This article is the second in a series of three on new approaches to politics for libertarians. The three approaches can be thought of as a pyramid, where the third approach is the most common and the base, and the first approach is the narrowest and least common. Part one of the series discussed the narrow approach: pragmatic engagement in electoral politics. Part two will now deal with the question of political organization and activity outside of the apparatus of the state.
Libertarians constantly stress over how to reduce the power of the state, and thereby increase individual freedom. As a consequence, libertarians engage in the political process as necessary to achieve a reduction of state power. Unfortunately, conventional electoral politics offer few meaningful pathways to the reduction of state power. Perhaps another approach could be followed. Perhaps there are other ways of understanding and exercising power.
One writer who conceived of power differently was Hannah Arendt. To her, power didn’t lie with violence, but instead with action. From a paper discussing her views:
“Hannah Arendt reproaches our tradition of political philosophy for reducing politics to domination, and for so concealing the central political phenomenon, i.e., power (section one). Since Arendt’s own concept of power is an extension of her concept of action, she understands power in a both non-hierarchical and non-instrumental way, as much distinct from domination as from violence. Furthermore, by stressing the essential relational and potential character of power, she shows the impossibility of human omnipotence (section two). Section three sketches Arendt’s analysis of violent action as an instrumental, mute and solitary activity, which can destroy, but never generate power, and which, therefore, can never be more than a poor substitute for acting together.”1
To Arendt, power is collective action, not domination. The key to power isn’t violence, but the exercise of consent. This viewpoint is highly libertarian. Libertarians discuss human action in terms of how humans make willful choices to engage in economic activity. Deliberate action is the means of human survival and flourishing. Deliberate action is how humans survive in harsh climates, and develop technologies that make life better. Why can’t we conceive of politics in the same way?
Libertarians have a habit of ignoring politics. We favor the idea that the market provides the functions of social organization. Leftists, on the other hand, don’t think the market generates what they consider to be moral social outcomes. They seek a more deliberate mode of social organization, and are therefore more focused on political theory and methodology. Even so, there are reasons for libertarians to pursue political organization.
What is the difference between politics and economics? I argue that politics is economics, rather the economics of conflict. Organized violence has a cost, but can be used to obtain resources. Politics are the means by which we deal with this question of conflict and violence. Libertarians uphold the law as the only morally legitimate means of dispute resolution. Everyone else admits into their world view an allowance for a little bit of conflict.
All societies require, rather, naturally engage in politics. Even a libertarian political solution has to be assented to by those involved with it. We have to go out to each other, talk, confirm what the mutual standards are, test them out, prove them, demonstrate their persistence, and exclude other alternatives. More practically, even as it pertains to electoral politics in an ostensible democratic republic, what matters more than voting is collective action.
Voting doesn’t change laws. Behavior does. When enough people find a law unnecessary or offensive, it will change. And that starts with civil disobedience, willful action, a withdrawal of consent to that law.
True political organization isn’t inside of political parties which raise money then waste it on candidates that won’t win, or otherwise will sell out. True organization allows people to “state craft”. This involves building organization that can defy the state through effective civil disobedience, but also building institutions that serve as substitutes for state functions.
The power to ignore the state, is the power to transcend the state.
The principle of civil disobedience must be familiar to libertarians. In terms of economics, civil disobedience can be thought of as a power auction between the state and its subjects. Enforcement of the law takes resources. If people act, and act collectively – Hannah Arendt’s true power – then the state must use resources and violence to suppress that action. Enough action will prohibitively increase the costs of enforcement. Systematic civil disobedience can represent the “death by a thousand cuts” of at least some of the core paradigms of state power.
Once upon a time it was assumed that monarchy was necessary for government. Resistance to monarchy led to the concept of democracy – the modern state’s dominant paradigm. So, would it be so wrong to challenge the modern democratic paradigm in favor of something even more liberal? To systematically resist the state isn’t anarchy – not that libertarians find that to be a bad word. It’s just more liberalism, or, a continuation of progress. The idea that the state has to be persistently and systematically challenged in a critical concept. The state will always want to create a bubble of safety and stability for itself, but a truly liberal state would accept that its legitimacy must always hang by a thread.
If America is a liberal country, it should have no trouble accepting the idea of the people’s right to constantly challenge the government. If managed responsibly, a persistent engine of civil disobedience could be a new keystone of American politics.
This is what I’m proposing for libertarians to create.
The Radiant Government
Political theory discusses the existence of a “shadow government”. While this sometimes refers to an official “backup government” to take power in the event of catastrophe, it unofficially refers to a nefarious “dark” government. That is, there is a notion of politics which suggests that true power in government rests with a non-transparent political process among the elites. The elites and their networks and politics, not democracy, determine most outcomes that trickle down to government.
What if there was a force of government that stood in opposition to this darkness? A “radiant” government? In this case, “radiant” refers both to the transparent nature of this organization, but also its mode of organization.
The Radiant Government would be an organization of people outside of the state. In order for an organization to exercise power, it has to meet two requirements. First, it has to have organization: it needs a mode of decision making and information sharing. Second, it needs to compel action. The difference between the Radiant Government and conventional government is that the former compels action not through coercion, but through consent.
The people who will act according to the prescriptions of this radiant organization are the people who make it up. The organization would have no power to coerce, so it must reflect the will of those who create it, and earn through effective and consistently good decision making the support of its power base.
A Radiant Government would be organized in a subsidiary fashion. Local political clubs would appoint representatives to regional conferences, which then would have state or national, even, international colleges to discuss and vote on matters. The votes of these bodies would represent the will of these voluntary organizations concerning what “ought” to be done. It is then completely the responsibility of each individual person to follow these prescriptions or not.
If people are enthusiastic and principled, they can achieve powerful results through such an organization. For example, if 30% of Americans chose to forgo payment of taxes, wouldn’t the government collapse? Of course, this would provoke more challenges than it would be worth – most likely. But, a principled organization could negotiate with conventional government for concessions using the threat of non-payment as a bargaining chip. Granted, just by saying this I’m probably inviting the inevitable COINTELPRO infiltration of any such organization. So let’s just say I’m speaking academically.
The purpose of the Radiant Government isn’t just to exercise power against the state. It could be a means to resist state abuses. Police abuse power: what if the Radiant Government was nothing but an organization which could bring resources to bear to demand justice and fairness in the upholding of the law? Even “mundane” activities could justify such an organization. And wouldn’t it be nice for libertarians to have collective power against the state? The state will never represent us, the “Libertarian Party” will never be a meaningful actor within electoral politics. And the many piecemeal civil society organizations are nice, but what if “their powers were combined?”
Thus, the Radiant Government isn’t just an open and transparent government that relies on consent, it’s a governance that grows and expands from the local to national level, penetrating into diverse organizations, and emerging from civil society as a brilliant power.
Libertarians favor the historical phenomenon of state nullification of federal law. These same principles can apply more generally. If government – in the American tradition – requires the consent of the governed, then ought not the people be able to withdraw their consent? If a few do this, naturally they’d be treated as criminals. However, if enough do this, then the state’s power will collapse. The state will have to reorganize on different terms to regain consent. Targeted or small-scale versions of this could apply.
Libertarians need to consider the invocation of “popular nullification” by way of civil disobedience, through the power of a “Radiant Government” organization. Civil society unions of political intent on the basis of liberty.
Such unions and societies would have to be pragmatic as necessary, but could retain a much stronger commitment to principle than engagement in electoral politics would require. Indeed, the two wings could work together.
However, the real value of extra-state political organization comes not from how this organization can resist the state, but rather from how this organization can build a strong civil society.
Should libertarians succeed in building political organizations outside of electoral politics, they must use these to build robust civil society institutions.
A modern society requires advanced social organization. Much of this could be provided by the market. In reality, the state inserts itself into many public functions in order to create relevance for itself. There’s also a need for deliberate social organization. We don’t live in a world where 100% of social, personal, and familial needs are met by the market. So, if we want to rob the state of its reason for existing, we need to try to provide those functions in the civil society.
I believe that the market could provide any function. A sufficiently wealthy and advanced human society would be able to afford ecological preserves for their mere novelty. Short of that future, there might be some who find intangible value from preservation. It is up to them to create organizations that spend money and own property towards the aim of preservation. Otherwise, the state will defend its right to define and maintain national forests.
Normally, these organizations could exist piecemeal and independently. However, with the state in play, it would behoove them to organize to defend each others’ rights against the state. There’s a need to represent the civil society itself as an institution and defend its prerogatives vis-à-vis the state.
Distinctly Libertarian Organizations
In addition to general civil society institutions, there could be a benefit to organizing a union of libertarian institutions to defend their common interests. Tom Woods’ Liberty Classroom is a great tool of liberty education. There’s also Ron Paul’s homeschool curriculum. Finally, organizations life Jeffrey Tucker’s Liberty.me and LibertarianInstitute.com, not to mention the venerable Mises Institution all serve to advance liberty education. Couldn’t they all “go in” together on a common effort. It doesn’t have to be pure, it doesn’t have to hold power. But, wherever possible it would make sense to occasionally “combine powers”. This is because these institutions represent, collectively, an “institution” of civil society: the liberty educators.
Libertarians don’t normally like this kind of organization. Let individuals and entrepreneurs do their thing. Guilds can suck. But I’m not proposing a guild. Just an effort at voluntary and limited cooperation where possible.
What about a Liberty Scouts? The Boy Scouts is a great organization, but at its heart is a cardinal sin: that liberty comes from the state. So, libertarians need something else. How about a character-building organization that emphasizes non-aggression, individual confidence and creativity, respect for uniqueness and individuality, but which promotes socializing and group organization in the context of individuality?
Libertarians could construct and promote many institutions of this nature. Many already have created “agorist” institutions, but these are disperse and diluted. There could be a benefit to organizing and combining efforts.
Libertarians, for all the effort we put on the “political debate”, for all the sore feelings from feeling misunderstood by conventional people, could devote our energy and attention to productive organization among ourselves. We could become powerful by ignoring the state. But, it would take effort. We have to be deliberate in our organization as society capable of collective action – and therefore power – against the state.
In part three of this series I will discuss what I consider to be the simplest, and most common mode of politics libertarians should engage in: defending the renegades. Simple, person level civil disobedience. Defying conventions.