I’ve Stopped Supporting Government, Now How Shall I Oppose It?

Some feedback:

I thought it was important that before I begin considering whether to or how to resist the government that I start by withdrawing my support for it. I think many of the people who are out on the streets with their signs and chants are fooling themselves if they think they oppose the war — their chants don’t take a nickel from the bottom line of their actual support.

How to or whether to resist the government is another matter. I think that a compelling case for the need to resist the government can be made. Now, finally, I have the luxury of being able to weigh that case. Once I stop supporting the government, I can make the decision of whether to wash my hands of it or whether to actively oppose it.

Until I stopped supporting the government, my “opposition” to it was a matter of opinion and had pretty much as much weight as any other opinion does — less than nothing unless the weather is hot enough so that air exits my mouth at less than the ambient temperature.

I don’t spend much time anymore thinking about what a good government would look like. I’ve come to disbelieve in government — not in the sense of disillusionment, but actual non-belief. I think that what we call government is really just people and places and buildings. The actions of “government” are really just the actions of people following certain rules and roles and norms.

Which isn’t to say that “government” isn’t a useful shorthand for referring to a set of institutions, employees, legal algorithms, etc. But this shortcut doesn’t in itself have an existence. The mistake is like saying that you want to refer to the creative, life-giving entropic momentum in the universe by the name “god” — (“okay,” says the skeptic) — then you start to personify “God” and give Him opinions and motives and eyes and a crown and such. Pretty soon, you’re not naming an abstraction so much as creating literature and living in a fantasy world.

So the question isn’t “what kind of government is good,” “what can a just government demand of its citizens,” etc. but “how should people behave towards each other, since the idea of an external government to which we must relinquish our consciences is a myth?”

It’s like asking an atheist to tell you what kind of god he thinks made the world, or what kind of responsibilities God has toward his creation, or what kind of responsibilities we should have towards God, or how God would have us live. The atheist would say none of those are meaningful questions, since there is no god.

The questions the atheist would ask are: “how should we live, given that we can’t rely on a god to tell us how to live?” “how was the universe created, if it wasn’t God who did it?” and so forth.

I think it’s important to awaken in people their own consciences and their sense of responsibility for their own choices. I think that’s more important than dreaming up some institutional or algorithmic structure designed to take these burdens off of our shoulders.

When a government agent steals from me, it is just a person stealing from me. When a police officer threatens to make me a hostage, it is just a person threatening me with kidnapping. That they use the excuse of having a job description or “government” that authorizes such behavior is their hallucination and their problem (though I certainly will take into account the threatening delusions of my well-armed fellow citizens), and I feel as helpless trying to reason with them as Elizabeth Smart must have felt in the clutches of her God-authorized child-snatcher. My feelings towards reform of government are much as my feelings towards any large criminal syndicate that threatens me: reduce the threat as much as possible, and keep my head down meanwhile.

My problem isn’t with the use of abstractions or shorthand symbols but with the confusion this causes when people forget or deny that they’re using abstractions.

When people say that the reason they’re performing an action is because the government requires it, they’re using “government” as an excuse for their behavior in a way that is often dishonest. The problem with the shorthand version is that it covers too much ground — it’s ambiguous. It pretends to explain something, but actually leaves it unexplained.

The shorthand of “government” or “law” as an excuse for behavior hides behind it a jungle gym’s worth of evasions of personal responsibility.

My feeling is that people do not have the capability to abdicate their consciences. They can make trade-offs, they can decide to defer to the judgments of people they consider better-informed, or whatever — but in doing so they are exercising their consciences. If you make the wrong decision by following someone else’s judgment — you have made the wrong decision, not the someone else (who may also have made the wrong decision, but you know what I mean.)

And this is the problem that “government” (among other things) pretends to cure. “Government” says “I will make some of your decisions for you, and I will take all the blame if things go bad.” That’s snake oil. Can’t be done. It’s like a perpetual motion machine.

And, crucially, it killed almost two hundred million people in . Which is to say, people killed almost two hundred million other people in , shooting them in the back of the head, starving them to death, stuffing them into gas chambers, etc. thinking all the while that it wasn’t them who was doing these things but the “government.” (And that isn’t even counting the deaths when armies met on the battlefield).

If you decide to go along with the law or the majority or what have you because you’re not confident that your own judgment is any better — that’s a plausibly sensible heuristic and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. But your decision and your action is ultimately yours, and you are responsible for the consequences. If it turns out to be a screw-up, the right thing to do is to consider alternative courses of action that won’t be so screwed up — the wrong thing to do is to passively hope that the law / majority / whatever will improve so that your moral laziness won’t have those consequences anymore.

It’s tempting to object to this by saying that the law is different, because it really is an implicit gun-to-your-head that eliminates your freedom of choice.

But even a gun to your head doesn’t eliminate your freedom of choice — it just adds to the set of consequences your choices may produce. It becomes a factor that you add up along with all of the other factors before making your decision. In the case of a gun to the head, it’s a pretty big consequence and a pretty overwhelming factor, but it doesn’t change the basic rules of the game.