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That Government Is Best That Governs Not At All

• John Sampson

The great American experiment of a perfected and limited civil government has gone terribly wrong. All but the most ardent statists now accept this. Many feel that drastic reform is needed. Others feel the present system is just too corrupt and the present beneficiaries too firmly entrenched for any meaningful improvement ever to take place. If that is so, then what is to follow? Some advocate the libertarian position of minarchism, that civil government should be small and strictly limited. But minarchism appears to have two major deficiencies. One is that the definition of "small" is arbitrary and is susceptible of gradually escalating inclusions as to what constitutes legitimate government activity. The other is that government by its very nature cannot be limited. As I have earlier pointed out, if civil government were somehow susceptible to earthly control, the entity exercising that control would in reality be the "government", and of course, that entity would not be susceptible to earthly control. The attribute of sovereignty is inherent in the institution of government. Thus the concept of "limited government" is a contradiction.

Is there no way out of this conundrum? There indeed is. It involves the concept of true self-government. Various names have been suggested for this alternative method of human organization. These names include such things as spontaneous order, the Non-Aggression Principle, and most commonly, anarchism. There appears to be some considerable reluctance on the part of many to accept the principle of spontaneous order. I believe a large part of this reluctance is due to the fact that we have allowed the advocates of statism to seize and occupy the rhetorical high ground. Thus, it is said, the supporters of a spontaneous order of social interaction are referred to as unrealistic, wild-eyed utopians. We are impossibly idealistic and ignore the lessons of history that humans, unrestrained, will prey upon one another until all is consumed in an orgy of destruction. I think it is high time the supporters of spontaneous order turn the tables, call a spade an spade, and appeal to the truly undecided as to which position has the most merit.


5 Comments in Response to

Comment by Keith Hamburger
Entered on:

 The limited government of the United States didn't last 75 years, it didn't even last a decade after the signing of the Constitution.  Washington, himself, sent troops into Western Pennsylvania with threats of killing in order to collect taxes.

Marbury v Madision was an enormous power grab by the federal government taking away the limitations provided by the states and the people.

The Constitution was an usurpation of the country by the power elites. It was adopted illegally under the current law, the Articles of Confederation, and concentrated power in the hands of a few at the expense of any sort of limitations.  The Constitution was a repudiation of the principles of the Declaration and the Revolution.

Read some Lysander Spooner.  He felt we lived under tyranny even before Lincoln came to power.  If that was tyranny, what do we have today?

Government can never be limited.  Our 230+ year experiment has proven that.  Either you have no government or you have what we do today.

And, what is the worship with large states?  Perhaps anarchy can't work with huge conglomerations of people but who says that we need to include some 300 million within a single grouping?

Go ahead and have your government, if you want.  Just leave me out of it.  So long as secession is a possibility, even down to the individual, and you forget the idea of tyranny of geography, that's close enough to freedom for me.

Keith Hamburger


Comment by Brian Stanley
Entered on:

"The editors of FP keep trying to sell the possibility of a country with no government."

I'll take DW's word for it, and without knowing whether the editors of FP would ratify the statement, or what significance "the editors of FP" might have, beyond this little corner of cyberspace, I'll try to reframe the question as one of more general importance.

Are consistent "libertarians" really just anarchists who are not very well read?

Or to put it another way, does a true libertarian have to believe (or at least fervently hope) that the state will wither away?

Or yet another way, is there a plausible (libertarian) formulation of the desirable, or at least acceptable, minimum government, which does not equal no government?

Or yet another way, can an American be an intellectually respectable libertarian and still oppose the immediate sale of the National Parks?

Comment by Brian Stanley
Entered on:

Can it be?  Have I fled from "Republicans for an Imperial and Semi-Inheritable Presidency" only to stumble across some true "Libertarians for Slavery"?

J.W. Booth's paranoid fantasy (i.e., Lincoln as an evil, liberty-hating tyrant) is the embodiment of plausibility, though, next to the notion of a bloodless Russian Revolution.  Even if you're only talking about the abdication of Nicholas and declaration of a Provisional Government: (a.) technically, it wasn't a revolution; (b.) it was not, in fact, completely bloodless; and (c.) what the disastrous history of the Kerensky government, and the consequent deaths of 10 million or so in the real Russian Revolution, do show is that politics matter, and inept liberal (note the small "L") politics can matter very much.


Comment by Don Wills
Entered on:

With regard to the second argument by Sampson, of course government can be limited. We did a pretty good job of it for the first 75 years of our republic, that is until Lincoln decided to ignore all the rules and the victors of that tragedy changed the fundamental compact between the states. If Sampson's argument that government can't be limited is true, then how did the USA even come into existence? Answer - Revolution is the time tested way of controlling, destroying and replacing tyrannical governments. And sometimes it even happens without violence (cf. the USSR).

Comment by Don Wills
Entered on:

Bah! Simply more anarchist wishful thinking that is unrelated to reality.

Sampson writes "But minarchism appears to have two major deficiencies. One is that the definition of "small" is arbitrary and is susceptible of gradually escalating inclusions as to what constitutes legitimate government activity. The other is that government by its very nature cannot be limited."

Both "arguments" are ridiculous. So what if not everyone agrees what exactly is small. The human condition is different from Aristotilean logic which includes only true or false values; humanity thrives in grey - partial truths, almost truths, almost never truths, etc. "I know small when I see it" is sufficient to measure small; and yes, what the USA has now is not small.

The editors of FP keep trying to sell the possibility of a country with no government. Such a state of affairs is not possible in a nation one thousandth the size of the USA. Not for 500 years. I live in the real world. Anarchists live somewhere else.

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