This nation was created on the basis of a beguiling myth which grew out of social contract theory. The social contract argument was that people voluntarily surrendered some of their autonomy to a strong central government because the advantages it provided in the way of security and coordination of activity outweighed the loss of personal freedom. And the founding myth of the United States is that it's possible to find a sweet spot, where government has enough power to protect us but not enough to tyrannize over us.
It hasn't worked out that way.
I have very mixed feelings about the extent to which government is necessary at all. It's obvious that we do need some kind of universally-accepted institutions to set and enforce basic ground rules, to mediate disputes between individuals and groups, to counterbalance the extent to which the powerful tend to exploit the weak, and to look after certain aspects of the common good which can otherwise get lost in the thicket of personal self-interest.
We're accustomed to having government do most of those things -- but that doesn't mean either that they are necessary functions of government or that they make government itself necessary. At best, they account for perhaps 10% of what government actually does -- while the other 90% mainly goes into protecting the property and privileges of the elite.
What passes for government these days most closely resembles a system that existed only during major crises in earlier and simpler times. Just as the single cells of slime molds come together to form a quasi-organism in times of crisis, so the human community pulls together and seeks strong leaders when under assault. War-chiefs in times of conflict. Charismatic prophets when famine makes it necessary to pull up stakes and migrate to greener pastures. But after the crisis passes, that degree of centralized power is no longer necessary.
Except that for some reason, we've been living in permanent crisis mode for the last 5000 years -- since the rise of the centralized state at the start of civilization.
It isn't clear just what happened then. Disparities in grave goods show that class distinctions had increased sharply over the previous thousand years or so -- but around 3000 BC there is a sudden phase-shift, from local aristocracies to centralized monarchies in which the ruler has nearly godlike status. The most likely guess is that the climate took a turn for the worse and there were a couple of centuries marked by threats of famine and border attacks by nomadic tribes. But whatever the crisis was, it ended -- and the centralization of power never did.
Naomi Klein talks about the shock doctrine and disaster capitalism -- but that's merely an acute form of what we've been living with as a chronic condition for 5000 years. The overthrowing of an occasional tyrant wrings some of the worst abuses out of the system, but only to return it to that same chronic level.
Even the American Revolution did nothing to change the basic fact that government functions to protect the wealth and power of the privileged. There have been gestures from time to time at rebalancing the equation, but none of them have been effective in the long run. And at present, we are in the worst shape we have been in for a century, with the facade of democratic elections increasingly unable to disguise the fact that Washington is run by a permanent and often hereditary governing class for the benefit of lobbyists and corporate interests.
But that's the nature of government. It was designed that way to serve that specific function, and thinking it could be anything different is a sucker's game. Government is programmed to serve its original masters, and that programming will always win out no matter how many override codes you try to apply.
So instead of applauding our deeply-flawed and ultimately inadequate American system of government on this Day-After-Independence Day, we ought to be taking a step back and thinking about what alternative system would actually achieve the ends that government of any kind appears unable to attain.
The Declaration of Independence asserts, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed."
That's half true as can be and half deeply distorted by the social contract myth. Our founding fathers recognized the abuses of all known forms of government, but they also believed that the true original purpose of government was to secure the rights of the governed, and that if one system of government fell down on the job you just had to abolish it and start over in slightly different form.
It's time to recognize instead that government of any kind is a con game that picks our pockets while it promises to secure our rights. If after more than two centuries of experimentation with liberal democracy, *all* forms of government are still "destructive of those ends," we may need to shake loose of the permanent crisis mentality, abolish government itself, and start over from first principles -- to create something that actually serves our needs instead of screwing us over and spitting in our faces.
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