Friday, April 15, 2005

The Institution of Government

On a now not-so-recent train trip across the United States, I found myself defending my views on the institution of government to a self-styled intellectual. As is the case with such spontaneous confrontations, I don't remember much of what was said, nor do I care to. Rather, as soon as I figured out that I was talking to someone who believed that I had some sort of obligation or duty to the institution of government above and beyond my grudging submission to the authority of the powers that be, I did my best to beat a hasty retreat without outright capitulating to a viewpoint that I considered quite ignorant and ill informed. One talking point that I do remember was my assertion that I think of government as an "invisible friend" whom other people have that does not actually exist beyond the reified existence that other people give it.

The self-styled intellectual champion of government whom I encountered on the train was actually a very pleasant and charming woman until I challenged her world view with a few factual statements that she could not casually dismiss. I should have known better, but I didn't really anticipate that she would demonstrate such loyalty to the status quo, nor did I anticipate the fight or flight reaction that my words would inspire, a reaction that was actually very predictable under the rubric of cognitive dissonance theory. In essence, I told this woman that not only was the emperor wearing no clothes, but that the emperor himself was a figment of her imagination, and that the only reason that the emperor seemed so real to her is because she and everyone else she knew was sharing a common delusion.

Government is an arbitrary set of formal rules for social interaction that are agreed upon by the members of a particular culture, society, or group and/or the members of the ruling class that comprise the government. Even in the very limited context of modern government, the presumed legitimacy of many governmental bodies is frequently impeached by would-be reformers and/or revolutionaries. However, more often than not, new forms of government instituted by successful reformers and revolutionaries tend to resemble the forms of government that they replace. Consequently, many people assume that government as they know it is a natural and inevitable phenomenon.

Another reason why the institution of government is so commonly accepted as normal and natural is because cooperation among human beings who are part of the same community actually is normal and natural. Human beings are very social creatures who need each other to survive, and anyone who has ever been part of a small community knows this all too well. Indeed, the smallest group that has ever survived on its own for any appreciable period of time without outside human contact numbers at about 25 souls. Anything less than this creates problems with the division of labor for such necessary tasks as procreation, child care, and convalescence of the sick and injured. However, if and when a small community grows, factions will form and these factions will eventually split off and form their own communities. Alternatively, rival factions will simply kill each other off, and the community will shrink back down to a smaller number of souls. Meanwhile, new norms of social conduct will emerge to prevent splintering factions from arising in the future.

The social dynamics of cooperation, conflict, and resolution narrated above speak to the almost universal desire among human beings to conform to social norms and maintain the status quo. Notwithstanding this desire to conform and maintain the status quo, nature frequently intervenes in human affairs with a drought or some other cataclysmic climate change, thereby forcing people to revisit their well-established norms of social conduct. Moreover, the ever expanding world population has brought cultures that are totally exotic to one another into frequent contact and conflict, and "progress" has become a paradoxical norm in most of these societies, one which threatens the very fabric of the societies that it promises to improve. Nowhere is this sort of "progress" more obvious than when it comes to the formal institution of government.

Government as we know it in the modern world has a tendency to displace other, less formal social institutions that serve the same purposes. Indeed, notwithstanding its obvious shortcomings, the peculiar form of pluralist democracy that is the norm in the United States enjoys a semi-sacred status at home along with many places abroad, and the followers of this form of democracy tend to be the most predatory and unabashedly evangelical members of any social institution. Even so, it is only a matter of time before some other social institution makes democracy as we know it in the United States and other similar forms of modern government totally obsolete, and it is probably just as well: The institution of government has brought humanity to the brink of total annihilation, so perhaps it is time for humanity to seek out some better alternatives.

About 250 years ago the argument went that a nation without a monarch was no nation at all and could not endure. Every school child can tell you how that all changed with the American Revolution, but what few people know is that the idea of nations as autonomous units of government only arose in Europe around the middle of the Seventeenth Century. Prior to that time, most of Europe was part of the Holy Roman Empire, a rather peculiar social institution that lasted for almost a thousand years. Under the auspices of the Holy Roman Empire, nations were ruled by a loose confederation of dukes and kings who rose to power and deposed each other with alarming regularity. In 1648, that all changed when the Kingdom of France intervened in the 30 Years War and became a force to be reckoned with. After that, French hegemony ensued and autonomous nations became the primary unit of government authority.

As I stated above, perhaps it is time for humanity to once again seek out some better alternatives to the predominating institutions of modern government. To that end, one cannot ignore the fact that most governments in the modern world are inextricably entwined by the reality of international commerce. This reality has been the driving force behind the nascent success of the European Union, a social institution whose primary purpose seems to an economic one, with its primary political rallying cry being opposition to American hegemony. As for me, I will continue to champion what I believe to be the axiomatic supremacy of the individual, and my primary political rallying cry will remain, "Mind your own business."