Should libertarians embrace the word government?

Ask people what libertarians are against, and most will quickly say, “The government.” But  is that really true? Are libertarians against…

  • Law
  • Order
  • Due process
  • Juries
  • Self-defense
  • Compensation to victims?

Of course not. Even libertarians who call themselves anarchists favor ALL of these things. In fact…
These functions are the very definition of what libertarians think government SHOULD do, or what libertarian-anarchists think some kind of institution should do. So…
Is it really correct to say that we’re anti-government? And if NOT, then why do we give people that impression? More importantly…
What if it we turned it around? What if we started saying…

“We’re the ONLY people who FAVOR government, because we’re the ONLY people who oppose the initiation of force.”

What if we took it even further. What if we started saying…

“Our current so-called government isn’t a government at all, precisely because it initiates force, which is a criminal act contrary to the whole idea of law and government.”

And what if we also started asserting that the current institution of “government” is so far away from being a true government that it isn’t even worthy of the name?

What if we started using scare quotes around the word “government,” or, better yet, called it The State, rather than calling it “the government.”

Can you imagine how it would turn heads if people started hearing libertarians say…

“I wish we HAD a government? Because what we have right now isn’t one.”

Talking in this way will be a struggle for many libertarians. We’re so practiced at complaining about the government that some of us will find it impossible to embrace the word, and make it our own. But consider the benefits…

  • We could STOP sounding like the opponents of law and order, and START sounding like the greatest defenders of those virtues.
  • And then perhaps we would no longer be seen as primarily anti-government, but Zero Aggression Principlewould instead be viewed mainly as passionate advocates of the Zero Aggression Principle.
  • Might this approach be more attractive? And isn’t it more linguistically accurate?

We hope this idea intrigues you, and that you’ll adopt it as your own.

Show Comments 15


  1. When has such a government ever existed in history? Why should we presume your imagined “true government” to be true, while presuming every government in history which has factually existed in the real universe as false? And how exactly would it be “linguistically” more “accurate”?

    1. Perry Willis Post

      I argue that the dinosaurs called States have never been true governments. The real governments have always been the little mammals running around under the dinosaurs’ feet. These little governments include institutions like voluntary adjudication and police services, as well as voluntary regulatory services like Underwriter’s Laboratory and NSF.

  2. I for one think that your approach is the only one that makes any sense. Even the terms are befitting and appropriate.
    Frankly, the best “government” is one you needn’t spend any time thinking about. The ever-enlarging behemoth we have now is wrong on so many levels it’s hard to state specific objections without getting bogged down in detail.
    Zero Aggression is the way to go. Consider if we were to do this on all levels, and prioritize the right stuff. You can always tell a “state” is arising by how intellectually poor it’s citizens are. In North Korea, 250,000 people are reduced to animal-like states and they don’t even know what their crime is. In fact, the policy there is to punish three generations of your family for any transgression. Draw a line between what is happening now and that, and look at the similarities, choosing any government function you care to choose. It’s ALL aggression, at every level.

    1. Perry Willis Post

      Hi Regis. I think your comment about the best government being one to which we must pay little attention, is quite astute. Think about the important providers in our lives — groceries, doctors, auto-mechanics. We do not obsess about these things the way we obsess about politics. I thinking this is telling. Governmental services should be reduced to this level of concern. I want to know that I have police to scare off robbers from my neighborhood. But I don’t want to have to think about them every day. Governmental services should be like every other aspect of our economy, something that SERVES us with a minimum of time, cost, and attention.

  3. I find using the word “governance” serves me better — I seek a world where “governance” is the order of the day: self- in most cases; contractual or community-based where needed; and consensual where some kind of group decision seems in order (with even the smallest minority strongly objecting to it being sufficient to end discussion). Meanwhile we have “government” exerting actions that would be unlawful and illegal if done by an individual (or even a large group of them) — coercively and without recourse by its victims. As long as that term means what it means, I cannot say I embrace the word!

    1. Perry Willis Post

      Hi Steve. Sorry for the slow response. Your word “governance” is a very good one. I think we should make heavy use of it. It does leave a couple of questions unanswered however…
      1. What do we call institutions of governance?
      2. Does what we have now (The State) really qualify as an institution of governance?
      Starting with the second question first — An institution that commits crimes (fraud, threats, and the initiation of force) in all that it does, should not be viewed as an institution of governance in my view. This means that The State is NOT an institution of governance. It may rule, but it does not govern. Now, imagine what might happen if we sold this view to the public. What if people came to view The State, and any institution of coercive rule, as NOT a government? Wouldn’t that be a good paradigm shift? Take it a step further…
      What if people came to view our conception of governance as the only proper definition of what government is? Wouldn’t that be a good thing? Final point…
      Libertarians have neglected make the Zero Aggression Principle the lead argument. We have instead fallen back, time and time again, on mainly utilitarian arguments. Why is that? I think it is because the ZAP argues against all forms of statism. And, as long as we view The State and government as the same thing, people jump to the conclusion that we oppose all institutions of governance. Thus, to avoid that discussion we de-emphasize the ZAP. This problem goes away if we deny that The State is an institution of governance, and instead embrace and promote non-state institutions of government. I hope this explanation make sense. Thanks for your comment.

  4. This latest post reminded me of something that seemed to me to be related. In the 1980’s Robert Fripp founded a music label called Discipline Global Mobile. There is a very nice section in their mission statement:
    “The phonographic copyright in these performances is operated by Discipline Global Mobile on behalf of the artists, with whom it resides, contrary to common practice in the record industry. Discipline accepts no reason for artists to assign the copyright interests in their work to either record company or management by virtue of a ‘common practice’ which was always questionable, often improper, and is now indefensible.” You can find this on their Wikipedia page.
    Robert Fripp is a modern-day guru of the guitar, music, how to learn it and perform it as well as trying to change the nature of the business practices it typically engages in; and as well one of the smartest people I’ve ever read. He is amazingly insightful, if a bit beautifully and wonderfully naïve in his insight. Naivete is surely the result of being both thoughtful and truly insightful, as one cannot apprehend Reality without allowing openness as well the ‘discipline’ he is famous for. I find his work tremendously helpful to my spiritual unfolding, which is what it rather seems to me that your work is also. By way of encouraging this continued effort, I write this today.
    Indeed, you have what is for me the singularly most problematic mission statement of modern times- to inject reason and intelligent discourse into what by any measure is nothing but a back-room cock fight in a foreign country to the one we all think we live in.
    Back to the quote, it seems to me that I could rewrite it on behalf of the problem of governance in any sphere of public life. Federal Governance, for example, from the Bill of Rights could read thus:
    “The rights in these Articles is operated by Congress of the United States on behalf of the citizens, with whom their pre-existing nature resides, prior to the legality of this document; contrary to common practice in the legal frameworks of most countries. Congress accepts no reason for citizens to assign their rights or interests in their lives to either government, agency, private corporations or Congress by virtue of a ‘common practice’ which was always questionable, often improper, and is now indefensible.”

  5. Yes, it’s the “operated on behalf of the citizens, with whom all rights reside” is the meaningful phrase for me.

    1. Regis, Thank you for the encouraging words. They do indeed teach that there was a social contract, whereby you and I gave up our rights to them. They do not act as if those rights are pre-constitutional. And it is, in my opinion, a spiritual issue. The State plays the role of omnipotent deity. Yet all of this is the fault of the consenters — the people who tolerate this violent institution. And our job is to awaken them — to help them connect their personal morality, to their public voting style and other political expressions.

      1. “…a social contract, whereby you and I gave up our rights…”? I believe rights are inalienable, i.e., always existing with the individual, and cannot be lost or given away, in a spiritual sense. Politically, I can delegate my right to self govern without losing self governance. One who claims otherwise, one who claims to own my rights, one who claims my rights authorize him to act against me, is contradicting the concept of rights.
        The problem of state worship resulting in the negation of rights, is worldwide and contrary to reason and morality. It has resulted in chaos and destruction, offsetting the benefits of civilization, and acting as a counter force. The mechanism of the state is to establish violence as primary and reason secondary. In private life we call this criminal. In public life the majority pretend violence to be exempt from morals. The justification is that the individual sacrifice somehow achieves a “common good”. The majority are blind to the fact that the common good is the sum total of all the individual’s welfare. This is the contradiction that people have to be shown. This is the lie told by the rulers that needs to be exposed.

  6. The zero aggression principle is a sound one. America has waged too many wars, not only against other countries, but also against its own people.
    It has been said that the primary purpose of government is to maintain order, perhaps even its only purpose. We certainly have no need for social engineering and being regulated to death.
    It is my belief that government should set a good example to its people and, because a government is made up of people, it should assume no rights that the people do not also have.
    (The barbaric practice of capital punishment comes to mind.)
    Imagine what a joy it would be to have a government that did not interfere with its people and that would make sure it followed the Constitution and issued fair laws that would hot favor or penalize a particular group or individual, but that would apply equally to everyone.

  7. I Am A Christian. Government was initiated by God. Romans 13b “the powers that be are ordained of God. Yes, those powers can be good or bad. The prophet Daniel lived for 70 years under a powerful dictatorship, sometimes very good and sometimes very bad. God gives us the government we deserve. I fear he has given America bad government because of our sin of rejecting him.

    1. Perry Willis Post

      Hi Lawrence. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
      If what you say is true, that God gives us the government we deserve, then it would necessarily be the case that we would deserve the type of governance we are proposing should we prove capable of achieving it. If true, then the following question becomes important…
      Do you think God would like to see human beings stop initiating force against each other? Do you think God would like to see force used for defensive purposes only? If so, then perhaps you should work with us to bring that about. Such labor might be a signal to God that we deserve such governance.
      I hope I’ve expressed this clearly. Thank you for commenting. We appreciate your input.

  8. Elsewhere, Mr. Willis argues against using the word anarchy because, despite its original and proper linguistic meaning, the term is often understood by people in modern society to mean lawlessless and chaos. While I intend to continue calling myself an anarchist (since I find it easy to explain what I mean by the term), I understand his reasons for not calling himself one.
    I do, however, find it strange that he would suggest that we embrace the word government. After all, to most people in modern society, government means the state.
    My attitude is that if voluntaryists wish to embrace the word government, that’s fine by me. Auberon Herbert, the founder of voluntaryism, embraced the word government, and went so far as to say that anarchists did not understand themselves on the grounds that government would continue to exist even in an anarchy. So if one wishes to call her- or himself “pro-government and anti-state,” more power to her or him; but I do think it will be difficult distinguishing government from state in most people’s minds. Here’s why:
    It seems everyone understands that anarchy means statelessness, and that the only reason they associate anarchy with lawlessness is that they have never considered how law could exist without the state. In other words, they assume anarchy equals lawlessness because they assume statelessness equals lawlessness. It further seems that, even if I can’t get a person to agree with me that a stateless society could flourish relatively peacefully, he or she will at least agree with me rather quickly that I do not advocate lawlessness, despite my anachist label.
    But, when it comes to governments and states, it seems to me that the link in people’s minds is much more direct. Most Americans rarely use the word state unless they are referring to one of the fifty that comprise these United States. But, even insofar as they recognise that the definition of state is broad enough to include, e.g., the German state or the Chinese state, the state isn’t just a type of government for most people; rather, for them, the terms are synonymous. While I personally wouldn’t mind hearing someone refer to the system of private protection agencies, arbitration firms, aggression insurance companies, and mutual aid societies that we hope to see operating and coordinating in a free market a “government” of sorts (as it would “govern,” albeit without any rulers or centralised control), I do suspect most people would balk at the notion of calling such a system a “government” (and some may even balk at calling it a “system”) for the same reason we would balk at the notion of calling such a system a “state.” In other words, I really think it would be an uphill battle. The only way to do it is, really, in demonstrating how networks without centralised control can self-govern, but that’s no longer a simple linguistic battle (like explaining the etymology of anarchy); that is a deep philosophical battle, cutting to the very heart of the problem that we, qua libertarians, face. If that battle were as easy as explaining the etymology of anarchy is, then we’d already be living in what Mr. Willis calls a “true government” today.
    All that being said, I like the idea of letting a thousand flowers bloom. And if saying “I’m pro-government and anti-state” helps attract some curious listeners to the libertarian message, then fantastic.
    Alex Peak

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