Down by the River Side

 

I’m going to lay down my sword and shield

Down by the river side.

Down by the river side.

Down by the river side.

I’m going to lay down my sword and shield

Down by the river side.

I ain’t goin’ to practice war no more.

It has been said that if all men were angels, we would not need government. I haven’t heard anyone state another obvious truth: If all men were angels, government could not exist. Government is the organization that holds the monopoly on the acceptable use of violence. It uses violence to achieve all its ends and it defines what violence is permissible for its subjects to use. We believe that angels are incorporeal and so they are not subject to violence. If you put an angel in a cage, he will walk through the bars. If you threaten an angel with a gun, he will look at you with contempt. If you put an angel in an electric chair, he will mock you: He will laugh and say the current tickles. I have wondered whether an angel, untroubled by material concerns, might be entrusted to rule a government. Then Lucifer, that angel of light, came to mind and I remembered that most of the truly evil rulers were motivated by pride and spite. No, I would not entrust even an angel with the reins of the state.

Now that President Obama has started implementing fundamental change to the American government, a number of people are questioning the proper role of government. In fact, we are now in the golden age of antigovernment rhetoric. As many citizens strongly opposed President Bush’s war in Iraq so many others oppose the current administration’s changes, such as their plans for health care, energy, labor, and education. Both presidents have made bold leaps in governmental policy but they have merely accelerated changes that have been going on for more than a hundred years.

The population has been celebrating America’s international power and increasing governmental control of the economy for a very long time. All of a sudden, many are dissatisfied and many are angry. We need to consider that no government has existed very long in an unchanged form. Some have changed. Some have been overthrown. Others have been conquered. People have often looked back with nostalgia at some supposed excellent government but no one has reconstituted these utopias. In fact, modern archaeology has found several populations living in tribal societies whose ancestors lived under kings and priests. People who used to be called savages and primitives must now be seen as post-civilized. Examples of such people exist in the Americas and Africa. There are also geographical areas, especially in western Asia, that were once ruled by fabled kings and emperors, that are now populated by people whose main form of social organization is families, clans, and tribes.

We can look at our modern democracies in two ways. We can see them as a step toward individual liberty and dignity. We can also regard democracy as one more ruse in the rulers’ bag of tricks: By creating a system that can make small changes easily, those in power can maintain their positions without fear of revolution or drastic economic upheaval. The 20th century saw the implementation of totalitarianism in the forms of communism, fascism, and Nazism. These governments were all designed for the benefit of the general population. The differences among them are fairly insignificant. "The people" were identified as different groups as were "the enemies of the people," but in all cases the governments used unlimited power to protect and uplift the people. The governments murdered large percentages of their own population in order to achieve a perfect state. One would think that the survivors would have been content with the results. However, these experiments in using government for the people produced some of worst and shortest lived states in human history. The remnants of these experiments now exist in the miserable countries of North Korea and Cuba, societies where adequate food is a luxury.

Our modern American democracy is a government of, by, and for the people. The people should be happy with their creation. Of course, you can’t please all the people all the time; we expect dissent. However, the history of modern democracies proves another point: Government can’t please half the people any of the time. American history can be seen as continual change and continual rejection of the original constitutional system. Sometimes the alterations have been legally implemented as the Constitution dictated; more often, the Constitution has simply been ignored or interpreted in bizarre ways to permit the accumulation of power in the federal government. Some people call the changes progress; others rail against them. It is undeniable, though, that the population has tacitly accepted these changes. Anyone who wants to understand the nature of government must admit that the Constitution has been a failure.

You may reject what I say but I ask you to think about it: Let’s say I give you absolute control of a government and a legion of angels to do your bidding. Let’s say that you could implement any government you wanted at any cost in life or money to your people. I claim that after 5 years of your rule that at least 35% of the people would vote to replace you. You could install communism or you could create a libertarian state. You could rule as a tightrope walking "moderate." It wouldn’t matter. In 5 years, at least 35% of the people would vote to replace you.

Of course, you would call those citizens who voted against you envious or greedy. They would be religious or political fanatics. You would be able to explain their votes in any number of ways but, still, they would vote against you. I am being charitable. The people rejected the Constitution; they would probably vote you out of office in 5 years. When you describe some improvement to the present government, these are the thoughts that run through my head.

You tell me that you can’t imagine a society without government. Of course, there were no governments for most of human history but still you can’t imagine it. For the rest of human history the overwhelming majority of people have considered government to be a predator. How, you ask, could Americans protect themselves? Let’s take a look at Afghanistan. Here we have a country in complete poverty with a small population. Yet this country has resisted both the brutality of the Soviets and the temptations of the Americans simply because a certain small percentage of the population rejected rule. Now imagine a rich country, armed to the teeth (perhaps with nuclear weaponry), with a population that unanimously rejected the idea of government. The concept of attacking such people is unthinkable. An aggressor would have a better chance at pacifying current day America than such a group of people. You can only conquer a conquered country.

If you cannot imagine how such a society would work, there are many intellectuals who will draw you a maps of it. I am not one of those people. You do not want to imagine how anarchy could work. You prefer to imagine how government can work more to your liking. You can be smarter than all the writers of the Constitution combined, and you will still not satisfy more than a fraction of your people with your government. I ask that you start using your mind to find ways to extricate the people from the state. That is a task worthy of your thoughts.

Government is a form of slavery inasmuch as material goods are allocated by the use of violence. Government is a form of war against the people because the state is always trying to pacify its malcontents. I will practice this war no more. I will lay down my sword and shield. Even if you talk to me of libertarianism, all I can say is, "Well, that’s going in the right direction." I will not even entertain political questions. Such thoughts are a trick in which I am encouraged to identify with my rulers. I will never vote. Such an act is nothing but a symbolic attack on my neighbor’s property and person. Even in my thoughts, I will practice this war no more.