This week, I am clearly picking the low-hanging fruit. I have to admit, working on my book last month and getting so worked up last week seems to have burned me out. I’d rather just read Dostoevsky and listen to Dimmu Borgir in my free time this week. Instead, I’m going to lean on my default post-type and define something while looking at the etymology and philology of the term.
Looking at my definition of anarchy (and the preceding discussion), it would seem that I am doing things backwards. Typically, people define anarchy as “the absence of government”; I argue that anarchy was here first and government is the absence (or privation of) anarchy. I could leave the conversation at that, but I wouldn’t be doing the history of the word its due time, nor would the subject warrant a full blog post.
“Government” is one of the many words that English-speakers have lifted from the French, like buffet, ballet, abatement… lots of words that end in “t”, it would seem. In the French use of the word, it largely means the same thing it does in English: “The group of assholes who violently claim arbitrary swaths of land and the people and fruits thereof”. Technically, the noun form of the word is derived from the original verb, “To control or dictate.” Unless we are speaking of self-governance, that sounds an awful lot like coercion and slavery.
As a matter of fact, that’s where the French got the word. Somehow (there’s some debate in academia), the French got a hold of an ancient Greek word: kybernan. Kybernan is the Greek word for “piloting a ship”. Pretty innocuous and maybe even voluntarist, right? Well, this word came into widespread use in the time of Greece’s heyday of naval warfare and mercantilism. Still innocent-sounding? The ships of that period were not diesel or cesium-powered, nor were they steamboats or sailing ships; they were powered by slaves. The primary method of steering a ship was by dictating the manner, rate, and direction the slaves were to row.
It would seem that kybernan has managed to keep it’s meaning fairly well through its multiple iterations. The federalists, especially Madison and Hamilton, were particularly fond of descriptions and metaphors for government that, while not quite “The citizens shall be like slaves rowing a trireme while me and my friends whip them,” were not much different. Interestingly enough, the prefix “cyber-” is derived from the very same Greek word. “Cybernetics” or “systems theory” is inextricably tied to government, too. In today’s vernacular, “cyber-whatever” usually means “computer-y” or “robot-y”, but cybernetics is a field of study much older than computers and robots. Cybernetics is a tradition that reaches back to Plato, but has changed dramatically from it’s origins in “studying regularity in closed systems” into a form of sociological alchemy pursued by many famous intellectuals such as John Dewey, Norbert Wiener, and Alan Turing. This set of theories were predicated on the idea that human environments were closed systems which could be molded by internal and external factors. The idea driving cybernetics was the idea that the masses of under-educated and working castes could be molded into a sort of perpetual-energy machine, sustaining both itself and the lifestyles of the enlightened progressives. All such an endeavor would require is the perfect admixture of coercion, theft, violence, and mind-control.
This may sound like a crazy conspiracy theory, but it is truly a matter of mainstream historical fact. On need only read the writings of those involved in the project to confirm its facticity. Besides, there’s already a popular (and crazy) conspiracy theory about the word “government” that I need to dispel. Rather than focusing on the historical reality of Dewey’s obsession with cybernetics and government, some say that “government” is either Old English or Latin for “governing minds” or, alternatively, “mind control”. Given the relationship between cybernetics and western governments over the last century-and-a-half, it isn’t surprising that one would assume that “government” and “mind control” are synonymous, but there is one degree of separation betwixt the two; it’s just a funny philological quirk that it worked out that way. As is usually the case, it is better to address historical realities and actual conspiracies instead of creating imagined conspiracy theories out of ignorance.
While fun, this linguistic foray has done little to define the term “government”. Unless, that is, we are going to define government as “slave-driving on an ancient Greek boat.” I guess I went on this tangent to bolster the case for my definition, but before I deliver the punchline and just tell you my definition, I have one last point to touch on.
Those Greek slaves were different in nearly every way from the slaves in America circa 19th century, and both were equally different from slaves in Egypt circa the 20th century BC. What, then, is common to each “slave” to make them such? Slaves in the American south were largely allowed to do whatever they wished when not working, so “total loss of autonomy” doesn’t work. Slaves in Greece were afforded second-class citizenship and some degree of representation in government, so “lack of legal ‘rights” and “lack of political representation” does not suffice. Many slaves in Egypt became such voluntarily, as an alternative to the death penalty or to pay off family debts, so even “being conscripted from your home country” doesn’t work. Similarly, nearly every alternative faces similar counterfactuals.
However, even in the case of Greek slavery (which had the most liberty regarding property to my knowledge), that property was more-or-less rented from the local government and could be repossessed via an ancient Greek eminent domain from which real citizens were secure. Therefore, I think I’m going to take a page out of the AnCaps’ book and say that the defining characteristic of a slave is a systematic or institutionalized denial of one’s property rights. It wouldn’t be surprising, then, that Marx would have found the average family of his day to be a form of slavery. I’m sure you’ve already guessed where this is going; kybernan, being equivalent to “slave driving”, and “government”, being equivalent to “an absence of anarchy” gives us a historical basis for saying “government” is best defined as, “an institutionalized denial of one’s property rights”. I have not yet been presented with an example of government, in the abstract or specific, which fails to meet this criteria, nor have I encountered an instance, in the abstract or specific, of an institution which is not a functional equivalent to government which meets this criteria.
Taxation is functionally equivalent to declaring superseding ownership over another’s property or self and demanding rent for continued use of that property or self. Property tax is a declaration of ownership of land and improvements upon the land. Income tax (by the books) is a declaration of ownership concerning monetary gains that arrive in the owned territory and is also (in practice) a declaration of ownership of one’s labor. Sales (and the synonymous “value-added”) tax is the declaration of ownership of both (or either) the property changing hands and/or the relationship between the two parties. This list is as long as the list of things taxed.
Law enforcement is functionally equivalent to declaring ownership of either one’s self or one’s actions (same thing, really). Even the most honorable and benevolent law-maker will admit (as the Federalists openly did) that laws are designed as an attempt to control individuals. I’ve already addressed the relationship between control and ownership, so we don’t need to discuss that now.
In establishing a monopoly on certain services (de-facto or explicitly) such as defense, security, infrastructure management, financial instruments, etc., governments establish a claim on either the concepts themselves or every specific instance of such things. For example, I can’t own a tank, arrest someone, build a power generator, mint coins, deliver packages, or even opt-out of having those services provided without explicit permission. Of course, all of these services are provided by way of stealing my property and by taking out loans from central banks using me and my descendants as collateral… yet another explicit claim of ownership over myself and all I own.
Someone can attempt to contrive something that looks like, and achieves similar outcomes to government without violating property rights. So far, every time I’ve witnessed such attempts, the attempt either fails to meet so simple a moral standard or is, effectively, a description of AnCapistan. This is how I, myself, became an anarchist. I was a communist out of an Aristotelian notion of positive rights and the need for government to provide them. After a decade or so of trying to explicate and enumerate rights and how they could all be upheld without contradiction, I realized that it is metaphysically impossible to uphold positive rights and that the government can’t even protect one’s negative rights.
TL;DR Government, the absence of anarchy, is ultimately defined by one identifiable function. Every historical example of government presents some feature or behavior unique from or contradictory to another, save one. Interestingly, slavery is defined by the same function which is fitting given the etymological root of the word: kybernan. Government is “the institutionalized denial of property rights.”