can dispute that a government should have the consent of the governed? If these principles are conceded, then the only reservations and criticisms become practical ones. People will wonder how can this be done? How will it work? Those matters can always be worked out once the principle, which is all-important, is conceded. That principle is this: Liberty in the choice of governance. Liberty in the choice of governance without an imposed territorial restriction or any other imposed criterion, while celebrating the liberty for persons to group themselves on any basis of their choosing, or none at all.

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

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