Problems of Anarchism


3.—Political Authority and Personal Freedom.

No government or political power existed in the earlier stage of man’s career. Like other institutions it was the outcome of slow growth under conditions favorable to its existence. Aggression was the origin of all government. Political authority, the State, arose, was maintained, and extended through war. At first some strong man who could successfully lead in battle was made chief, as a means for the preservation of the tribe against its enemies, or for the purpose of attacking some neighboring tribe. His power ceased with the occasion which called it forth. But when war, aggressive or defensive, became habitual, his power consequently became permanent. A leader in war was for ages the only function of government, the sole reason for its existence. But gradually, from having power over the individual in times of danger and turmoil, the ruler came to usurp a like power in time of peace. The individual’s liberty was cut down, his rights trampled upon, for the aggrandizement of his chief, the government. To effect this the better, new functions were by degrees assumed by the political authority. Time-worn customs were given the authority of law, and all fresh-made laws were framed and enforced, quite naturally, in the interest of the power that originated them. It is probable that ancient customs were just as peremptory as they became when given legal sanction: we can observe it in existing societies which represent a very early stage of development. But the pernicious character of government consisted in stereotyping, as it were, these customs, and authoritatively enforcing them, thus stopping the natural source of progressive change. Every statute enacted today has a like effect and is open to the same objection.

Of all forms of superstition that which universally prevails concerning the coercive and irresponsible organization known as the political authority, or State, is the most deep-set, dangerous, and inimical to human happiness. Many there are who have cast off the trappings of all other forms of faith, belief in devil and damnation, in Divinity and a future life, in soul, spirit, and everything supernatural, yet continue to invest governmental authority with a sacredness and awe altogether incompatible with its humble origin, its commonplace growth, and extremely problematical present utility.

Doubtless the mere fact that it is an institution of small beginnings which has developed with the progress of the race and been inseparably bound up with some of its most important phases is reason sufficient for its overwhelming power and the place it holds in the beliefs of the people. At all times, however, there have been individuals in revolt against its power and claims; often the majority of the people are found combatting the ruling authority, but never on the ground that authority itself is wrong, that government is in its very nature oppressive and destructive; they seek only a change in its instruments, its form, its outward shape or methods, but not in its substance where the evil resides.

From insignificance it gradually rose to omnipotence, till its despotic tyranny claimed everything and took away all the rights of man, granting back to certain individuals privileges which left the mass bereft of either, the prey to every kind of robbery and oppression.

The republican form of government is still the exception in the world; monarchy of one sort or another continues to prevail. In this form government’s relation to the individual is the reverse of the American federal authority’s relation to the States composing it. The States retain all powers and rights except those delegated to the federal power, which in theory are strictly prescribed. But the individual in relation to government has no rights at all except such as are conceded to him by the superior authority. In practice this fact is as true of republics as of any other form of government.

Some of the men who organized the United States and framed the Constitution saw with unusual clearness the truth on this question. They distrusted all authority, every form of power. But their imitative instinct was too strong for their reason. No people of which they knew had ever been without a central coercive organization. Their own existence as a nation was secured through war, the father of government, and at least enough for that purpose they thought must be maintained.

Their perplexity on the matter is shown by the kind of machinery they invented. If government is evil in itself, and at the same time not to be done without, then the best way out of the difficulty is to arrange its powers to that they neutralize one another, making the whole as innocuous as possible. Acting upon this plan, that immortal and perfect instrument, the American Constitution, was brought forth as the solution of the question. Without a knowledge of the fact that its inventors knew that all government is dangerous to liberty and naturally ill-disposed toward the rights of individuals, this precious piece of constructive ingenuity cannot thoroughly be understood. The point I wish to make now is this,—that in spite of all well-meant precautions government in America has gone the way of all flesh; it has evolved nearly all the pernicious qualities of its ancestral forms, monarchy and despotism.

Individual liberty is menaced as much by its acts and the exercise of its powers as under less promising forms of political authority. It has solved no problem, social or economic, which the others have failed to solve. It secures justice to the individual in need of it with no more promptitude and even less certainty than elsewhere. Its constructive, administrative, and industrial functions rival the worst of monarchies for costliness and incapacity. Its benefits, according to its own showing, are purely negative. Not what it does, but what it is kind enough not to do, to let alone, constitutes its main claim upon our tolerance.

Nor are republican forms of government elsewhere existing, in South America and in France, conspicuous for their better fulfilment of the functions they assume, or for their more enlightened use of the powers they possess. In brief, an unprejudiced study of existing political powers leads us to conclude that there is no essential difference between them; despite the fact that the average American citizen fondly believes and proudly proclaims the government he lives under to be incomparably superior to all other forms, to be the perfection of freedom and progress, the impartial student is obliged to admit that this grandest of all political institutions is precisely the same in its nature and essence as the others.

It is a truth of every-day experience that even the most democratic of governments continually assume additional powers and encroach upon fresh fields of action. But these powers are only in certain directions. And to whatever degree they extend their functions, it must be remembered that this growth is infinitesimal compared with the development of every kind of social function by other agencies; and also that in public utility and importance the work assumed by voluntary effort is infinitely greater and more successful than anything yet attempted through the agency of authority.

Whatever may be the ultimate effects, it is still true that the avowed purpose of all modern governmental activity, domestic at any rate, is not aggression or individual suppression, but the furtherance of the general good. Even the apparent encroachments on private liberty in many cases are really fuller recognitions of the principal. On the whole, the tendency of law and authority, except when their warlike character predominates, is toward securing to the individual a wider freedom and a greater share of the results of his own non-aggressive activities: in short, towards the sovereignty of each over his own conduct and its necessary consequences.

The rule of the majority—not that this is really true or could possibly exist under any government, but taking it to express the democratic form—has led to a curious confusion of ideas in the popular understanding with regard to the meaning of liberty and political rights. The average voter conceives them to mean that he has a right to meddle in everybody’s business, and they in return assume the right of regulating his affairs, which remarkable doctrine has come to represent the myth called political equality. So that liberty has erroneously come to mean that each may interfere with the liberties of all, and conversely all interfere with the liberty of each; and the true meaning and ideal of individual liberty and the rights of man, that everyone should pursue his own course in life in his own way free from all restraint upon the full use of his activities and the realization of their results,—this ideal is entirely forgotten.

Wm. Bailie

This article is part of a serial: Problems of Anarchism.