Essentials of Panarchism

Panarchism is a new political philosophy that builds upon and extends the core concept of consent of the governed, which goes back primarily to John Locke. Consent of the governed is a concept that permeated revolutionary America. It appears in Article 6 of the Virginia Bill of Rights. It appears in the Essex Result. Benjamin Franklin wrote "In free governments the rulers are the servants and the people their superiors and sovereigns." The Declaration of Independence asserts that "Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."

Panarchism proposes a comprehensive extension of liberty to the consensual choice of government itself, in form and content. It proposes government by consent for any persons who arrange such government for themselves. Conversely, it proposes that a government has no authority over any persons who do not consent to it.

Panarchy is a condition of human relations in which each person is at liberty to choose his own social and political governance without being coerced. Panarchy means that persons may enter into and exit from social and political relations freely. It means that government exists only with the consent and by the consent of the governed.

Panarchism has new conceptions of what a people who are governed, a government, and consent mean. These give rise to a new conception of the nonterritorial State and revised ideas about sovereignty and authority. By viewing government as nonterritorial, panarchism reorients the movement for liberty away from destroying the governments that others may prefer and toward obtaining the governments that each of us may prefer.

Free persons in a free society already practice a degree of panarchy. By individual consent, they associate with those whom they wish to associate with (and who wish to associate with them), and they do not associate with others. By choice, they vary their associations by time, place, duration, and other dimensions. They choose companions, places to live, workplaces, clubs, and churches on the basis of individual consent rendered in a noncoercive social context. Free persons form consensual organizations, associations, and groups. They form themselves into sub-societies and "peoples," which are groups of persons that, via individual consent, willingly aggregate on various grounds and interests. In doing so, they create multiple coexisting forms of governance whose basis is not territorial (although it may optionally be so) but relational.

Panarchism proposes that panarchy be extended to government (or functions of government) in the same way that it is already present in society. Let persons be free to form peoples and to choose their own forms of government.

Why? Because consent today is too limited to allow a meaningful sovereignty of people. Because the rulers have become the sovereign and the people their servants. Because complex systems of voting and parties have diluted consent to the vanishing point. Because would-be peoples are thwarted from forming. Liberty does not mean a vote for one of two parties that runs a single monopoly government. It means active consent over the very form, as well as the content, of one’s governing relations.

Why panarchism? Because in today’s governing relations, we find ourselves living under distant States and governments whose form is not of our choosing. Because the planet is blanketed with States and governments that too often deliver injustice, insecurity, disorder, waste, misery, death, and destruction, as States and governments historically have done. Because States and governments focus and amplify power, using it for purposes that many of us do not believe in. And because governments today legitimate and encourage contentious struggles for domination where one group’s gains is another group’s loss, and where the struggles absorb more and more resources and divert energy from productive to unproductive uses.

The liberty that is basic to panarchy promises a better way of life, by extending to each of us the capacity to engage in the social and political relations of our own choosing in accord with our own beliefs. Since persons will not freely consent to governments whose decisions in the main leave them, by their own estimation, worse off, the free choice of government will provide the kind of check-and-balance on government failures and misdeeds that is a critical missing element of today’s political arrangements.

Panarchy envisages many possible societies and sub-societies across a land, region, or province. There need not be a single sovereign authority that imposes law on all, unless it happens to be by consent. In panarchy, multiple and diverse sources of self-chosen sovereignty coexist side-by-side, each finding its source of legitimacy from the consent of those who are willing to place themselves within a particular set of governing relations. People freely place themselves within multiple non-territorial governing associations, as contrasted with finding themselves assigned by authorities on a geographical basis.

The American revolutionaries blazed a trail toward nonterritorial government when they called for consent of the governed, but they simultaneously veered away from that trail. Just as they skirted the slavery question, they skirted the issues of what constituted a people, a legitimate government, consent, and secession. Article 14 of the Virginia Declaration of Rights sought "to maintain Virginia’s sovereignty over its restless, far-flung western counties." It proclaimed "That the people have a right to uniform government; and, therefore, that no government separate from, or independent of the government of Virginia, ought to be erected or established within the limits thereof." This particular territorial idea of government was justified by a false appeal to a mythical right to uniform government, in order to prevent the formation of West Virginia. Some 85 years later, West Virginia, which for decades had many sound reasons not to be governed by Richmond, finally seceded from Virginia.

Little has changed. Despite hundreds of breakaway and secession movements worldwide, the territorial notion of government has not changed. Indeed, many such movements themselves view government as territorial. American federalism has become nationalism. Governments of today are making societies over, based upon claims of legitimate authority that are less rooted in consent than in territorial claims of rulership.

The idea of government needs to be severed from the idea of the territorial State and from the notion that the government of such a State is all that government is or can be. Since the State is single, territorial, and coercive, such an idea views government as single, territorial, and coercive. The territorial idea supports States in place. It empties consent of all real meaning and replaces it by the machinations of meaningless votes, party politics, lobbying, redistricting, power, and campaign money flows. The territorial idea of government without consent dooms mankind to living without one of the most basic liberties, which is the liberty to choose one’s government.

It is a mistake to identify government as the executive and administrative means of the monopoly State. When those who are pro-State do this, it leaves little or no room for those who do not consent and wish to live by their own forms of government. When those who are anti-State do this, they become anti-government, a position that does not allow those who want various forms of their own government to exercise their choices.

Government is the social coordination of human personal interactions. To the extent that human beings interact with one another, government is thus inescapable. Advocates of no government, unless they eschew all social interaction, can no more live without government than can statists. But the necessity of government does not imply that government must be nonconsensual and territorial. We have an alternative to living under a single territorial State that makes and enforces all sorts of rules, for all of us, all the time. Panarchy is that alternative.

We ourselves govern a vast range of human activities by consent, nonterritorially, and without the State. This was historically and is currently the case. Persons within human societies create governance from varied and multiple sources that include moral and ethical codes, custom, bodies of judge-discovered law, rules, principles, manners, religion, pacts, agreements, understandings, and contracts, as well as through a variety of instruments, institutions, and organizations that include family, associations, churches, schools, corporations, and business firms. Society, in this sense, which is really many interpenetrating and diverse societies, already reflects a high degree of panarchy. Societies everywhere already employ panarchy as a beneficial principle of social organization and order.

Panarchism proposes extending panarchy further. It stands for a world in which people live by the governing relations of their choice while abiding by the decisions of their neighbors to live by theirs. A society with such liberty will hold together in the same ways that societies have always held together: through a complex network of shared values, beliefs, ways, language, and other commonalities that are put to work through self-interest that is expressed in individual, associational, and cooperative endeavors. It will hold together better than today’s societies because the nonconsensual government that fertilizes today’s constant political and economic battles, rebellions, and civil wars will have been reduced.

Different people understand freedom and liberty in different ways, and even when they agree, they place different values on liberty. One woman may choose to labor for another for a wage, while another may regard wage-labor as slavery. One man may allow himself to be inducted into an army, while another may look upon the draft as slavery. These different ideas of good and bad government can coexist in panarchy. Liberty and government are not at mutually exclusive poles. Abolishing government per se does not bring liberty for all. Abolishing government and replacing it with one’s own personal vision of liberty does not bring liberty for all. Liberty for all entails the capacity for all to choose their own governments. In panarchy, men and women are free to be unfree (in the eyes of others) to any desired degree. They may enter into many different kinds of governing relations. This sets panarchy apart from political conceptions that deny them the choice of State and government. Panarchists do not attempt to smash the governments others want. They deny no one the freedom to be unfree. However, they deny others (and their States and governments) the freedom to make them unfree.

Once we open up our thinking on the question of what government is, we can get away from the idea of "a government" and "the government." Government is a set of functions that can be identified. Change is not a question of today’s government or none. There are all sorts of intermediate possibilities.

National governments have absorbed major functions such as old age security, aid to the indigent, and health care from civil society and local government. They have done so via complex majority rules and voting procedures that circumvented consent of the governed. Governments across the world often suppress minorities of many kinds. The imposition of nation-wide rules discriminates against and suppresses all those who do not consent and who do not want their government to handle certain critical issues. Medicare, for example, involves a taking and a wealth transfer. This kind of program could become nonterritorial and consensual. Mr. K can subscribe to a plan and belong to a government that deducts from his wages, while Mr. J need not. They can be neighbors and do this.

Many of today’s government functions can remain in place for those who want them while making them voluntary for those who do not. The idea in these cases is not to end government but make it consensual. Vast amounts of regulation of labor relations, energy, education, health, and welfare are such that one neighbor can live without certain rules even if his neighbor wants them. Instead of attempting to take Medicare away or attempting to persuade voters to vote it down, which plays the game of accepting monopoly and territorial government, panarchism goes at the problem of lack of consent and unjust powers of government in a different way. Let those who want Medicare have it; let those who don’t withdraw. Panarchism seizes the moral high ground. Why should those who don’t want Medicare be impressed into it by those who do? Isn’t this like making everyone belong to the same church? How can there be consent of the governed when we are herded, whether we like it or not, into programs that affect our lives in major ways?

Coordination problems involving human interaction are not going to disappear. The reform of government even where coordination issues are not at issue may well be difficult. Panarchism does not deny these difficulties. It sets out a just and peaceful destination that can be achieved peaceably, which is a future of reform in which the State abandons its territorial claims. This may happen little by little. It may happen by degrees. It may happen partially and gradually, or it may happen by leaps. Consensual and nonconsensual government are likely to continue to exist alongside one another for some time. Reforms, small and large, are unpredictable. They are for people themselves to advance and accomplish. Every step that people take, peaceful and nonaggressive, toward devising and living by their own government is a step toward more complete panarchy and greater liberty.

The helpful comments of Adam Knott and John Zube are gratefully acknowledged, but all errors herein are solely mine.