Who makes the laws?
Who controls us today?
Who decides what we can and cannot do?
The answer is simple: the government, obviously.
But this simple and accurate answer is also misleading. It allows for some equivocation. What is the government after all? In the fields of political science and political philosophy, it is that entity that claims a monopoly right on the use of force in a given area. But that definition isn’t sufficient to capture what we mean by government in our day-to-day usage of the term. Yes we are referring to that entity, but also to each part that makes up the totality of government. So then, what is government?
Is it the current set of representatives alone who decide how we can live? Is our government truly comprised of those who are supposed to represent those of us who are under its power? Is it merely the sum total of the bureaucrats, politicians, police, and military? Or is there some group that is overlooked and forgotten, but still holds sway over our lives?
What we call “government” is composed of the living persons holding positions of power, be it politicians, bureaucrats, or enforcers. But this is not a static group. Who is in government changes constantly, though most from a small elite group. But they are not the sum total of the government that rules over us. The largest, yet most overlooked group, is that of the dead law makers. Their actions still control us, and are still codified in law and regulation. Legislators, judges, politicians, and bureaucrats who have written laws, policies, or rulings are still dictating how we may live today. Their edicts and laws are still enforced, despite the fact that they do not exist and could not even in theory represent people living today.
Political science and political philosophy often speak of the idea of the tyranny of the majority, and the tyranny of the minority. We can look to history to see examples of mob rule, dictatorships, and of course tyrannies run by elite groups. These are commonplace and few will make the time to try to defend these styles of government, at least not the worst examples of each style. But there is form of tyranny that is not only more common, but even more insidious. This tyranny is taken as a given and as necessary.
This is the tyranny of the dead.
Parliament of 1688
English scholar, Edmund Burke, offers one of the first defenses of tyranny of the dead. He argues that the French Revolution is not legitimate because the people do not have a right to revolt or for self-rule (or put more accurately, representative rule). His argument is rather bizarre, more so given that he relies upon a decree by the English Parliament which clearly cannot hold any authority over any people other than the English, no matter how generous we are to his arguments and to statism in general.
Burke argues that the English revolution that put the parliament of 1688 in place resulted in the English people not only giving up that right, but in Burke’s words, they would fight to deny that such a right can exist. Moreover, he believes that the Parliament of 1688 is justified in denying that right not merely for those living at the time but for all of their heirs until the end of time.
Thomas Paine takes exception to Burke’s position. In Rights of Man, a response to Edmund Burke’s criticism of the French Revolution, Thomas Paine writes:
“There never did, there never will, and there never can exist a parliament or any description of men, or any generation of men, in any country, possessed of the right or the power of binding and controlling posterity to the ‘end of time,‘ or of commanding for ever how the world shall be governed , or who shall govern it; and therefore, all such clauses, acts or declarations, why which the makers of them attempt to do what they have neither the right nor the power to do, nor the power to execute, are in themselves null and void. “
Paine’s refutation makes clear that Burke’s position cannot be justified. It is Burke’s belief that the Parliament of 1688 had the right to determine the fate of every person ever to live in Great Britain, from that day until the end of time. This view is not merely a historical curiosity. While we as agorists may reel at such an assertion, many still unthinkingly accept it as true. We can see the same view very much present in the modern day. We find it very common in the US in the form of what can generously be called worship of the U.S. Constitution.
If we listen to any US political discussion long enough, we can notice the tendency to appeal to the U.S. Constitution in the same way that Christians will appeal to their bible. Too often, we hear or perhaps give arguments as to whether a law is Constitutional or not. While these appeals are not entirely meaningless, as long as it is in the right context, such as examining the consistency of a particular political belief or policy, ultimately these appeals are appeals to authority. Appeal to authority is a well-known fallacy, and as such, should be avoided. Worse yet, such arguments are appeals to the dead, else appeals to the authority of a piece of hemp paper. A response of “So what?” to any argument appealing to the Constitution is entirely appropriate.
“But it is the law of the land!” Says the devout US statist. Again “So what?” is entirely appropriate. Saying that it is the law of the land is no different than just repeating that it is “the Constitution.” It is an appeal to authority that is meant to stop all discussion. But like so many appeals to authority, it cannot justify the position being taken by itself, or in fact offer any support to any moral question. Like Burke, the defenders of the state simply point to something as “proof” that does not in fact support their defense of the tyranny of the dead.
For those who don’t merely stop at appealing to the Constitution, but try to defend the Constitution, ultimately, these Constitutionalist will declare that it has authority because of self-rule. Unfortunately for their position, this assertion that we are ruling ourselves is not merely dishonest in the extreme but in fact is completely absurd.
The myth of self-rule:
The only situation in which self-rule exists is that of anarchy. Under anarchy, you decide what actions you will take without any institutionalized coercion. Short of that, we are being ruled by others. When people use the phrase “self-rule,” they are trying to pull a fast one in that they refer to a group that rules the whole population, while ignoring that this means many (if not most) in the group are being ruled, not ruling themselves. This equivocation is not different in kind from that initial appeal to government that ignores much of what constitutes government. Those seeking to justify controlling the lives of peaceful others must rely upon such tactics, because careful examination of their claims makes clear that no one has a right to control the peaceful life of any other person.
That said, for this examination let us assume that “self-rule” refers to representational or direct democracy sort of government. If we make the strongest case for this and it still fails, we must dismiss the very concept of this as self-rule and with that the idea that this arrangement is somehow morally justifiable.
One could argue that a group of individuals could come together and voluntarily agree to be bound by rules determined by some fashion; whether that be a designated leader, a council, or mere majority does not matter, as each is entering into the agreement voluntarily. This could be considered a government, though it would differ from all governments in that it would be a wholly voluntary arrangement only binding to those who actually explicitly and voluntarily agreed to it. This is the ideal to which all who appeal to “self-rule” refer, as it is the only possible form of government that could even in theory be morally justified. Unfortunately, for their position they equivocate between this idealized but never realized form of government and that of the real world.
Their claims rest on the ideas of implied consent and consent through voting. Implied consent is a pervasive and dangerous idea. It is a blank check that the statist gets to fill in as he desires. Literally any action whatsoever by the state can be justified by implied consent.
You don’t want your property stolen? Well, you consented to this by existing in a given place.
Don’t want to be tortured and thrown in a cage? You consented by being on your own property and that property just happening to be within the area that the government claims authority over.
Since there is no contract, nothing agreed upon prior to the claim of the statist, he gets to fill in the desired end with anything and then just stipulate that you agreed to it implicitly.
Clearly, this is unjustifiable as it grants infinite power to one party without any recourse by the other. All contracts require voluntary consent by each party, something that cannot exist with implied consent.
Even without implied consent, I would argue that the very concept of government is necessarily one that cannot be justified, even if taking into account the hypothetical voluntary government above. Perhaps for the very first days of a new form of government would not be tyranny over those who did not explicitly agree, but as soon as new children are born and become moral agents, they find themselves in a system that they did not create and one to which they never agreed. According to the defenders of the system, these now grown children are subject to the laws created before they could even consent. Like implied consent, this removes the contract analogy and leaves the defender of the state without a basis upon which to claim consent.
There is no necessary connection between mere existence or existence in a given place and agreeing to being ruled. To claim otherwise is akin to blaming the woman who goes to a party for being raped at that party. “If she hadn’t gone, it wouldn’t have happened, so she consented by going” goes this argument. Clearly this is not a sound justification in either example.
Sadly, however, this imagined justification is exactly what we see today in the appeals to the Constitution in the US and other documents or traditions in other nations. Those who were never even in a position to agree to the terms, find themselves subject to the rules and rulers they never selected. This is in fact worse than the divine right of kings or even mob rule. The end of the rule by a particular king came with his death. Even in the situation of mob rule, popular opinion changes. Yet, when the desires of one set of people are carved into stone and set as the foundation of a government, there is no escape. The dead remain dead and their edicts remain in place.
Could our hypothetical voluntary government be saved? To avoid this fatal problem, our hypothetical all voluntary government would have to be reformed as each new moral agent comes to that agency. In our current way of thinking, as they come of age. Maybe if we had perfect generations where birthdays were shared and evenly spaced, a new government could be reformed with each generation, but this is a mere theoretic possibility, not how the world actually works.
With this, we can see that even our hypothetical voluntary government cannot escape the tyranny of the dead. Perhaps this is why the idea of this tyranny of the dead is so commonly accepted that few can be bothered by it despite the absurdity of the idea. The common response is to suggest that if you don’t like it, then leave, but the absence of one person does not justify the practice itself.
People try in vain to defend government, particularly democracies and representative republics, by claiming that those in power are under our control, that they answer to us, and therefore, the government and all of its laws are the will of the people. This is complete nonsense for many reasons.
First, of course, is that no one person can represent thousands of others who each have their own unique beliefs and desires. Our competing desires cannot be represented by any other individual. But setting that aside, this supposed representative is only affecting new laws, new regulations, and new governmental actions. He or she simply accepts all that has come before, and in many cases, even swears to uphold all of these old conditions. This defense of the state, the democratic or representative state, fails because the bulk of what constitutes the state and state action comes from laws, practices, and regulations put into place long before the representative or those controlled by those laws were even born. This supposed defense of the state fails because we are ruled not by those supposed representatives but by the dead who we cannot remove from power.
Those who defend the representative state claim legitimacy based on a largely imagined consent of the governed. But when government and laws are put into place long before a person even exists, how could they consent?
Consent at the very least requires existence, knowledge, and explicit agreement. None of these exist in such a situation.
Ultimately all government must become anther example of the tyranny of the dead.
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