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Government and servicing

By Daniel M. Ryan
web posted March 17, 2008

The conventional model of government in a market society is the bourgeois one. According to this conception, the government is in essence an extension of the marketplace. A role for government opens up when there's a collective-goods problem, where people have to be roped in to pay for a service that they all will enjoy anyway. In a democracy, those areas are found out by citizen complaints, and occasionally by bureaucratic entrepreneurship. (Yes, there is such a thing, but exercise of it tends to invite complaints of a different sort when exercised freely.)

If you clicked the link just above, you may have inferred that the public-goods option is designed in large part to rope in the presumed freeloader. This rationale puts the bourgeois stamp on the concept: in bourgeois ethics, paying one's own way is a major virtue. Freeloading, let alone theft, is a major vice.  

Another model of governance comes from a group of people that are labeled ‘bourgeois' simply because they tend to stick up for businesspeople operating in the still-free part of the economy. Their model of government, though, is profoundly different from the bourgeois one: it's the libertarian model. The most comprehensive explications of it can be found here and here.  

The libertarian model splits society into two classes: tax-payers and tax-consumers. The more complete version, designed to untangle the mixed(-up) economy, divides society into net tax payers and net tax consumers. Someone that falls into the former category has to fork over more to the government than he or she receives from the government. A person in the latter category gets more out of government than he or she pays to it. By definition, any government employee is a net tax consumer – any of them, including members of the military and the police.

So far, those two models don't seem that different. In fact, their members often find themselves on the same side of many issues. The libertarian model can provide a service to the kind of bourgeois that is convinced that the government is chock-full of thieves. And yet, there is a subtle but crucial difference between the two, which explains why there are at least as many libertarians on social assistance as there are in corporate PR slots. The consistent libertarian doesn't consider government to be an organized theft ring per se; he or she considers government to be a means of organized plunder. Plundering implies conquest.

This conception is Franz Oppenheimer's model of the State. Every government is the settled remains of a band of conquerors: what began as booty is regularized through taxation. The tax system is the velvet curtain that hides the sword at the taxpayers' throat. The justifications of the tax collector are the white gloves which cover the mailed fists that says, mutely, "Your money or your freedom."

One useful way of differentiating the two systems is to see what their antipodes are. A notorious downside of the bourgeois model is its willingness to go along with fascism in extreme times. A fascist government, to the bourgeois mindset, is a service provider like any other. In normal times, this ‘service' is not wanted – but is so in certain crises. If a government which does not formally answer to the electorate delivers the goods in an efficient manner, then it might as well be put up with for pragmatic reasons. The brag of Mussolini's Fascists, that Fascism "made the trains run on time," is aimed squarely at the bourgeois.

It would be a mistake to conclude that the bourgeois circuit has a secret liking for fascism. The typical bourgeois doesn't, for the obvious reason that fascism strangles private initiative in a mire of red tape. Fascism puts the military at the top rank, so consultation of the regulated before imposing new regulations is (to put it gently) optional. The only recorded time of large-scale bourgeois support for fascism indicates that the typical bourgeois sees fascism as a Beelzebub that is useful in driving out Satan himself. The bourgeois' Satan is none other than socialism.

We have reached another subtle but definite division point between the two models of government. The bourgeois sees socialists as agents of the Devil, in large part because socialism seeks to totally abolish the market, and also because socialists see bribery and payoffs – "cumshaw" – as evidence of iniquity rather than as a moderating force that softens the effect of bad laws and/or regulations. (Fascists tend to be easygoing about cumshaw, as its existence reinforces their mostly genial disdain for the business class…provided that its members don't get too "uppity.") Thus, the bourgeois is prone to seeing socialists as crazed do-gooders, as good-government moralists on steroids.

The libertarian, on the other hand, tends to see the socialist as someone who believes in the impossible – as the inhabitant of a dreamworld – but otherwise not that bad. There are more than a few left-libertarians who sympathize with socialists, if viewing them as imprecise. This kind of libertarian tends to read left-wing critiques of "capitalism" and substitute "State capitalism" or "mercantilism" automatically. Not believing in linear progress to the degree that the socialist does, the left-libertarian is inclined to see "finance capitalism" as just a warmed-over variant of the same old mercantilism. Plums for the boys, to put it briefly.

If there's any natural antipode to libertarianism, it would have to be aristocratic governance. Note that the latter takes the opposite side of the Oppenheimer model. "Since our ancestors conquered you-all, we have won the right to do as we please with you – subject to the dictates of God, of our own consciences, and of our customs and traditions. Not yours – ours. The extent to which we take account of yours is merely a reflection of our obedience to God and of our finer natures. If you disagree, kindly make your complaints to the sword." This antipode makes the libertarian more prone to hate fascism, the street answer to aristocratic governance, than socialism.

The two can even be distinguished by the jokes they make about the other's political worldview. Bourgeois jokes at the expense of the libertarian model abound: most of them portray libertarians as country rubes whose political worldview comes straight from the subsistence farm. An example of a libertarian-oriented joke at the expense of the bourgeois model comes from Episode #11 of The Brak Show: Brak's sidekick, Zorak, hits upon a great business idea – in exchange for fifty cents from a customer, he'll beat the customer up ESR

Daniel M. Ryan is a regular columnist for LewRockwell.com, and has an undamaged mail address here.


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