Karl Popper on 'Why Government?'

Tony Hollick (anduril@cix.compulink.co.uk)
Sun, 18 Jan 98 19:14 GMT0

"Why Government?" -- a perennial question...

Peter Marshall's fine book "Demanding the Impossible" on all the
various kinds of Anarchism, and Movement histories, is a fine
starting-point. And -- yes! -- there's a chapter on anarcho-capitalism too
(which Noam Chomsky -- also an anarchist -- characterises as 'liable to
lead to the most hideous tyranny the world has ever seen').

Then ask a crucial question: "Do we ever get out of anarchy?" Just
because some people characterize themselves as 'State Officials' doesn't
mean we have to recognize them as fundamentally different types of beings.
The social universe in a world of individual actors acting in different
ways at different times. What matters is the character of acts.

If we characterize 'Government' as the unilateral exercise of
coercion, we get a clearer picture of what it is about it that we really
dislike: and the question is subtly altered into "How do we minimize the
unilateral exercise of coercion?"

Landlords charge rent: States charge taxes. Most states let you
leave, most of the time. Most landlords ditto. I had the following
argument with David Ramsay Steele, an anarcho-capitalist theoretician.
Agorism and anarcho-capitalism are fundamentally different ideas, so we
argued a lot... He attacked me and threatened to kill me once or twice.

It seems to me, I said playfully, that any crafty group of
capitalist could replicate the evils of government in a pre-existing
anarcho-capitalist society by focusing their resources on buying a key
resource, then imposing conditions of use on it: i.e. fervent Islamic
capitalists could buy the roads, then make adherence to Islam a condition
of use for all the customers. They aren't interested in selling the roads
again, remember, nor do they care about maximizing their _financial_
return on capital.

So how would we address this problem?

David Ramsay Steele just shrugged this off by saying "We would have
a revolution, and reassign the property rights." Oh, right...

So it seemed a better bet to me, to focus on answering these questions:

[A] How do we maximize negative liberties for all? Freedom from restraint.

[B] How to we maximize positive liberties for all? Freedom-to-do. Means.

[C] How do we minimize the incidence of coercion in society?

This is Karl Popper's programme too.

"Another, more familiar paradox, first implicitly frmulated by Plato,
is the paradox of freedom. Unqualified freedom, like unqualified
tolerance, is not only self-destructive, but bound to produce its
opposite - for if all restraints were removed there would be nothing
to stop the strong enslaving the weak (or meek). So complete freedom
would bring about the end of freedom, and therefore proponents of
complete freedom are in actuality, whatever their intentions, enemies
of freedom. Popper points particularly to the paradox of economic
freedom, which makes possible the unrestrained exploitation of the
poor by the rich, and results in the almost complete loss of economic
freedom by the poor. Here again, there 'must be a _political_ remedy
-- a remedy similar to the one we use against physical violence. We
must construct social institutions, enforced by the power of the
state, for the protection of the economically weak from the
economically strong.... This means that the idea of
non-intervention, of an unrestrained economic system, has to be given
up; if we wish freedom to be safeguarded, then we must demand that
the policy of unlimited economic freedom must be replaced...'

In all these cases, the maximum possible tolerance or freedom is an
optimum, not an absolute, for it has to be restricted if it is to
exist at all. The government intervention which alone can guarantee
it is a dangerous weapon: without it, or wit too little, freedom
dies; but with too much of it, freedom dies also. We are brought
back by the inescapability of control -- which must mean, if it is to
be effective, removeability -- of government by the governed as the
_sine qua non_ of democracy. This however, though necessary, is not
sufficient. It does not guarantee the preservation of freedom, for
nothing can: the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. As Popper
has remarked, institutions are like fortresses in that althogh to be
effective, they have to be properly constructed this alone will not
make them work: they have also to be properly manned....'

The vital question is not 'Who should rule?' but 'How can we minimize
misrule -- both the likelihood of its occurring and, when it does
occur, its consequences?'" -- Bryan Magee, 'Popper' [1982].

/ /\ \

Tony Hollick, LightSmith

http://maelstrom.stjohns.edu/archives/la-agora (LA-Agora Conference)
http://www.agora.demon.co.uk (Agora Home Page, Rainbow Bridge Foundation)
http://www.nwb.net/nwc (NorthWest Coalition Against Malicious Harrassment)

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