Society, Government, and Association

Thomas Paine wrote that “some writers have so confounded society with government, as to leave little or no distinction between them, whereas they are not only different, but have different origins.”  He goes on to say that “society in every state is a blessing, but government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one.”  There are some useful points here to use when encountering criticism of libertarianism, especially as regards the freedom to associate (or disassociate).

Some misinformed folks tend to think that libertarians and market anarchists are anti-community, or anti-social.  Most of the time, this stems from the fact that libertarians recognize that freedom of association also implies the negative – that I should not be forced to associate with those I do not choose to, for whatever personal reasons I have. Now, lots of people jump on the bandwagon and demagogue libertarians for their “racist” or “homophobic” views.  In reality, they are missing the forest for the trees, which is the contention that government ought not be in the business of dictating who you must do business with.  The sad fact is that racists will exist regardless of the Civil Rights Act, and that government legislation simply drives the problem underground – it does not eliminate it.  A much better solution, devoid of force, would be to let market factors dictate which principles are valued (like inclusiveness).  I would much rather be aware that a certain shop owner doesn’t serve Jews, or that a certain company hates redheads…I could then cease to give them my business.  A truly free market would have economic consequences for those business owners who hold personal biases.  Making a profit is a pretty strong incentive to serve all sorts of customers. Conversely, would you demand that a black barber be compelled to give a haircut to a white supremacist?  This is forced association, which is unnatural and immoral.

What Paine is getting at in the above quotes is that society (peaceful, voluntary cooperation among people) is desirable and a blessing.  It is natural and instinctive to come together and develop a division of labor.  Think of a man in the woods – if he is alone, his attempts to gather food, build shelter, find water, make clothing, etc will eventually consume him and deprive him of a meaningful life.  It is naturally AND economically beneficial to treat all others with dignity and my guess is that this would be the vast majority of transactions in a voluntaryist society.

I disagree with Paine on one small (but important) word, and that is that government is a ‘necessary’ evil.  Evil, yes…as anything built on a foundation of force and coercion must be. But necessary?  We have certainly been conditioned to think so. I’d like to refer you to my guest blog “Is Government Necessary?”, found here.

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