On Convivial Governance


Over the last two years, I’ve written twenty-six essays on political and ethical philosophy, government, and the ills of the political system under which we suffer today. The first twelve covered the philosophy, with side trips into science and environmentalism. The second group of seven were mainly about economic matters; though I did also discuss property and borders. The third group of seven led towards my diagnosis of the problems we face.

I’m just about done with the diagnosis. So today, I’ll embark on my search for Cure.

This essay is the first of a set of four, in which I aim to outline a new system of minimal or, as some say, “minarchist” governance. I call this convivial governance. This system will be bottom-up and de-politicized. That is: First, it will focus on the individual, and on small communities. And second, it will not allow any political ideology or agenda to be imposed on any of the governed against their wills.

In this, the first of the set, I’ll give an overview of my system. I’ll look at its aims, its functions, and its general design. The second essay will address the ethical principles on which it will be based. These are: First, moral equality, and the Convivial Code which encapsulates it. Second, common sense justice. Third, human rights. And fourth, maximum freedom for every individual. The third essay will sketch out some of the institutions which might implement convivial governance. And the fourth will discuss the thorny matter of how it should be paid for. After that, I’ll fill in some of the remaining gaps in a number of follow-up essays.

I’m sure that many people will find my ideas crazy, unworkable or both. But in that case, it’s up to them to tell me where and why I’m wrong, and to suggest better solutions if they can.

What is convivial governance?

Convivial governance is the phrase I use for a future system of minimal governance, which will allow good people to live together in an environment of peace, justice and maximum freedom for every individual. Put succinctly, it will be governance of convivial people, by convivial people, for convivial people.

It will govern a community of individuals, in much the same way as a referee governs a football match. It will also adjudicate as needed on the relationships between those individuals, the voluntary societies to which they belong, and other individuals and societies with which they interact.

Conviviality

The word convivial, meaning living together (with a side sense of living together well), I have borrowed from the Belgian philosopher Frank van Dun. His convivial order is a framework in which: “people live together regardless of their membership, status, position, role or function in any, let alone the same, society.” And he describes it as: “an order of friendly exchange among independent persons.”

I think of convivial governance as a system of governance intended to support, and to help to maintain, a particular kind of order. That is, Frank van Dun’s convivial order. And this “order” is, indeed, ordered. Though it is not a social order; it is not order imposed from the top down. The convivial order is a bottom-up order. Convivial order is spontaneous order.

I also use the word convivial in a more general sense, of treating other people peacefully and civilly. And convivial conduct (also known as conviviality) is the behaviour habitually indulged in by those who are, generally speaking, good people to have around you. Peacefulness, truthfulness and dealing in good faith are examples of convivial conduct. And aggressions, thefts, lies, dishonesty, deceptions and bad faith are examples of unconvivial conduct.

It’s important to note that convivial conduct is not at all the same as obeying the rules or laws of any particular culture, society or government. In fact, the core rules of convivial conduct – that is, what is convivial when dealing with strangers – are independent of any culture, religious rules or government laws. I’ll say more about this (the Convivial Code) in the next essay in this set.

The aims of convivial governance

Convivial governance aims at two main things. First, to supersede, and eventually to extinguish, the top-down, failed, 16th-century system that is the “Westphalian” political state. Along with the super-states and multi-national political organizations that have flowed from it, such as the EU and the UN. And second, to form an embryo, from which can grow a future world free from war, injustice and the imposition of political ideologies or agendas.

By getting rid of the state, I expect that convivial governance will solve several of the problems we suffer today. One, it will end the imposition by political factions or pressure groups of laws that are harmful to ordinary people. Two, it will make starting a war both difficult and very, very risky. Three, it will end re-distributory, punitive and abusive taxation, by making a direct link between what individuals pay for governance and the benefit they receive from it. Four, there will be no “sovereign immunity” to allow officials or favourites to get away with what, if done by someone else, would be crimes.

The governed are a community, not a society

Convivial governance starts from a slightly different premise than the “social contract” idea, which has dominated political thought for centuries. That premise is, that the people in a particular geographical area form, not a society, but a community. Such a community is bound together, not by a “general will” to follow any one direction or political agenda, or by a contract, whether signed or not; but merely by ties of mutual convenience. It is similar, for example, to the communities of people who own homes in the same development, or flats in the same block.

Such a community may spawn societies, which act in certain respects on behalf of all those in the community. Such as a home-owners’ association, or the management company of a block of flats. Indeed, the two primary organizations for delivery of convivial governance, which I call the Community of Convivial Governance (CCG) and Society for Convivial Governance (SCG), will be societies – in essence, non-profit companies. But the community itself has no leader, no officials, no goals as a group beyond living together for mutual convenience, no political ideology, and no agenda beyond its own continuation.

A system of very limited function

The valid functions of governance in a community, as I discussed in an earlier essay, consist of three primary and three secondary functions. The primary functions are: To maintain peace, including defending the governed against attack or violent disruption. To deliver objective justice as needed, including the arbitration of disputes. And to defend the rights of every individual who respects others’ rights. Broadly, these correspond to the military, the justice system (with its back-ups, such as prisons) and the police in current systems of government.

The secondary functions: To co-ordinate, as necessary, the provision and maintenance of infrastructure, such as roads, between communities. To maintain good relations with other, friendly communities. And quality control on every aspect of the governance process.

Convivial governance will never interfere in matters like religion, health, education or welfare, that are outside its valid functions. Nor will it ever attempt to impose, or allow to be imposed, any political ideology or agenda on any of the governed against their wills.

Moreover, it will not seek to control or to meddle with the economy in any way. It will not interfere with any economic activity, unless there is rights violation, fraud or actual harm being done to someone; or intention to violate rights, to defraud or to cause harm; or recklessness beyond the bounds of reason.

A bottom-up system

Convivial governance is a “bottom-up” system. It focuses, first and foremost, on the individual. It seeks maximum freedom for every individual, consistent with living in a community of convivial people. And it expects every adult individual to take personal responsibility for the effects on others of his or her voluntary actions.

It seeks to work with the nature of peaceful, honest, productive human beings, rather than against that nature. It eschews aggressions and wars. And it avoids, as far as possible, pitting people or groups against each other. It seeks to let people “agree to disagree” wherever that is workable.

Its institutions, too, will be built from the bottom up. First, a local or neighbourhood community; then a second level of community on the scale of a town or small city. On the few occasions on which a larger scale of agreement is necessary – for example, fighting a defensive war, or agreeing on infrastructure development – this will be accomplished through alliances, with representatives of the different communities working together.

A de-centralized and networked system

Convivial governance will be, by its nature, de-centralized. The communities, into which the governed will be grouped, will be small enough to produce diverse “flavours” of community for people of different tastes. Economically, different communities will also tend to specialize in different things. For example: agriculture, retail, finance, new technology, particular industries, or providing specialist services over a wide geographical area. So, there will be much trade, both between neighbouring communities and between those further apart from each other.

Thus, convivial governance will be like a network, not a hierarchy. It will have no head, and no central point at which political power can collect. And it will have no mechanisms to allow one interest group or community forcibly to override the interests of others.

Moreover, free movement between communities will be the norm. Change of residence, while requiring the agreement of those in the receiving local community, will be easy enough that dis-satisfied convivial people can choose to move to places more congenial to them.

A reactive system, not a pro-active one

Convivial governance will be reactive rather than pro-active. It will not send out officials seeking things to meddle in. It will expect convivial individuals to be on the alert for things which are, or may well be, real wrongdoings. And it will expect them to report these as they see them.

In particular, every adult will have the right to arrest anyone they reasonably suspect of a real wrongdoing, and bring them to justice. This is like the English common law tradition of the “citizen’s arrest.” Thus, in convivial governance, everyone will be a member of the executive.

A free-market system

The two primary vehicles for delivery of convivial governance, the CCG and SCG, will be non-profit companies. The CCG will provide services which must be delivered locally, in the immediate vicinity of those who need them. On the other hand, the SCG will provide those services, which can be delivered on a wider scale than simply a single community.

I’ll give more on these two organizations in the third essay of this set. At this point, I’ll merely say that SCGs will be able to compete in a free market for the custom of the inhabitants of CCGs. It is also important to note that SCGs do not have to be territorial. In that sense, they will be like insurance companies, not like political states.

A system of accountability, impartiality and honesty

Under convivial governance, everyone will be accountable for the effects of their voluntary actions on others. And that includes those involved in the processes of governance itself. The managing director of an SCG, a top detective, even a senior judge, are all to be held accountable in the same way as anyone else.

Moreover, convivial governance will have procedures designed to ensure maximum honesty, integrity and impartiality in all its doings. It will always seek the facts and the truth in any matter. It will make its judgements as objectively as possible. It will keep meticulous records, and make them open to inspection. And it will not allow its processes to be influenced by lies, hype or political agendas of any kind.

A flexible system

I have tried to build flexibility into the system in several different ways. First, while it must work initially in a defined geographical territory, I want it to be adaptable to a future non-territorial system, in which SCGs will compete for customers in the free market, like insurance companies.

Second, I want it to work over a wide range of scales, from a few households up to communities of town or city size. That is, up to the size of community which can be economically viable or “sustainable” in a totally free market. Its de-centralization and networked nature should then enable it to be scaled up to areas inhabited by hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of people. Eventually, so I foresee, it can grow to become world-wide. But this will not be a “world government,” or anything like it. Its growth will be bottom-up like the Internet, not top-down like the EU or United Nations.

Third, I want it to be able to adapt as people move in or out of communities, or as tastes change. I envisage that, at need, communities will be able to split via what I call “friendly secession.” Or, where appropriate, to join together via “friendly union.”

Fourth, I want it to work for and among many cultures. As I’ll explain in the second of these four essays, there will be a fairly small set of core ethical rules. These rules are intended to apply to interactions between parties, who have not made any prior agreement with each other, and who may be from different cultures. Since I expect such rules would need to change only once in a generation or so, this would remove any requirement for a standing legislature.

But convivial governance will also allow for what I call “agreement to vary.” Through such an agreement, societies can agree with their members, if they so wish, extra rules or different rules from the core in their dealings among themselves. Individuals and societies can also agree, by mutual consent, to waive certain provisions of the core rules, either for one transaction or on a more regular basis.

To sum up

I have given a very broad outline of my ideas on how a minimalist system of convivial governance might work. Some of the major differences between this system and current Western systems of government (as exemplified by countries like the UK and the US) are:

  1. There will be no state, and so no sovereignty. Actions such as starting wars, making bad laws and imposing abusive taxation will not be acceptable.
  2. Convivial governance sees the governed not as a society, but as a community. They have no “general will,” beyond mutual convenience and the continuation of the community.
  3. Thus, convivial governance will not impose on anyone against their wills any political ideology or agenda.
  4. The functions of governance are reduced to their core: peace, justice, defence of rights, co-ordination of infrastructure, diplomacy and quality control.
  5. The system will be bottom-up, focusing on the individual and on small communities.
  6. The system will be reactive rather than pro-active.
  7. The system will be honest and impartial, and everyone will be accountable.
  8. The system will be de-centralized and networked, to make it scalable to areas of different sizes, eventually right up to world-wide.
  9. The system is designed to be flexible enough to work among multiple cultures.
  10. The system allows individuals and societies to extend or modify the basic rules by mutual consent.

Let the feedback begin!

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3 comments

  • Looking at this from within your frame of reference, I wouldn’t allow the word ‘community’ at all, as it doesn’t seem to gel with your ideas, and I’m not convinced by your rejection of a ‘general will’ or this notion of a ‘society’/social formation based on mutual convenience. It’s not just that this is difficult to imagine, as it seems so cold, one also has to ask why you would reject the general will as a concept. It is because of how the general will is decided, even how it is determined, and as soon as we use that language we enter into the territory of moral privilege because somebody has to make a decision. Does it therefore follow that there will be no meaningful political or moral decisions in your ‘community’ at all? I think ‘association’ is better. This is supposed to be a voluntary society. I would dispute whether it actually is or not, as I think decision-makers are inevitable, therefore I would hold that communities in the real sense, and societies and states, are inevitable, but that’s another point which I will come to presently.

    Stepping outside your value framework, and adopting my own perspective, in summary I accept that we are all individuals. My individuality is extremely important to me. However, I don’t accept that we are just independent individuals and nothing else. For better or ill, there is – I believe – an inevitable social order, a social ontology, if you like, in any complex society/community [whatever term you want to use]. I think we are all part of an ecology and linked by genetics and so forth, and that rules and laws are formed within a culture, which in turn is an expression of the ways and customs of particular peoples and races, which will always be in conflict with each other. I think whether you comprehend it or not, you are implicitly acknowledging the inevitability of a social order in your concept of conviviality, but you put the cart before the horse by stipulating universalised cultural rules. I agree with the idea of everybody as a member of a societal executive with citizen authority, but as you acknowledge, that idea reflects an English understanding of the law. No doubt it arises in other cultures as well, but the point is that it can only work within a community in which everybody shares the same understanding about law, which in turn requires that in order to build a workable such community we need to examine culture and ask what is its genetic basis.

    To be strict about it, you don’t really explain what you mean by ‘social order’, but I assume what you are firmly against is any sort of collective goals or identity where the wishes and interests of the individual are subsumed within a whole. I don’t believe this is possible, except under very contingent circumstances. For instance, a community of a few dozen Cambridge mathematics graduates could form a convivial order along the lines you propose. Even if a convivial order can be distinguished and can exist in any non-specialist sense without a shared enforcement of priorities, I would posit that it must in time degenerate into a social order of some sort, with a political culture – in other words, we’re back to one of my critiques of the libertarian thesis on statism. The other plank of my critique is that dogmatic libertarians refuse to acknowledge the inevitability of politics, hierarchy, and the state (and thus moral privilege) as an extension of human nature and instead tend to want to move the goalposts using word play and semantics.

    Please note that if I am guilty of defending the state, it is not necessarily because I like it in concept or reality. I merely observe that it exists and I offer reasons why that go beyond just saying it’s a conspiracy.

    In that vein, let us consider the matter of sovereignty as a practical idea. If a grown adult still lives with his parents and relies on them for food and shelter, then he is living under a state. The state is his parents. The state is not invented, it is an expression of human needs. Parents must exercise moral privilege over their children. This privilege extends to authorised others who have care over or duties in regard to children, including guardians, teachers, and so on, and even random people. I once pulled a strange child away from a busy road while her parents leisurely strolled along some 100 yards away without a care. That’s moral privilege – using force against somebody for their own good. Obviously this moral privilege diminishes in practical terms as the child ages and nears the arbitrary milestone of adulthood according to law.

    People held in criminal or psychiatric custody are subject to moral privilege. Again, in practical terms this moral privilege lessens as the inmate nears release and some sort of rehabilitation, because he is normally allowed greater autonomy and self-direction, even as somebody within custody. I appreciate that your community will not have mass prisons, and moreover, the criteria for confining people against their will shall be wholly different and much more restrictive, but surely there will be a basic need to confine some people – for their own good or everybody else’s?

    What about old people suffering from conditions like dementia?

    A person living on benefits is, in effect, in custody. I know you will say that a welfare system funded by income and capital confiscation would not exist in the community you envisage, which I perfectly understand, but my point is that some people are less able to take care of themselves. On the other hand, maybe your system will allow Natural Selection against them and we will see less of them.

    All societies and communities must have sovereignty, including moral and political sovereignty. You can’t abolish the concept through nominalism or wishing it away, so I assume your reference to a community [or society, or whatever we call it] without sovereignty is in fact concerning a specific type of sovereignty, i.e. not moral privilege as such, rather moral privilege over people in general. But even that aspiration presents problems.

    What about legal adjudications and judgments? The courts in that regard do exercise moral privilege in a way similar to statehood, often against the will of the people involved. That will continue under your system.

    Maybe an accurate way of looking at this would be that moral privilege exists, but in a free society it normally vests with the individual and only with an external moral agent in special or exceptional cases.

    Assuming you accept my general point, then maybe the way round this is due process. We assert that most legal processes will involve voluntary parties, and only rarely and only when strictly necessary will the courts act against non-willing persons or individuals in circumstances where autonomy has been or must be forfeit. We further say that in a free community there is to be no such moral privilege without due process of law. This would seem to be a proper expression of moral equality among adults in that everybody is assumed to have the same moral capacity unless and until it can be demonstrated otherwise.

    • Another point occurs to me, but I won’t develop it here and now. I’ll wait for your next essay, but I’ll briefly note it here as a self-reminder. (Consequently, what follows may be a bit vague).

      There is also an issue I have with your use of the terms ‘moral equality’ and ‘moral privilege’. The question is what does ‘moral’ mean in that context, in precise understanding?

      Are you using the term ‘moral’ non-technically to mean any sort of privilege or immunity for state actors, which must be minimised or even abolished through measures for moral equality?

      Or are you not asserting any moral role for the state and simply referring back to the Golden Rule basis of a Convivial Order?

      It seems to me that it should be the latter. That’s the only practical way this could work, as far as I can see. In a convivial order, the ethical basis should be that the inevitability of some moral privilege is acknowledged, both in specialist circumstances (i.e. children, criminal and psychiatric detention, etc.), and in more general circumstances (i.e. certain rules and restrictions that amount to quasi-statehood and come out of private property ownership), but these are all either:

      characterised by a due process of law or the constructive, implicit or explicit surrender of individual autonomy, or both;
      or,
      underpinned by private property ownership in a society or community or other social gathering in which private property ownership is open to all through their own efforts and endeavours.

    • Tom,

      My definition of “community” is “a group of people with something in common.” In an earlier essay (unfortunately, not on this site), I said: “I think of a community as defined by two aspects: binding forces, which hold the people of the community together, and walls, which separate them from those outside.” A community, for me, is not necessarily a political thing.

      The reason I do not accept the existence of a “general will” among a group of people who do not form a society, but only a community – and that includes the community of people who live in a geographical area – is because, when it comes to hard-edged, yes-or-no decisions, such a will is not in evidence. For example, is the “general will” of the people in the UK to Brexit or not to Brexit? It has to be one or the other; there are no possible half measures in such a case. You can’t say, “Well, we want 52% of a Brexit and 48% of no Brexit.” But there are many millions, on both sides, who on this matter will not accept anything less than unconditional surrender by the other side.

      As to “association” as a synonym for community, I did indeed use that word in another of my essays, when I was discussing borders. That’s this one here: https://misesuk.org/2019/02/24/on-property-and-borders/. The reason I changed my wording there was that I was trying to make the moderately subtle distinction between a commune (a physical space, under the control of a society, where members of that society can live or meet) and an association or community (where people agree to share a territory for reasons of convenience). It would have been confusing to many if I had tried to contrast a commune with a community!

      As to moral privilege, I defined moral equality in an earlier essay (as it happens, the very first of the twenty-six I talked about). It’s here: https://misesuk.org/2017/11/08/on-equality/. I said: “Under this kind of equality, right and wrong are the same for everyone. This leads towards the concept of the rule of law.” And: “Every individual, without exception, is morally equal. I like to put this as: What is right for one to do, is right for another to do under similar circumstances, and vice versa.” And in a later essay, when I discussed sovereignty, and what it can do (like make laws, make wars, levy taxes etc.), I said: “sovereignty is completely incompatible with the rule of law and with moral equality.”

      You are right that there will still need to be a way for legal adjudications to be made to “stick,” and there will still be a need for certain individuals to be restrained. I’m planning to address those subjects in an essay on “convivial justice” – not one of this group of four, but most likely the second of the follow-up essays I refer to. But you are also right that what you call due process of law will be very important in my system. Though I think I prefer the phrase “due process of justice.”

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