No More Mushrooms: Government is Bad

In a book just recently published,  I began with a chapter on “Why Government is Bad.”  I first decided that this statement would be obvious to everyone.  After all, look around: city, state, national, these governments are all obvious malfunctioning, inept, and largely corrupted operations that clearly are not solving the important problems of our lives today—health, education (higher and lower), housing, transportation, energy, agriculture, civic participation, popular culture—nor the crises that threaten our futures, including global overheating, more new diseases, rising oceans, species extermination, depleting forests…–but need I go on?

But then I realized that though this all seemed so obvious to me,  most people live lives saturated with the propaganda that government is good, necessary for public order and social harmony and all that, and it has been with us as the foundation of our civilizations for centuries—and a lot of people, well really most  people, believe that’s true.  So I decided I had to lay out the reasons why government is wrong.

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. If one values those, one knows or very quickly comes to see that government is wrong: by its nature it is in the business of control, the antithesis of liberty, it calculates in terms of populations, not families, it 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, 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.  They managed to generate two devastating world wars at the cost of millions of lives, to create systems of totalitarianism that cost 100 million more, to build welfare-warfare states of every description, and to create a world that is perpetually on the brink of a war that can annihilate us all.

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, and inevitably grows to threaten human lives.  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.

I leave you with the wisdom of one Arthur Arnould, a Frenchman, from the February 1896 edition of a publication called The Rebel, put out in Boston:

An individual eats some mushrooms and is poisoned by them. The doctor gives him an emetic and cures him. He goes to the cook and says to him:

—“The mushrooms in white sauce made me ill yesterday! To­morrow you must prepare them with brown sauce.”

Our individual eats the mushrooms in brown sauce. Second poisoning, second visit of the doctor, and second cure by the emetic.

—“By Jove!” says he, to the cook, “I want no more mushrooms with brown or white sauce, to-morrow you must fry them.”

Third poisoning, with accompaniment of doctor and emetic.

—“This time,” cries our friend, “they shall not catch me again! . . . to-morrow you must preserve them in sugar.”

The preserved mushrooms poison him again.

But that man is an imbecile! you say. Why does he not throw away his mushrooms and stop eating them?

Be less severe, I beg you, because that imbecile is yourself, it is ourselves, it is all humanity.

Here are four to five thousand years that you try the State—that is to say Power, Authority, Government—in all kinds of sauces, that you make, unmake, cut, and pare down, constitutions of all patterns, and still the poisoning goes on. You have tried legitimate royalty, manufac­tured royalty, parliamentary royalty, republics unitary and centralized, and the only thing from which you suffer, the despotism, the dictature of the State, you have scrupulously respected and carefully preserved.

Kirkpatrick Sale is the author of seventeen books.  A 50th anniversary reprint of his classic SDS has been published this fall (Autonomedia).