There is an excellent video entitled Forms of Government, and I highly recommend watching that as a backdrop to this article. It concludes that all forms of government eventually result in either despotism or a constitutional republic. Assuming nobody consciously wants the former, the real question is how to implement the latter.
I personally advocate the Libertarian model (not to be confused with liberal), whose slogan is essentially, “Do no harm”, and whose view of government is that it should be as small and weak as possible, and only as large and strong as necessary. Government’s function should be to keep the peace (that is, to restrain those who do harm), to protect the borders from outside aggressors, and perhaps a few other issues affecting the whole nation and its peace.
Of course, the first order of business should always be to define terms, starting with “harm”. While there are many things people would agree constitute harm, there are people who take any perceived insult or deprivation as harm. This should be spelled out enough to establish guidelines or principles by which each individual case can be judged, but not in such detail that government becomes a nanny watching over toddlers.
The next order of business should be to determine the fine balance between allowing people maximum freedom and protecting them from individuals who would violate it. How should government punish or restrain such individuals? Would children be taken from parents if it is deemed that they are doing harm to them? At what point would someone’s activities on their own property make them guilty of harming other properties? Society must decide and define these cases, and determine the appropriate manner of dealing with violations. Government must find the balance between anarchy and micromanagement.
Society must also decide what to do with repeat violators. Personally, I think that if someone shows a pattern of disregard for the rights and property of others, that person is unfit to live in a free society. But should such people be incarcerated, and if so, why should decent people be burdened with providing their food, clothing, shelter, and medical care? The best solution, in my opinion, would be to deport them to an isolated place where they and others like them can live in anarchy, harming only each other rather than people who live in peace and honor constitutional law. Provision should be made for repentant individuals to return to civil society once they have proved their willingness and ability to do so, starting with paying for whatever harm they had done. Their experience in anarchy will not have made them helpless dependents, and it will have taught them the value of a nation of laws.
This principle of repatriation would also hold true for immigrants, since it applies to natural-born citizens. Citizenship should be based upon agreement to the laws of the land in either case. Citizenship in a libertarian republic should indeed be a privilege, but one granted on the basis of behavior rather than government fiat.
The “perfect storm” that ruins most republics is a combination of a lazy citizenry and a corrupt government. This usually begins with a plea for the government to grant humanitarian aid. Yet this is nothing short of “robbing Peter to pay Paul”, since the government produces nothing but can only consume what is taken from the people. History is replete with examples of this tactic, since it appeals to people’s sense of pity. But forced charity is robbery, and it cannot be done even to achieve the most lofty goals. Instead, charity and pity are the sole domain of individual people, who can voluntarily pool their resources to help the needy. Public aid is a Pandora’s Box whose opening inevitably results in tyranny.
A libertarian nation requires citizens who live according to principles, not impulses or whims. It requires individual maturity, self-sufficiency, cooperation, and all the other principles of peaceful coexistence. Yet it must not mistake tolerance for approval, or freedom for license. There will always be a need for boundaries and laws, but the degree to which these things are needed depends upon the quality of individual citizens. This requires principles of peaceful coexistence to be taught to succeeding generations, not by dictate but by example. Society must explain the rationale for its form of government, including reminders of other forms that inevitably fail. Respect for other people and their property is the key to the prosperity and peace of any nation.
The Libertarian Response to Bigotry
Freedom of conscience is one of the cornerstones of the libertarian form of government. People should be free to be bigots: racists, sexists, or whatever other class they feel should be privileged. But they are not free to act upon those feelings. Just as it is fine to express one’s opinions but not to force others to hear them, so also it is fine to believe one is a member of a privileged class, but not to enforce it on the unprivileged, since that would violate the principle “do no harm”. Even if someone expresses their full consent to be made a slave, this is the same as saying one does not wish to live in a libertarian republic. Genetic or social privilege is not compatible with libertarian principles.
The importance of this cannot be overstated. Some prejudices, especially between the sexes, have been deeply ingrained in societies the world over, for all of recorded history. Even among professing libertarians today there is much misogyny and patriarchy, even to the point of wishing to deny women the right to vote or to be fully autonomous adult human beings. This may well be the conviction of many men and women, but as stated in the preceding paragraph, the practice of such convictions would be incompatible with a libertarian republic. When people are made dependent upon other people, in spite of being physically and mentally capable of independence, they weaken society as well as themselves. The “master” in such relationships is not guaranteed to outlive the “slave”, leaving the “slave” helpless and in need of a new “master”, which historically has resulted in state-sponsored welfare. Though a truly libertarian government would have no business in how to deal with the “slaves”, the point is that they shouldn’t exist in the first place; not because it is morally wrong, but because it weakens society.
Yet there actually is a moral imperative. Certain issues, such as slavery, are considered immoral regardless of whether people approve or enjoy them. A married couple may actually enjoy having one partner beat and demean the other, and resent any outside interference. But the voluntary nature of a master/slave or abuser/victim relationship does not make it acceptable in a libertarian society. The most over-arching reason for this is that since “do no harm” is itself a morality imposed on some unwilling citizens, then the precedent of moral imposition is established. In fact, no national laws of any form of government can be made without imposing a moral code on unwilling citizens. It’s actually the very reason for laws in the first place.
But the specific reason for this is that humanity has always recognized certain things as immoral regardless of society: murder, theft, false testimony, kidnapping, etc. Slavery, while routinely condemned in the west, is still practiced in some societies, yet the societies that condemn it feel that they have the right to change the slavery societies. Then the question is, why is public slavery forbidden but private slavery permissible? Many advocate this double standard by saying that while national laws must forbid slavery, couples can practice it in the privacy of their relationships. But such a double standard cannot be contained; a nation is composed of individuals and families. If a significant portion of a country believes slavery is permissible as long as people enjoy it, then they will not support a national law against it.
The fact remains that a society whose individuals believe that it’s okay for some people to dominate and control others is not a libertarian society. Such a society would not have a right to call anything immoral, not even theft or murder or kidnapping, since privately practiced slavery does indeed harm others, and since enjoyment or volunteering to be mistreated is not a valid excuse for it. Secret vices eventually become social norms. The only harm that could possibly be excused is self harm, but even then there is a reason people try to stop other people from committing suicide. And that reason is that life matters, and a society that devalues life is doomed to extinction. Slavery is the devaluation of life, and it is irrelevant if an individual does not value their own life. A healthy society cares for its fellow citizens, and because it cares, it must at times intervene in situations where harm is being done, even if the harm is welcomed by the recipient of harm.
Every law, every moral code, is an arbitrary line drawn by some to thwart the wishes of others; there is no escaping this fact. And if the concept of drawing such a line is agreed to in principle, then no one can object to its location on the basis of it being arbitrary. The crux of such line drawing is how much importance is placed upon the principles underlying the choice, rather than the ever-changing whims of individuals. If it is deemed immoral to murder, then no law can ever be made to condone it, since murder is a fundamental and universal crime. But once that principle is established, then people can apply it to other things such as slavery, and no law could be made to condone it, even if some people would willingly enslave themselves, since the law was based on the principle of universal human rights rather than personal preference.
So the question for any society to answer is this: Will they make their laws based upon timeless and universal human rights, or will they make them on the basis of majority preference? The former is a constitutional republic; the latter is a democracy, which as the saying goes, is “two wolves and a lamb deciding on what’s for lunch”. But regardless of the choice, there will be unhappy citizens, because some people’s sense of morality will be imposed on others, by force. This is unavoidable, even in a libertarian society.