Monday, March 22, 2010

Roots of Government

Government is coercive. Concentrated application of force is what government is for.

I imagine two stories for how government arises. The first is government as the embodiment of the social contract, where the contract in question is not figurative or proverbial, but literal. According to this story, government is chartered through an agreement among parties to defer power to an enforcer. This is the process by which townships of the old west incorporated, and hired a mayor to attend to administer the activities of government and a sheriff to physically enforce law and order. The people of the town authorized the government explicitly, and explicitly agreed to be subject to the law and to the officers who carried it out. They further participated in government through town hall meetings and by bearing arms in the defense of the law as deputies.

This same kind of government can be found in clubs and private organizations, and in businesses. The fact that in this story government originates in an agreement among the parties to be governed should not obscure the fact that the government is adopted specifically for the purpose of exercising coercion over the governed. Consider the freelance labor crew who wishes to maximize their profit. They may choose to hire a foreman who is brutally forceful, in order to ensure that every member of the crew works hard and no one is allowed to free ride.

In the second story of the origin of government, government is imposed on local people from outside of their own community, and without their consent. This is the feudalistic story of government, where small farming villages are robbed repeatedly by regional bandits. Eventually the theft becomes routine, and competent leadership among the bandits leads to a sustainable level of pillaging that doesn't destroy the farmer's ability to continue producing each year. Full-fledged feudalism is justified as protection of the serf class by the bandits, who claim that the bandits of the next fiefdom over are far more brutal than they are. So, a social contract-like mantle legitimizes the theft and coercion.

In both of these stories, government exists for the purpose of exercising force.More particularly, it is for the purpose of imposing the will of a powerful coalition, who may be a majority or may simply be a sufficiently powerful elite, upon the rest of the society. The townsfolk impose law and morality upon the lawless and the eccentric, the crew of laborers impose hard work upon the lazy, and the bandits impose taxation upon the serfs. The difference is in what fraction of the population is represented by the government, and what fraction is victimized by it.


  1. Rather an anarchistic take on government. I think an additional difference is what the point of the government is: while force is applied in both scenarios, in the first scenario it is applied primarily to protect the rights of the citizens who formed the government, while the second scenario it is formed to obtain money an protect the power of the thugs.

  2. Anarchistic? I think I can understand why you say that, but I don't agree. I haven't argued against government altogether, or suggested that government has no legitimate role. But, government does serve the purposes of some and marginalizes the purposes of others - and that is expressly its raison d'etre.

    But I am interested in the question of whether government is necessary, and whether it is effective.