• The Theory of Limited Government

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    The
    general trend in government during the 20th century,
    and presumably before, is the rapid growth in the role that government
    plays in society and the powers considered necessary to fulfill
    this role. It would seem to any bystander (if there are such) that
    most people in modern society agree with the concept of a far-reaching
    government with responsibility to take care of people, as well as
    to be a moral guide for both society and individuals or provide
    support where people lack confidence or ability. Libertarians generally
    do not accept this view of the state as a "nanny" or government
    as a parent, and there are many reasons for this.

    One
    reason is one that the 17th century English philosopher
    Thomas Hobbes never realized. He proclaimed that free men in their
    natural state, i.e. without government or rule, cannot achieve a
    lasting social order. It is bound to inevitably degenerate into
    war, terror, and chaos. Man is inherently evil or would at least
    choose to forcefully take what can be taken from others rather than
    work for it if he has the chance. Thus the only possible state of
    free men would be a state of eternal war where the strong will eventually
    conquer or kill the weak.

    From
    this Hobbes drew the conclusion that men would have (or really had)
    chosen to come together in societies for protection, security and
    order. In order to enjoy protection of their rights men would have
    to first surrender both their rights and their freedoms. This collective
    act created a government organization with the power to forcefully
    withdraw society from the state of war, and thereby create the security
    and order necessary for man to enjoy rights. Thus government is
    something good created from the chaos and war of the natural state.

    It
    is easy to see how this idea in essence is corrupt. If man is inherently
    evil or at least frequently degenerates into thievery, fraud, violence
    and murder, how can people rely on a government created and run
    by men? The simple answer is they can not. Bad people cannot be
    trusted if they are alone, and the same must still be true if they
    create a government through which to rule other people.

    As
    Lord Acton pointed out, "power corrupts" and the corrupt
    people are the ones most likely to seek power. (Other people don't
    need to rule others in order to achieve their dreams or lead their
    lives as they see fit.) Government is therefore never to the good
    of the ruled, but is always, sooner or later, being turned to protect
    and maximize the good of the rulers — at the cost of the ruled.

    Since
    government is inherently evil, libertarians strive to either limit
    its size and power or abolish it completely. As I will show, the
    concept of limiting the powers of government is corrupt in one or
    many ways. There are really only two alternatives compatible with
    reality: government or no government. (And as we will see the former
    is as controllable by a few men as the latter.)

    The
    theories of limited government usually revolve around the idea of
    a constitution or contract between the people and the government,
    or rather: the ruled and the rulers. The idea of such a contract
    is sound and has a long history in political philosophy (see e.g.
    John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau about the "social contract").
    But the very nature of contract speaks against its use in political
    philosophy as legitimization for or limitation of the state.

    The
    essence of contract is the voluntary agreement between two equal
    parties. This voluntary nature makes the contract the foundation
    and essential part of the marketplace, where people come together
    to exchange values. The voluntary nature guarantees (because it
    rationally leads to) that all parties are better off from every
    single contract — or they would choose not to be part of it.

    The
    most fundamental part of contract is thus its voluntary nature.
    Both parties have to be equal in the face of the contract for it
    to be considered a contract. It is not possible to establish contracts
    in this sense between unequal parties. (If one party can easily
    escape the obligations stated in the contract, or simply annul it,
    through the use of coercion or violence against the other party
    the contract will be meaningless.) Is it possible to establish a
    contract between a government and its subjects? Obviously not, since
    the government claims the right to enforce the contract according
    to its own interpretations. If there has been a breach of
    contract is generally (sooner or later) established in state courts.

    Even
    under state law it is not considered a valid contract if one of
    the parties is coerced against by the other party. "Your signature
    or your life" is not how contracts are established in the marketplace.
    "Sign this [social] contract or get out of my sight (but leave
    your property behind)" is also not a valid contract since it
    is based on coercion.

    But
    in a Hobbesian sense it is possible to establish a contract between
    equal and free men to create a government (when there is
    none). Giving up your rights in return for something else, if done
    voluntarily, is as valid as any other contract in the marketplace.
    The problem arises with the next generation of people living in
    the area, who most likely are subject to the same government's laws
    but never signed the contract. Either they are forced to subjection
    by the government (no contract) or they are free to choose whether
    to subject to its rule, which means you can contractually opt in
    to (but never opt out of) government rule.

    As
    we can see there is a fundamental flaw to the theory of limited
    government. Such an agreement between the people and government
    cannot be contractual unless every individual is born outside
    the realms of government (i.e., in anarchy) and then freely chooses
    to "opt in." This is however seldom the case in limited
    government theories, where the possibility to escape the guns of
    government at best is a theoretical possibility to "opt out,"
    which means you are automatically subjected to government rule when
    born. There can thus be no contractual limitation to government
    according to the nature of contract.

    But
    let's look at the practical arguments for limited government. Statist
    libertarians do not always claim there needs to be an explicit [voluntary]
    contract between the people and government. The purpose of "proper"
    government is only to protect everybody's natural rights from being
    violated, to uphold justice, to be the final arbiter in conflicts.
    According to this argument there is no need for government to establish
    individual contracts with everybody subjected to its rule, since
    it only protects their rights. No rights are ever violated by this
    monopolistic justice services organization (unless you try to supply
    the same kind of service), which powers are strictly limited to
    acting as agency of [automatically] delegated self-defense and arbiter
    in conflicts.

    The
    problem of this approach to social engineering in the practical
    dimension we are here examining lies in the distinction between
    contract and government. The limitations of government
    and its powers (constitution) are not limitations in reality, since
    there is nothing in reality itself (i.e., without human action)
    to limit these powers. And we cannot rely on a god to decide what
    government can and cannot do. Government is the creation of men
    to protect people from abusive actions of men, and its powers are
    and necessarily have to be defined, enforced, and limited by men.

    This
    leaves only two alternatives for the supervision and control of
    government. Either the powers of government are controlled and interpreted
    by government itself or by some power to which government is subjected.
    We have already established that government is a structure relying
    on force, which is why there can be no contractual basis for its
    limitations. There can be no [voluntary] contracts between unequal
    parties (in the sense: equal parties of the contract).

    If
    government is to interpret its own limitations and protect its subjects
    from its own actions (where not within the limits stated) the potential
    threat or problem is obvious. As the example of the United States
    shows, such a constitutional structure is likely to be used as a
    sanction for expanding, not binding, the powers of government.

    Given
    that a government of men created by men can only be limited through
    the actions of men, the actions of government will always be the
    actions of the men in government. The reasons for such men not
    to increase their own (i.e., government's) power are not many and
    not obvious. Even if the founders of government were to be relied
    on, it is most likely that corrupt men will aim for and become part
    of government at some time in the future.

    Government
    will in time tend to serve the people acting as government rather
    than the people subject to government. Since government is the ultimate
    power in society (which, in a sense, is the purpose of government
    to begin with), there will be no one having the power to object
    to such development. And there will be no one with the power to
    force the unleashed government back into its limited shape.

    Some
    call for democracy and the "will of the people" to serve
    as such a power to control the guns of government. This is a version
    of the second alternative, where someone or something theoretically
    and practically is to monitor the actions and powers of government
    so that it will not be allowed to run riot. Such a structure where
    a monitor of government is to control that the latter's actions
    correspond to the constitution (the restraints) leads to an immediate
    problem: who is to monitor the monitors? And then: who is to monitor
    the monitors of the monitors? And so on ad infinitum.

    The
    solution to this problem, at least in theory, is to create a circle
    of monitoring where the monitor monitors power, and power in turn
    monitors the monitor. Such a scheme, where the people are subjected
    to, but at the same time the monitors of government (usually through
    the system of democracy), has been tried in multiple societies through
    history.

    The
    most sophisticated examples of this approach have realized the vast
    powers of the guns of government and tried to divide government
    into multiple separate and separated parts to make the people and
    government closer to equal parties. Such a scheme is of course more
    likely to succeed in restraining government from growing, but history
    shows that it is not enough. The United States is again a good example
    of how a sophisticated attempt to delimit the powers of government
    through a power-dividing scheme has eventually failed. The "perfect"
    state of the Roman Empire, as described by Cicero, is another great
    failure.

    No
    matter what scheme is used to make government less powerful compared
    to the voting public, the guns of government cannot be stopped from
    growing and apprehending roles it was not intended for. The most
    important reason for this is in the very nature of government: it
    is an organization based upon the use of force and with the sole
    purpose to use that force. When force is institutionalized and legitimized
    there is no limiting its reach. What one can do is to stay out of
    its way or become part of the elite which controls it. Either way
    liberty is lost. The alternatives for society compatible with reality
    are only: government or no government.

    February
    11, 2005

    Per Bylund [send him mail]
    is a master’s student in political science at Lund University in
    southern Sweden. He is the founding editor of The
    Swedish Libertarian Forum
    and runs Anarchism.net.

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