I was going to start this essay with a long argument to prove that governments are always bad, but the more I thought about it the more it seemed to be self-evident—I mean, look around. And if we were not all perpetually saturated with propaganda to the contrary, telling us that government is always benevolent and necessary for human well-being—what I would call a monumental case of the victors writing history, and the news—we would have come to this conclusion long ago.
Start with what a government is. At a minimum, it is a system of control over the members of a political body—Max Weber said that it was “the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory”—that includes the power to levy and collect taxes and raise and maintain an army. You will notice the centrality of “control,” and its ancillary, “power.”
Now you can either like the idea of a large and usually distant body telling you what to do, how much money you can keep, whether you need to serve in its army, and such other limitations on your life as it may think of from time to time. Or feel that the fundamental values in a political society are, by contrast, individual liberty, familial integrity, and communal sovereignty, none of which are taken care of by government, nor even in the purview of government. It is the Hobbesians who argue for the first, saying it is the well-being of the whole, of the state, that takes precedence over the status or interest of the individual, hence government control and power is good, since only governments have the competence to see to the many needs of the entire populace. It is selfish, and therefore wrong, to put individual liberty over the public good, to argue for the primacy of the family over the primacy of a state looking out for all families, to value community autonomy over wider national interests.
But it is the Rousseauians who argue for the second, saying if one values liberty, family, community, one knows, or very quickly comes to see, that government is wrong. Government by its nature is in the business of control, the antithesis of liberty, calculates in terms of populations, not families, takes as its form the nation-state or empire, caring little about community. And its instrument is power, the power to create laws or edicts, to regulate, to tax, to raise armies, to declare war, to control the public in fact in any way that it sees fit or can get away with without resistance or rebellion.
But there is more: government by its nature tends to get bigger and stronger, to enlarge its scope, to expand its reach. The rulers of any government, if only to expand the welfare of all, need continually to increase taxes and expand bureaucracy, and sometimes, again in the interest of all, to conquer other lands and rule other people. Individual rulers may not hunger for more influence but they are at the head of a system—of princes and priests, of generals and bureaucrats, of satraps and underlords, of bankers and brokers—that does, with the result that inevitably the ruler oversees more power.
And more: government by nature seeks to centralize that power and diminish other nodes where power may be exerted. No matter what rules and constrictions may be devised—and the U.S. Founding Fathers, for example, devised many of them—they are insufficient to keep a central government, which accumulates wealth through taxes and tariffs, from increasing its control over lesser forms of government and diminishing their purses and their powers; the more it is the piper, the more it calls the tune. One reason that governments love wars is that it enables them to draw increasing authority, and taxes, from smaller entities, making lords into commanders, states into counties, effectively nullifying whatever influence lesser bodies and offices may have had.
But even more: modern governments, those that have developed since the onset and adoption of mechanical technology and professionalism—let’s say from the beginning of the 20th century—have magnified the errors of systems of state control.
So there is the indictment. Government is a system of human organization that lessens individual liberty, nullifies family, and emaciates community, invariably working to enlarge its power at the expense of other organizations. It does not matter what kinds of people are running it, what various combinations of checks and balances may be tried, whatever benefits it may be attempting to achieve, it cannot escape its inherent nature: if the Founding Fathers, among the brightest and most civic-minded cohorts ever assembled, could not devise a system to prevent increased authoritarianism and centralization, with three separate branches designed to restrain each other and a series of ten explicit limits on its reach, it may be said that no one could. As the anti-Federalists, learned men who had studied the character of governments throughout history, warned them at the time.