Demystifying Government and State Exceptionalism

Whenever I bring up the idea of a world without government to someone who doesn’t already agree with me (i.e. just about everyone), there is an immediate backlash, as though I am personally attacking that individual’s inner child.

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From a young age, we are taught that the world works a certain way. Police are our friendly neighborhood helpers, there to save the day. Government functions to keep us safe from unscrupulous businessmen. Without government, who would build the roads?

These ideas are drilled into our head so often, from so young, and on such a basic level that most people will go through their entire lives without questioning them. Take this 3rd grade               government study guide from Ohio:

 

It’s like they aren’t even trying to hide the propaganda anymore! If we are receiving this kind of message from a very young age, it’s no wonder most people have such wild and unrealistic ideas about the government.

Ever since Plato, there has been this idea, perhaps somewhere in our collective unconscious, that government is a unique institution that possesses certain abilities that we as individuals do not have. When I refer to abilities here, I don’t mean legal abilities; people actually view the government as some entity that is capable of performing actions that free individuals simply cannot.

This State Exceptionalism is utterly absurd. It becomes quite clear once you take a moment to actually think about what government is, as opposed to the pre-programmed concept of government that comes with any elementary school education in this country.

When you think of a “government”, a “state”, or a “nation”, what do you think of? What does it mean to you? I’ve asked this question to a lot of people, and not one of them has given me an answer that would justify their belief in State Exceptionalism.

There are a few answers that I do hear over and over, and I’d like to dispense with them here. Answers tend to involve some mixture of geography, some vague notion of nationality/community or national identity,  and some vague notion of political process or the constitution.

 

Geography

Geography is the easiest to respond to, and most people recognize that by itself, this does not make a government legitimate or explain State Exceptionalism. Most reasonable definitions of government will include some idea of control over a specific geographic area.

Certainly this is true in most places today, but even geography is not a necessary feature of the state. If, as Franz Oppenheimer argues, the earliest governments were formed by nomadic hunters subjugating and taking tribute from peasants, then the geography becomes much harder to define. Is the state based on the territory of the peasants, or is it wherever the hunters are taking up camp at any given time?

But, even in the modern world, the geographic definition of the state is ill-defined. In fact, it is completely arbitrary. Look at how Middle Eastern and African states were divided as the Age of Imperialism “ended”. The borders, drawn up to serve the interests of European powers, were and are meaningless. And what about the various minor and major border disputes between just about every neighboring country in the world?

Finally, the state decides on its own geographic area and layout. Through wars, annexation, and rebellions, borders can shift rapidly. What makes the new or old borders justified? And what justifies the superiority of the Federal government over that of more local government? Or an individual household? Hell, we all live in the same geographic area if you zoom out far enough. Geography confers no legitimacy to a state.

 

National Identity

I also hear people say things along the lines of “We’re all Americans, and the government is an elected [sic] group of individuals who represent the will of the American People.”

This just kicks the can a little further down the road, because now we have to define things like “nationality”, or what it means to be an “American”/”Frenchman”/”European”/”New Jerseyan”/etc. Having asked many people to do this very thing, most definitions primarily invoke the idea of geography, or how “Americans” are the people who live in “America”, or some equally vague, circular idea.

But how wide of a net are we supposed to cast here? I’m from a town, a state, and a country (and a planet, solar system, and universe, even!), so you could define some “group” that I “belong” to based on any of these. In fact, it would be far more meaningful to use my hometown than to call me an “American”, as it is more specific. Surely I have more in common with people who grew up with me than someone on the other side of the country, right?

And besides, in a country as big as America (and even in much smaller countries), it is meaningless to say that we come from the same geographic area. If people as close as Northern and Southern NJ are different culturally, then how can we even compare East and West coast, or any of the many regions that comprise “America”?

As Michael Rozeff asks: “If there is an American nation, what characteristics of its members define it? If such characteristics actually exist, do they imply a government that each member is automatically required to accept?”

Wikipedia defines a nation as “People who share a common language, culture, ethnicity, descent, or history.” Can anyone honestly say this is true in America (or anywhere really)? The only characteristic that all “Americans” have in common is that we live in the same (wide) geographic area under the control of the same Federal government. Therefore, claiming that our “shared nationality” is a justification for government is circular.

 

Political Process and the Constitution

Because we are a “democracy”, we are entitled to behave in a certain way in world affairs, right? A democratic state can do no wrong!

Now, most people don’t actually phrase it that way in their minds; in fact (I do have to be fair), many of the most vocal supporters of (big) government will argue against the decisions carried out by the state apparatus on a regular basis. However, most of these people will readily submit to the decision, or at least consider it “legitimate”, because it happened through the “political process”, or something along those lines.

This is why you will hear things like: “I don’t support the war, but I support the troops,” “I didn’t vote for Obama, but the President is the President,” “Marijuana should be legalized, but it should be like alcohol; you must be 21, no smoking and driving, and it should be taxed and regulated for quality.”

If you didn’t support the institution of war, you wouldn’t support the troops. These people merely dislike the war in question, but view war in general as a completely legitimate enterprise. Similarly, if you didn’t vote for Obama, why would you submit to his “authority”? And when you believe marijuana should be heavily regulated (and illegal for those under 21), you are suggesting that government has the right to make the policies that it does. To you, its current legal status for individuals under 21 is perfectly legitimate and just! There is nothing wrong with ruining an innocent person’s life if done with “proper” procedures.

In all of these examples, the individual in question disagrees with a certain aspect of government, but accepts it because it was a decision carried out by the state apparatus. In other words, because we live in a “democratic republic” (or whatever form of government you happen to live under), state action is legitimate, having flowed out through a “legitimate democratic process”.

Baloney. First of all, if you honestly believe we have a well-functioning political system, you are naïve and sorely mistaken. What we have is nothing more than a powerful oligarchy dressed up in a way that is tolerable to the masses, without giving them any real power. But more importantly, there is no such thing as a legitimate democratic process, representative government, or anything like that.

Let’s do a little math regarding representative government (ß short article, go read it). There are 535 members of Congress. These are the people “we” have “elected” to represent us as legislators in the U.S. government. As I write this, there are approximately 318 million Americans. That means that each member of Congress “represents” 594,392 people, on average. Sure, that seems totally reasonable.

Of course, that’s not how the American system works. It’s broken down by state, so that the average conceals wide variations in representation. Some Congressmen might be representing a million individuals, while others represent only 100,000. Does this seem fair to you? Does that make any sense whatsoever?

And what about elections? The winner has to represent those who voted for AND against them (as well as the largest group, those who didn’t vote at all). A tall order for sure, since it seems rather challenging to represent people with different and often mutually exclusive views. In the vast majority of elections, the winner didn’t even receive votes from half of the people they claim to represent!

Consider these voting statistics taken from the census website. Between 1932-2010, the highest voter turnout for any Presidential election was 62.8%, and Congressional elections were even less. Usually the turnout was significantly less than that, but for our purposes right now, let’s say 70% of the population actually votes. If the winning candidate receives 60% of the vote, which is a landslide compared to the typical distribution, then the winner of the election only received support from 42% of the population. With more realistic numbers, the “winner” of most Presidential elections would receive votes from less than 30% of eligible voters (but of course, they claim to represent and use their power to lord over people who aren’t eligible to vote either). Does this sound like representation? Does this sound like consent of the governed?

But what about the Constitution, you ask? Besides the fact that the Constitution has not stopped politicians from violating our freedoms (the fourth amendment reads as a joke nowadays, and, well, so do the rest), there is no basis for its authority anyways. It really is just “a piece of paper.”

There’s no reason why a constitution would provide any true legitimacy to a state. It is a product of the state that it is designed to restrict, and is interpreted and enforced by the same state. Saying that a constitution can make the state exceptional or justify it in any way is merely begging the question.

I never signed up to agree to any constitution. In fact, no one has. The Constitution has no authority.

 

So…What Is Government, Then?

The state is an institution generally defined as the monopoly of legitimate force in a given geographic area. Of course, in this definition, the idea of legitimacy is assumed.

A similar definition that avoids this problem, and thus is far preferable, comes from the sociologist Franz Oppenheimer. He defined the state as the institutionalized use of the “political means”. This is as opposed to the “economic means”, or through actual production. The political means is force and fraud. In other words, the state is a parasitic institution, leeching resources from the underclass of productive individuals.

But even this definition doesn’t explicitly call out (although it strongly implies) what I think is the most important aspect of government: it is just another group of people.

That’s it. Just like any other group, club, institution, team, etc., the government is merely a word used to describe a subset of individual people. These people are just like you and me; they have the same rights, shortcomings, and incentives as anyone else. They have no superpowers. There is nothing mystical or magical about them.

All individuals, government employee or otherwise, have the same rights as each other. These rights imply certain obligations upon other people. For example, my right to life gives you an obligation not to murder me. You can only grant others rights that you yourself had in the first place. So I can’t “give” you the right to my friend’s speakers, only they can. And if you don’t have the right to murder and steal, you can’t grant agency to the government to do it for you.

A state, therefore, cannot have the “right” to start an aggressive war, to institute a draft, to tax, or, well, to do anything that it does. The state’s raison d’être is the violation of rights (political means).

Government power rests solely on the legitimacy that people grant it in their minds. There is nothing exceptional about the state, and it should be treated and thought of as exactly what it is: a parasitic and corrupt organized crime ring.

Note: This is only the tip of the iceberg. I have a lot more to say about this subject, including a discussion of the ideas of “public goods” and “externalities”, among others. Stay tuned.

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