Number 89, September 11, 2000

Defining Government

by by Carl Bussjaeger

Special to TLE

I thought I had a pet peeve.

Well, really I have quite a few; I'm an opinionated SOB. But there's one thing in particular that's been bugging me, and I've finally realized that it's much more than a simple personal foible.


No the usual, run-of-the-mill, libertarian dislike of the mechanism of the State; but the use of the term "government" as an all-inclusive word for anything but chaos.

What brought this on? Oh, yet another discussion of government, with the usual government apologetics. Specifically, the claim that "government" can somehow be good because families "govern" (and who wants to be anti-family?) and responsible individuals are "self-governing".

Bull. The three conditions - State, Family, and Individual - are very different things, and using the one word "government" to describe all three is to fall into the statist semantic trap: things equal to one thing are equal to each other.

One of the silliest things I've heard recently is an interesting distortion of the idea that Government is not synonymous with Society (which ought to be self-evident to anyone higher on the evolutionary scale than the common grapefruit); to whit - Government is not synonymous with State. Therefore, an "uncoercive" government is acceptable, a good thing.

Excuse me while I go puke.

Right. I'm back now.

Okay, let's take a look at the ol' Merriam-Webster for a minute:

government -
authoritative direction or control:rule
2:the making of policy
3:the organization or agency through which a political unit exercises authority
4:the complex of institutions, laws, and customs through which a political unit is governed
5:the governing body

Now, 1 and 2 are pretty general, and can mean damned near anything. This is how folks try to slip Family and Individual into the class of government; but it doesn't wash. If you take the definition as a whole, instead of picking and choosing the pieces you want to play with, it's rather obvious that government is an institution intended to rule over a collection of people.

What's that from the peanut gallery? You say, "But that's what a family does"? Not quite. Take another look at that definition. Do you see any cut-off point, a demarcation beyond which rule does not extend? I didn't think so.

Yes, the parents, or whatever head of the family is in place, does exert control over their children. But the function of a family is not to rule. A proper family simply raises and cares for its own until those individuals can fend for themselves as functional adult individuals. The "rule" of incompetent children (don't get excited; this only means young folks who are not yet capable of fending for themselves) by the supposedly competent parents isn't the point; it's merely a tool meant to allow the children to survive long enough that such rule is no longer necessary. A family which extends rule indefinitely, without the intent of ending the rule, is dysfunctional.

But when we use the same word to mean the operation of the family to produce free individuals and the acts of the State to control individuals indefinitely, we blur the line between the two. Folks who fail to properly differentiate between the conditions come to mistakenly believe that they must be the same. Which brings us to the socialist point of believing that it is the proper role of the State/government to take care of its extended family - the citizenry. Or that a right-thinking individual should cede his self-determination (note that term) to the State. After all, aren't they the same thing?

Now, about those free individuals, theoretically capable of making their own choices (moi, and hopefully you, too). It's popular among many people to call them "self-governing". I beg to differ; individuals are self-governing only in the sense of the first parts of the definition of government - control and policy-setting for self.

But if you stop there, you're just as bad as the victim disarmament goons who want to create a safe working environment for criminals by only reading the part of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which says, "A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State". Damn it, read and apply the whole definition (and the whole Second Amendment, for that matter); it's about control of an entire political unit. External control imposed on the people by the State. Some may welcome the control, some may (and damned well do) disparage it; but it's there.

Self-government is a ridiculous term. Quite aside from the fact that there are other terms available to describe the state of rational adulthood - free will, self-determining, sovereign, free, and autonomous all spring to mind - we run into a similar problem as in the family/government confusion. A "self-governed", if you must use the term, person is free, rational, and responsible to and for himself (yes, I realize that's somewhat redundant; but it bears repeating). But the State/Government isn't based upon ruling itself; Government rules those individuals who should be making their own decisions. Using the same word to describe both a free person and a State that would treat that person as its child blurs the line between the two. This is how supposed adults in late 20th century America have come to believe that a rational, responsible adult should look to a paternalistic government to make their choices for them.

To speak of an individual as self-governing, imposing external control upon himself as a political collection of people is ... bizarre. An individual living like this is schizophrenic at best, and quite possibly psychotic. A healthy individual simply makes his own choices and deals with the consequences. He does not pretend to be two or more people, one in charge and the other subservient. He is simply free, not governed.

State, Family, and Individual are three very different conditions. A lack of chaos is their common ground. Each avoids chaos through different mechanisms (which admittedly also have some common features): The State Governs; the Family Raises, and the Individual is Free.

But Statists love it when you acquiesce to use the same terminology for all three. It causes folks disinclined to independent thought to believe that the proper role of a governing State is to care for its extended family, the citizens, from cradle to grave; teaching them to be free means teaching them to continue to rely on the State. Incompetent minors come to believe that they are automatically free Individuals, bypassing upraising, while parents delegate their responsibility to raise those children to the State (largely through public schools, in actual practice). Free Individuals cede their free will to the State (and sometimes Families), believing it to be a rational decision to be controlled and cared for in perpetuity.

That said, another flawed application of "government" is clubs and other voluntary associations, such as a contract freely entered. I've heard such associations called "voluntary government".

I could cry. Government controls. Period. A contract which one had the choice to sign or decline, or a club you didn't have to join, doesn't govern. A contract or club may have guidelines, commonly called rules, but they only extend to those who agree to abide by them. When they become unacceptable, you can break the contract or quit the club; the guidelines don't control you, forcing you to stay.

Government does so force you. Government controls; not allowing you to opt out. Generally, opting in is not voluntary either.

The two are different, damn it. The State governs, controls. Voluntary associations are just that ... Voluntary associations; there is no need to pretend they are the same thing, to use the same words to describe them.

This control illustrates a defining characteristic of Government: Coercion. The State Governs, controls, whether you want it or not. You have no choice; the State tells you what to do.

A club guides or suggests. If you don't like it, you can walk away and find another club, or sign a new contract. A voluntary association can't very well coerce you into doing something; that's a basic contradiction. (And any group that does try to so coerce people is trying to be a Government, a State.)

So here's a more straightforward definition of government:

1:coercive control imposed upon individuals from without
2:the State which exerts such control

Any questions?

Next to advance to the next article, or
Previous to return to the previous article, or
Table of Contents to return to The Libertarian Enterprise, Number 89, September 11, 2000.