Government and Conscience

In a post ‘debate’ interview today Daniel Ellsberg said got a letter from Edward Snowden recently. It was the US Constitution, Snowden signed it, adding a quote to this effect,

“The most dangerous man in government is a man with a conscience.”

Well said Snowden.

It’s not an argument for no government from Snowden, but Conscience lacking in many people, perhaps it is an argument for no government. The Constitution is great, but at the same time it isn’t. Constitutions can breed constitutional tyrants, “conscience” or no conscience, as Snowden, Ellsberg, and almost any rational ‘citizen’ will attest.

Abraham Lincoln was rational enough to get it half right in this regard, but at the same time he was also a fool, as this statement shows “…no man is good enough to govern another man, without the other’s consent.” He got it because “no man is good enough to govern another man.” He should have stopped there. However, in the same breath, Abe slips into unconsciousness like a fool because he’s dumb or just didn’t get it. That, or he agrees with Robert Nozick and the idea that you can sell yourself into slavery– meaning once you consent to be governed you are a slave to the “good” men as Abe says. Josiah Tucker puts Abe’s stupidity in this context: The consent theory of government is “The universal demolisher of all governments, but not the builder of any.” Wake up Abe, you essentially said government is slavery. Not a very honest way to express this…did you doze off?

Unlike Abe, Thoreau got it, “government is best which governs not at all.” (1) Elsewhere he says this Abe, listen up…“Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail. A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority.”

That’s because as Edward Abbey said, Anarchism is democracy taken seriously.”

HL Mencken: “It takes a special sort of man to understand and enjoy liberty — and he is usually an outlaw in democratic societies.”

“Democracy” has many ills, so what then if not Democracy? Maybe “d”emocracy?

How can we avoid the pitfalls of democracy (discussed here)? We can’t. We can soften them, but the ills will remain. There are two other options: consensus, and contracts. Democracy is the third best means, but its dangerous. I’m partial to Jeffersonian democratic-republicanism, but a step closer to the individualism of Benjamin Tucker, and Proudhon. I don’t think liberty is safe by way of representative democracy and centralized power.

A State monopoly breeds privilege, the power to trump individual liberty/autonomy, and as noted earlier a range of systemic issues in the means of that power: the vote itself, and the separation of actor and director once the acting begins. Furthermore, being that humans are by nature self-interested actors there is little hope that putting power in the hands of a representative will reap rewards for the so-called directors/voters sitting at home with interests different than those acting in government. Consider Snowden’s “conscience” quote again.

How do we “self-manage” interactions on a larger scale, i.e. society? How do we have a more horizontal framework? How do we balance individual and collective sovereignty when they can be at odds? The freedom to abstain? The freedom to withdraw from outcomes that impact the individual that must suffer them? How do we limit oppression, exploitation, and domination? We have four options to play with to address these questions:

  1. submit to the will of others (slave)
  2. subject others to your will (authority)
  3. socialize (associate)
  4. mix and match 1, 2, 3 (vote).
  • 1 and 2 are obviously related.
  • Representative democracy is 4, 2, 1, with little 3 other than casting a ballot.
  • Direct democracy is 4 and 3, and less 2, 1.
  • Consensus is 3 (not immune to 1, 2).
  • Contract is 3 (not immune to 1, 2).

No human system trying to balance freedom, or equality in freedom, will be without fault and defection, but to institute a centralized system with authority/hierarchy as the centerpiece will produce just that for the masses–conscience or not. Likewise, the masses are not going to make things better by returning the favor and imposing their will from the bottom onto others either. That’s tyranny too.

Long ago a man in France with conscience got it:

“To be GOVERNED is to be kept in sight, inspected, spied upon, directed, law-driven, numbered, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, estimated, valued, censured, commanded, by creatures who have neither the right, nor the wisdom, nor the virtue to do so . . . To be GOVERNED is to be at every operation, at every transaction, noted, registered, enrolled, taxed, stamped, measured, numbered, assessed, licensed, authorised, admonished, forbidden, reformed, corrected, punished. It is, under the pretext of public utility, and in the name of the general interest, to be placed under contribution, trained, ransomed, exploited, monopolised, extorted, squeezed, mystified, robbed; then, at the slightest resistance, the first word of complaint, to be repressed, fined, despised, harassed, tracked, abused, clubbed, disarmed, choked, imprisoned, judged, condemned, shot, deported, sacrificed, sold, betrayed; and, to crown it all, mocked, ridiculed, outraged, dishonoured. That is government; that is its justice; that is its morality.” Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, General Idea of the Revolution, p. 294

“When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross.” Sinclair Lewis

“…any man who takes the liberty of another into his keeping is bound to become a tyrant, and that any man who yields up his liberty, in however slight the measure, is bound to become a slave.” HL Mencken “Why Liberty?”, in the Chicago Tribune (30 January 1927)

Darian Worden expands on some of this here.

1.Possible reference to “The best government is that which governs least,” motto of the United States Magazine and Democratic Review,1837-1859, or “the less government we have, the better” – from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Politics”, 1844, sometimes mistakenly attributed to Jefferson – back

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