A weird twitter exchange on the State, government, and society

I made a tweet on Thursday:

To those of you who believe government is a necessary evil: You’re half right.

This is an old saying and has certain a humor value to many of us. It obviously means that government is evil and it is not necessary. I got back a couple of replies that showed some folks thought it amusing. Apparently it was not so funny to one of my followers @johnkindley (update, former follower) for some reason. No problem with that; to each his own as is often said. But the exchanges that ensued are baffling in many regards.

This one in particular that John Kindley wrote to me:

@MarkStoval Where 2 or 3 are gathered to secure rights, there is “government” in the midst of them.

That says to me that John does not believe that it is even possible to get away from government at all if one even gets together with even one other human being. No escape at all, apparently.

Now the State is widely recognized to be that entity that has a monopoly on the legitimate use of force within a given territory. It seemed odd to me that John wanted to say that any two private people seeking to secure their natural rights automatically became a “government”. I told him he was confusing “government” for “society”.  I told him people can not communicate if one chooses to just up and use their own private definitions of words.  He responded with this tweet:

@MarkStoval I beg to differ that these are my personal defs. See Sec. I of Ch. 2 of Nock’s Our Enemy, the State: http://www.lewrockwell.com/orig3/nock1.html

So now John wants to defend his calling all private cooperation “government” by appealing to Albert Jay Nock who described himself as a philosophical anarchist. I found that odd to say the least. Having read Nock before, I wondered what he thought he had found. The part that he cites is partially quoted below:

AS FAR back as one can follow the run of civilization, it presents two fundamentally different types of political organization. This difference is not one of degree, but of kind. It does not do to take the one type as merely marking a lower order of civilization and the other a higher; they are commonly so taken, but erroneously. Still less does it do to classify both as species of the same genus – to classify both under the generic name of “government,” though this also, until very lately, has been done, and has always led to confusion and misunderstanding.

A good understanding of this error and its effects is supplied by Thomas Paine. At the outset of his pamphlet called Common Sense, Paine draws a distinction between society and government. While society in any state is a blessing, he says, “government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one.” In another place, he speaks of government as “a mode rendered necessary by the inability of moral virtue to govern the world.” He proceeds then to show how and why government comes into being. Its origin is in the common understanding and common agreement of society; and “the design and end of government,” he says, is “freedom and security.” Teleologically, government implements the common desire of society, first, for freedom, and second, for security. Beyond this it does not go; it contemplates no positive intervention upon the individual, but only a negative intervention. It would seem that in Paine’s view the code of government should be that of the legendary king Pausole, who prescribed but two laws for his subjects, the first being, Hurt no man, and the second, Then do as you please; and that the whole business of government should be the purely negative one of seeing that this code is carried out.

So far, Paine is sound as he is simple. …. It did not originate in the common understanding and agreement of society; it originated in conquest and confiscation. … [click on link above to read it all]

In my reading of John’s supposed defense of his implication that there is always a “government” any time two or more people congregate is that he is in error as to what Nock was saying. Even worse, the skipped part one where Nock claimed that there were two reservoirs of power: the State and Society. Yep, Nock wrote government or society.

If you look up “government” at wikipedia it says in part:

A form of government, or form of state governance, refers to the set of political institutions by which a government of a state is organized. Synonyms include “regime type” and “system of government“.

So, as far as I can tell from the twitter exchange John was trying to defend the “necessity” of the State by saying that there is always government if there are two or more people. Why else would he re-define ‘society’ as ‘government’ if that were not his intention? I know that even some minarchists have a deep need to claim that society comes as a gift from government, but this was one of the more weird attempts I have seen if I am correct in my assessment of what John was doing.

As far back as the Taoists of China thousands of years ago, men have realized that society was self-organizing and that order naturally arises without the need for a ruler. Society is mutual cooperation and hence there will be “rules” of conduct and people will cooperate with one another to protect themselves from a “rule breaker”, but this is not what the overwhelming vast majority of humans mean when they say “government”.

But text is easy to misunderstood and 140 characters (even less when you respond with the other’s name in the response) is not nearly enough to make large points, so maybe I misunderstood John. Perhaps John was not saying that all voluntary cooperation among humans is “government” at all. Perhaps his point was something else an I just missed it. If so, I can not imagine what it was.

John, if you do read this I hope you can understand my confusion over your tweets to me. You can correct any misunderstanding of mine in comments to this post, or on twitter, or by link to some post at another site that you use. Or you can let it go. Your choice my friend.

UPDATE: Now John tells me on twitter that he was not trying to defend a “night watchman State” or minarchy at all. Apparently all he wanted to prove was that Nock saw a difference between “government” and “state”. Even though Nock’s first sentence in his book was “If we look beneath the surface of our public affairs, we can discern one fundamental fact, namely: a great redistribution of power between society and the State” is about the difference between society and the State as I have been pointing out to him, he says “government” means “society” apparently.

At this point the best I can figure is that when Nock says that the “government” of the Indians is “government” and the “government” of the new USA is a “State” this means to John there can never be an anarchy. Well, if that is what he wants to think, fine. But he will have a lot of trouble convincing anyone of that. I doubt even Nock would accept that premise.

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2 thoughts on “A weird twitter exchange on the State, government, and society

  1. Great blog Mark, really enjoy it. I do have to point out one issue I have with the piece though. Early in the piece you write “…State is widely recognized to be that entity that has a monopoly on the legitimate use of force…”
    I take issue with the use of the word legitimate to describe the use of force by the state. I believe that legal would be a better term as legitimate implies moral authority, which the state most definately does not have.
    A smaill nitpic I know, (leave it to a writer to squabble over one word), but the distinction is an important one in my opinion.
    Thanks, keep up the good work.

  2. I think that is among the such a lot vital information for me. And im satisfied reading your article. However want to observation on few general issues, The web site style is wonderful, the articles is actually excellent : D. Good activity, cheers

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