The proper functions of governance


I haven’t been writing much new “serious” stuff lately. This is mainly because I’ve been going over what I’ve written in the last couple of years, trying to fix some inconsistencies and clarify things that didn’t come over quite right. In the process, I’ve written six new, or substantially revised, sections. I’ll try to publish them over the next week or so. Here’s the first.

* * *

The first step towards solving the political problems we face today, I think, must be to understand what the valid functions of government (or, as I prefer to call it, governance) actually are. In my view, proper governance has a total of six functions; three principal and three subsidiary.

The first function of governance is to maintain peace. This includes the defence of the governed against external attack or internal violence.

The second function of governance is to deliver justice. This function includes the just resolution of disputes. Justice, as I put forward earlier, is the condition in which every individual, over the long term, in the round and as far as practicable, is treated as he or she treats others. And governance must be fair, objective and meticulous in all its decisions.

The third function of governance is defence of the rights of those who respect others’ rights. Those rights, as I discussed earlier, include fundamental rights like life, property and privacy; and rights of non-impedance, such as freedom of speech, religion and association.

All these three principal functions of governance can be seen as different aspects of a single whole. Namely, the delivery of peace and justice to all individuals.

There are further functions of governance which, while not as important as the first three, are nevertheless necessities. The fourth is co-ordination of the building of infrastructure. This is needed because, although infrastructure must be created and maintained at the local level, some degree of co-ordination is required to ensure that the infrastructure forms a coherent whole. For example, that a new road doesn’t suddenly dead-end at some arbitrary community border. But these functions must always be delivered and paid for in a way that is just towards every individual.

The fifth function is the maintenance of good relations with other, friendly communities.

The sixth and final function of governance is quality control of itself. It must maintain a constant ethical watch on the actions of governance as a whole, and of the individuals who constitute it. It must assure that the functions of governance are being performed as they should be. That those whose job is to maintain peace are indeed doing so to the best of their abilities. That the justice system is, and remains, just, objective and fair to everyone. That no-one in governance violates the rights of innocent people. That any decisions governance needs to make on behalf of those under it are made objectively, fairly, and taking into account the costs and benefits to every individual or group. And that governance – including the quality assurance function! – keeps meticulous and publicly accessible audit trails of all it does, and of the reasons behind every decision it makes.

In my view, these six are the valid functions, and the only valid functions, of governance. It is not a function of governance to impose any particular political or religious ideology. It is not a function of governance to try to cure perceived social ills. It is not a function of governance to pick winners and losers, or to re-distribute wealth from one group of people to another. And it is not a function of governance to provide education, or insurance, or any other good or service which can be effectively provided by individuals and groups in the free market.

6 comments

  • How do you prevent government becoming a class in its own right?

    How do you prevent government evolving into statehood?

    I get that there’s a distinction between government and governance in the dictionary, but I’m not sure it applies here. Governance is still government. It reminds me a little of those purist Marxists I used to associate with, who assured me that if and when they got their way, all states would be abolished. On closer examination, I realised that they weren’t really abolishing the state, the state would continue to exist – indeed, had to – just in another form. The form it would take is committees of elected people voting and deciding on major production decisions. Only the most naive person could imagine that this amounts to a stateless society.

    Your neo-Panglossian perspective seems along similar lines. You believe in private property of course, but let us remind ourselves that property requires law and law needs to be enforced. Of course, people could just be responsible for defending their own property (and perhaps that of others in co-operation), but is that property still or just a form of possession that is dependent on force entirely? I note that you speak of justice and law and the Golden Rule and so forth, but if there’s no state to defend and enforce these things, doesn’t it then boil down to naked force?

    These musings lead me a further question:

    Do you accept there is a patterned/dogmatic human nature or do you think we are blank slates? Just from simple observation, it appears to me that the different races have in common tribalism, territorialism and religion and all human societies are patterned after these things, even the most sophisticated.

    • Neil Lock must be busy. He normally replies; the two of us are like a double-act providing popcorn entertainment for the assembled intellectuals. But it’s not mandatory, so let me develop my theme a bit further.

      I like Dr. Gabb’s phrase, The Transformation. It’s layered in meaning but also neutral enough to encompass a variety of things. It’s ideal because what we need is a broad-based movement – a Conservative Rebellion, as I call it – that will enact a Counter-Transformation.

      The Counter-Transformation will include many different movements and groups and viewpoints and philosophies, often contradictory and at odds but all sharing the same objective – to restore normalcy.

      The differences between us are important, even fundamental, but may have to be worked out later. The controversy is over methodology. Under the present dispensation, nobody wants to be associated with my views, so part of the conservative method is to affect distance between ‘legitimate’ views and those within a cordon sanitaire.

      Between myself, Dr. Gabb and Neil Lock we have three different versions of Conservative Rebellion.

      Dr. Gabb is a conservative libertarian – establish normalcy through tradition and inclusion, tolerate Popperian intolerance to the extent possible.

      Neil is a dogmatic libertarian: establish normalcy by contracting-out or exiling Popperian intolerance through rational legal processes.

      My position could be seen as anarcho-fascist: establish normalcy by breeding-out intolerance (through aggressive culturism, eugenics, etc.).

      Conservativism is normalcy, as is fascism – the difference between the two is, I would argue, a matter of degree. Fascists are actually just ultra-conservatives or ‘ultra-moderates’. The extreme position is the orthodoxy being enforced by the state at present.

      Ordinary conservatives like Dr. Gabb perhaps act as a brake on people like me by arguing for toleration of the intolerant/anti-moderate rather than pro-actively dealing with them. We fascists use the state because that is the means available, but I would argue (similarly to Schmidt) that there is some ontological slippage in the whole concept of the state. A Saxon tribal chief is not a statist, but he does have quasi-statehood over his people.

    • Tom: Apologies for not replying sooner, I’ve been busy finishing off a paid-work project.

      For me, the essence of the state is that it has moral privileges over everyone else. It is allowed to do things others are not, and it is not held accountable for its actions – at least, short of a revolution. And even revolution only changes who is at the helm of the state, not the nature of the beast. Getting rid of the state is, therefore, a matter of getting rid of these moral privileges.

      What I seek is a system of governance, in which no-one has moral privilege. Everyone in governance is to be held accountable – even the judges. I’ll be putting more flesh on my ideas over the next months. The quality control function is part of this – it’s something that advocates of the separation of powers chose to leave to a free press, but as we can see now, when government becomes corrupted then the mainstream press gets corrupted by it.

      As I recall, Marx talked of the state withering away, but what his followers ended up doing was taking over the state and using it for their own purposes. They made it stronger, not weaker; with rather nasty consequences.

      As to human nature, I think its principal focus is on building civilizations. That in itself is independent of any particular culture; but obviously, someone born into a culture will take on some or all of its values. Tribalism, territorialism and religion are all of them things which humans and human societies display today; but they have different levels of importance to different people. Territorialism won’t go away on the small scale, but I think the large-scale, political state territorialism we live under today has been a wrong turning. Tribalism also will continue on the small scale – as nepotism, if nothing else. But again, large-scale tribalism seems to have had negative effects like wars and genocides. I think that other binding forces like culture, values, and mind-set will become more important than these things. And then, of course, there’s the potentially very strong binding force of mutual trade.

      Yes, “the Transformation” is one possible name for the goals of those that today are attacking our rights and our freedoms, and trying to force us into a top-down world of rulers (them) and slaves (us). Indeed, the deep greens like to use exactly that word. Though to my taste, the word isn’t nearly pejorative enough.

      And whether “Counter-Transformation” is the right description of where we need to be going, I’m not sure. Part of it, I see as Anti-Enlightenment (them) versus Re-enlightenment (us). Other parts might be Anti-freedom versus Re-freedom and Anti-prosperity versus Re-prosperity. Or I might even call their “Transformation” the De-humanization, and our response the Re-humanization.

      Whatever it may be, though it will surely be supportive of some values widely held by conservatives (like property), it certainly won’t be reactionary or backward-looking. But it will need to attract people of, as you say, “many different movements and groups and viewpoints and philosophies.” That’s why my system will have built in to it possibilities for opt-out and “doing your own thing” within a minimal framework of just governance.

      • No need for apologies, work must come first.

      • I lack time myself, so I’ll just focus on one or two points you make. I do appreciate these replies and I hope I am not being unfair in selecting out a sentence or two for examination. The context is viewable above anyway. Some people react very badly to critique, even when it’s civil and polite and manifestly well-intended. I admire that you have the mental robustness to withstand it and, if anything, it probably strengthens your arguments over time.

        You state:

        [quote]”What I seek is a system of governance, in which no-one has moral privilege. Everyone in governance is to be held accountable – even the judges.”[unquote]

        This does seem a bit weak to me. Simply holding people accountable does not preclude moral privilege, though I accept that’s not the extent of your ideas, as you go on to explain in that paragraph. I’m not sure a system of governance is possible without moral privilege, especially when private property is being asserted. But here we go round in circles because we have gone over this before. I would hold to a ‘sociological law’ that all government degenerates or evolves into statehood (or something comparable) over time, and thus you might say that all governance is at least quasi-statehood. To take that point further and deeper, you may say the state (as a metaphor or manifestation or representation) is ontologically-inevitable, and therefore just an extension of the natural drives I have mentioned (territory, tribe, religion). Even if you disagree, it surely must be the case that whatever system of governance is adopted, it will be built on the assertion of private property rights (or possessory contestation, as the case may be) and its ensuing pattern of social relations – i.e. hierarchy, authority, control, which is inherently privileged. You don’t need to be a Marxist to recognise this.

        Maybe moral privilege is not the right lens through which to look to things? Maybe we should just accept moral privilege as a necessity in any complex society (or social complex)? If true, this means human beings – of whatever culture – are destined towards incessant conflict – which I have to say makes sense to me, based on both my reading and day-to-day experiences.

        Another thing. I discussed human nature, but you don’t reply with any specificity about what you think it is, though you do argue that human nature is focused on building civilisations. I’m not sure about that, but I see where you are coming from. I’ll have to give it more thought. I had thought that civilisations are just the propagation of more elemental drives and not actually essential to our nature – basically optional. We could live outside civilisation. We could also live without civilisations. We have, in the past, destroyed civilisations. Arguably, we’re destroying one now, though a drive to build and destroy and then build again would I suppose amount to the same thing as what you have said: a cyclical tendency.

  • Tom,

    I think it’s perfectly possible to have a system without moral privilege, as long as people (or a great majority, at least) are convinced that moral privilege is a bad thing, are on the look-out for it, and are prepared to call it out when they see it. That’s essentially how all social norms are maintained. “One law for me, a different (and less free) law for thee” – and that’s what moral privilege, essentially, shows up as – is pretty obvious to those who are on the watch for it.

    As to human nature, I gave a brief summary of my view in a section here: https://misesuk.org/2019/01/04/on-welfare/. There’s another, slightly expanded version near the beginning of https://misesuk.org/2019/03/23/on-the-binding-forces-of-communities/.

    I’ll also pick up on something you said earlier about you and I “providing popcorn entertainment for the assembled intellectuals.” I like to think it’s actually a bit more than that. Remember that, today, virtually all “professional” intellectuals are statists, because they are paid by the state. It is only “amateur” intellectuals like you and me who can think about, and put out, radical ideas of freedom. We might not always get our ideas right – but I think it’s important to put them forward and to discuss them on a forum such as this, which does have some pretty sharp minds reading it (I think of Hugo Miller, for instance).

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