There are many theories to explain government. Most are nothing but scams, justifications and puffery. One tries to put something over on the common man… the other claims it was for his own good… and the third pretends that he’d be lost without it.
Most are not really "theories" at all… but prescriptions, blueprints for creating the kind of government the "theorist" would like to have. Not surprisingly, the blueprints flatter his intellect and engage his imagination.
The “social contract,” for example, is a fraud. You can’t have a contract unless you have two willing and able parties. They must come together in a meeting of the minds — a real agreement about what they are going to do together.
But what is the “social contract” with government? There was never a meeting of the minds. The deal was forced on the public. And now, imagine that you want out. Can you simply "break the contract"? You refuse to pay your taxes and refuse to be bossed around by TSA agents and other government employees. How long would it be before you got put in jail?
What kind of contract is it that you don’t agree to and can’t get out of? They can dress it up… print out a piece of paper… have a solemn ceremony in which everyone pretends it is a real contract. But it’s not worth the paper it’s not written on.
Also, what kind of a contract allows for one party to unilaterally change the terms of the deal? Congress passes new laws almost every day. The bureaucracy issues new edicts. The tax system is changed. The pound of flesh they got already wasn’t enough; now they want a pound and a half!
Here are the critical questions: Why do we let other people tell us what to do; are we not all equal? What is the purpose of government? What does it cost, and what benefits does it confer?
The Metaphor Doesn’t Work
A theory should explain something without reference to something else. That is, a metaphor doesn’t work. It’s just a description. If you say that government is a kind of "social contract," you are merely describing how it seems to you… or what you think it might be comparable to.
Let’s try a simpler insight: Government is a natural phenomenon, an expression of power relationships, in which some people seek to dominate others by force. These dominators gather "insiders" together so that they can take money, power and status away from other people, the "outsiders."
Many people think that government provides some service. That is true, but it is incidental. Governments often deliver the mail. But they don’t have to. They would still be governments even if they didn’t control the Post Office.
And what if they didn’t have a department of inland fisheries, or a program to teach retarded Democrats to count to 20? They would still be in the government business… and still have their helicopters, chauffeurs and expense accounts.
But if they lost control of the police or the army, it would be an entirely different matter. Force is the essence of government, not a decorative detail. Without armies and police, they would no longer be governments, but voluntary associations like the Kiwanis Club or the Teamsters Union.
Government Is a Fact
In 2012, the US faced a major presidential election. Several men came forward offering to take charge of the US government. What exactly were they going to take charge of?
Government is a fact. It exists. It is as common as stomach gas. It is as ubiquitous as lice and as inescapable as vanity. But what is it? Why is it? And what has it become?
We know very little about the actual origins of government. All we know, and this from the archeological records, is that one group often conquered another. There are skeletons more than 100,000 years old, showing the kind of head wounds that you get from fighting.
We presume this meant that "government" changed. Whoever had been in charge was chased out or murdered. Then, someone else was in charge.
Tribal groups, or even family groups for that matter, probably had "chiefs." They could have been little more than bullies… or perhaps respected elders.
Programmed by Evolution
Over the millennia, there were probably as many different examples of primitive "government" as there were tribes. Some elected their leaders. Some may have chosen them randomly, for all we know. Many probably simply conferred leadership by consensus. Some probably had no identifiable leaders at all. But it seems to be a characteristic of the human race that some people want to be in charge… and many people want someone to be in charge of them.
In adversity, there was probably an advantage to having a leader. Hunts were often collective enterprises. There were also group decisions to be made… about how food was stored up or rationed out, for example… that would affect the survival of the whole group. Under attack from another group, a strong, able leader could make the difference between life and death.
We can guess that people enter into leader/follower roles today because they are programmed for it by evolution. Those who can’t or won’t… well, perhaps they died out many millennia ago.
We don’t have to look back to the last glacial period to see what happens in small political units. We can see them today. They are all around us. Every church has its governing board. Every community has some form of government. Every corporation… group… club… every place where humans get together seems to develop rules and power relationships.
Leaders arise. Informal groups typically yield to the strong personality. Juries try to control it. Families resist it. Dinner parties try to avoid it.
But that’s just the way it is. Some people seek to dominate. Others like being dominated.
Trouble is, there is usually more than one person or one group that wants to do the dominating. This leads to conflict. Treachery. Murder. Rivalry. And elections. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We’re talking about the origins of government and trying to guess what they were like.
A Matter of Scale
On a small scale, we conclude, governments are both extremely variable in form… and extremely limited in scope. That is, how much governing can you get away with in a small group? Not much. You can boss people around, but they won’t take too much bossing. And there is always a rival bosser who is ready to topple the big boss if he should lose his popular support.
In a tribal setting, we imagine that the strongest, fiercest warrior might have been able to set himself up as the governing authority. But he could be stabbed in the back as he slept… or even shot with an arrow in a "hunting accident." Even in the best of circumstances, his reign wouldn’t last much longer than his own strength.
In a small town, government proceeds tolerably well. There is not much distance between governors and the governed. The latter know where the former live… and how they live… and how little difference there is between them. If the governors overreach, they are likely to find themselves beaten in the next election… or in the middle of the street.
But as the scale increases… as the distance between the governed and the governors increases… and as the institutional setting grows and ages… government becomes a bigger deal. More formal. More powerful. It can begin governing more grandly.
Higher up on the Ladder
The first large scale, long-term government we know about was in Egypt. After the unification of the Upper and Lower Kingdoms in about 3,150 BC, the dynastic period began. It continued for two millennia, not ending until the Romans conquered Egypt in 30 BC.
We don’t know exactly how government worked during those many centuries, but we know that a theory of government arose out of them. At the time, it was not considered a theory at all, but a fact. The ruler was divine. A god.
As a theory, it is a good one. It answers the question: Why should you take orders from another human being? In Ancient Egypt, the question didn’t arise. Because Pharaoh was not another human being. He was something else.
Precisely what he was… or what people thought he was… is not clear. But the archeological record shows that he was treated as though he was at least a step or two higher up on the ladder than the rest of us. If not a full god, he was at least a demi-god… on the mezzanine between Earth and heaven.
for The Daily Reckoning Australia
From the Archives…
Economics is Just a Cargo Cult
25-05-13 – Nick Hubble
How a Slowing Chinese Economy is About to Hand Australia a Pay-Cut
24-05-13 – Greg Canavan
Your Forefathers’ Pain Can Be Your Gain
23-05-13 – Vern Gowdie
The Fatal Flaw at the Heart of Modern Economics
22-05-13 – Bill Bonner
The Warning Signs for Australia’s Economy
21-05-13 – Greg Canavan