21 December 2009

No Society Without Government

Gordon S. Wood's Empire of Liberty arrived in my mail last week. It's a survey of U.S. history from 1789-1815 from one of the major modern historians of the period. Reading an early chapter, it occurred to me that people in the founding generation suffered from a fundamental fallacy. They made a distinction between "society" and "government." As Wood puts it: "The most liberal-minded of the eighteenth century...tended to see society as beneficent and government as malevolent." He quotes Thomas Paine: "Society is produced by our wants and government by our wickedness." Idealists of the age believed that society could do without government. They believed that humans had an instinct towards a harmonious society that was only disrupted by the "artificial interference of government." If people properly developed their innate moral sense, the resulting societal harmony would make government superfluous.

When most 18th century people spoke of government, they were thinking of monarchies and aristocracies that had no rational basis as far as the most liberal-minded were concerned. If you see government as a king, you might naturally think of government as parasitic. But it makes no sense to think of government as something distinct from or alien to society, as if it only comes into being through acts of violent conquest. It makes even less sense today to dispute the legitimacy or necessity of government when some people deny the existence of society itself, taking the Thatcherite view that there are only individuals and families. Nor does it make sense to appeal to some instinctual harmony when today's social ideal for many people is competition. You cannot have harmonious competition unless you believe in divine providence, "spontaneous order" or some more superstitious version of Adam Smith's "invisible hand" that somehow works everything out for the best. Government may be all too vulnerable to usurpation by the powerful or cunning, but it is the people's, or society's, defense mechanism against too much or too intense competition. It expresses the people's desire for peace and, ideally, a commitment to pool resources for collective survival. Delegating the people's collective power always involves a risk, but denying it in the name of a dubious ideal of harmony of self-interests is also risky. We might be better off unlearning 200 years of rhetoric that taught that government was something done to us and remembering that government is for us to do together.

4 comments:

troutbirder said...

Exactly. I strongly recommend the last issue of Gentlemans Quarterly with a wonderful article on Ayn Rand and her adolescent followers of all ages.

d.eris said...

"no society without government"

And yet at the same time, government presupposes society for its legitimation in the form of the "consent of the governed."

Samuel Wilson said...

d., for "the governed" read "the people," not "society." The same acts of consent that create society also create and legitimize government.

Crhymethinc said...

Considering how high the violent crime rate is in this country, do you really think the average person would be better off without a form of government? Of course, there would be no criminals, since without government there are no laws. There would be no "rights", since there would be no body to authorize/guarantee/protect those rights. As long as human beings are imperfect and flawed beings, government is necessary. It only becomes a necessary "evil" when we allow dishonest, corrupt, amoral people to run the government.