May 25 2008

John Shirley is Wrong

Nearly a week ago I wrote a post about how John Shirley made sense, pointing to a couple of his recent rants where he explained why he wasn’t a Libertarian and then deconstructed his own argument. I found his opinion well thought out and well presented. I also thought that he was mostly right on the issue.

But I think he was wrong on the substance…

What do I mean by that? As recent events in China show, there is good reason for many of the things governments do. Building standards are only one example! (I will leave other examples as exercises for commenters, instead simply stipulating that governments do good things which are difficult or impossible for private enterprise to duplicate.)

Thus where I agree with John Shirley. Where I think he goes off the rails is by making a generalization leading to a fallacy of accident. Specifically he puts forward the strawman Libertarian question of β€œIn the end it comes down to this, is more government a problem or a solution?β€œ and responds:

In the end it comes down to this–thinking the government is either a problem or a solution.

Government itself is neither. Good government, intelligently organized and democratically refined, provides more solutions than problems; bad government provides more problems than solutions. No government provides no solutions at all. Just an opportunity for thugs.

Good government is complex; libertarianism is simplistic. It sweeps all before it; it throws out the baby with the bathwater.

Now those who know me or read this journal a lot know that I am not a big ‘L’ Libertarian and, quite honestly, I am a bit squishy on principle when it comes to being small ‘L’. But even I can recognize the problem with John’s opinion: He assumes we can have ‘good’ government. Moreover he, himself, is guilty of over-simplifying the problem.

And from this arises the title of this post. While I agree we can have ‘good’ government I disagree that such can be a permanent state. In fact I would argue that it is the most unlikely state for government. To explain this further I would like to coin Jack’s Law of Governmental Entropy: Over time, and no matter what the starting conditions, all governments tend towards a base state of tyranny.

This entropy is a process and it can be interrupted by a revolution, resetting the starting conditions, or by other factors which inject energy (freedom) into the system. (Thus the famous Jefferson quote “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”) But as a process it is unidirectional: From more personal freedom to less.

So we are in a quandary are we not? We need government to do the good things that John Shirley describes for the very reasons he gives. But, by its nature, government tends to get into a state where it does bad things, often using the very tools given it to do the good things. Thus we have the reason constitutional democracies were invented: To mix things up on a regular basis by injecting a little ‘will of the people’.

Yet, as recent events have shown, even strong constitutional democracies like the USA can be subverted towards tyranny via a combination of luck and malice. I truly doubt John would argue this point! Certainly we aren’t living in a dictatorship, but there is little doubt that many of the tools required by a dictatorship are in place should the people become willing to accept just a little more repression in return for perceived safety. (Ah yes, another quote from a ‘founding father’ comes to mind, does it not?) All we need is a good ’emergency’ to kickstart the process and suddenly we would find the next elections are being ‘postponed’ until the crisis can be ‘resolved’.

So John Shirley is wrong on the substance because, while governments can do good things they are dangerous tools and, like fire, are not to be trusted. We must watch them constantly. We must leash them closely. We must always be wary of what they can do. Otherwise we risk the other side of government’s coin.

That is the reason why Libertarians (big or small ‘L’) say “The best government is the one that governs least.” John says government is neither solution nor problem. But I say it is a solution which can also be a problem. In this case we have an entity which we allow to arm itself in order to enforce laws upon the people becoming a problem. In this case we have a problem becoming entirely out of control until we take up arms and die in order to resist it.

In my mind this isn’t about blanket statements of principle, as John reads it or as many big ‘L’ types mean it. It is instead about the way human systems work. And it is about reducing the harm when those systems turn malignant.

(Note: I am still in Austria. The ten day trip has turned into a two-week plus one. In all that time I have had one day off, yesterday, and one slack day, today. Thus why it took so long to write this follow-up.)


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  1. holyoutlaw

    I’ll read this later (after Wiscon) but I’m sorry to see that you’re still in Austria. πŸ™

    1. Jack William Bell

      It’s not all bad. I took the day off yesterday and drove through the alps to Salzburg; stopping along the way to tour a 860 year old salt mine and see parts of the lake district.

      (Pictures and more flowery descriptions later.)

      But I do wish I was home by now…

  2. dsgood

    “The only good government is a bad one in a Hell of a fright.” Joyce Cary

  3. flankleft

    Libertarianism is one of those neaty sparkly shiny ideas but

    really bad in real life.. like communism.

    I agree with you on this post. Good luck in Austria! Don’t forget to try some schnitzel!

    1. Jack William Bell

      Re: Libertarianism is one of those neaty sparkly shiny ideas but

      Getting kind of tired of schnitzel really.

      1. flankleft

        Tired of Schnitzel????

        Oh Noes!

        well, shoot. time to come on home then.

  4. mcjulie


    Jack, your point seems a little confused here. (Maybe it’s all the schnitzel.) First you say the problem “the problem with John’s opinion: He assumes we can have ‘good’ government.” Which makes it sound like you think good government is impossible, and thus you disagree with him. Then you say, “While I agree we can have ‘good’ government I disagree that such can be a permanent state.”

    So which is it? Do you think good government is simply impossible, therefore we should cynically try to wring whatever personal advantage we can get out of bad government, eagerly looking forward to the day when the system falls apart entirely and we are left with no government, at which time we anticipate that we will each have have wrung enough personal advantage out of the bad government to be able to set ourselves up as independent warlords and autocrats?

    (I would call this the simplified Norquistian libertarian position.)

    Or do you think that good government is merely a difficult thing to achieve, one that requires constant effort and vigilance on the part of an informed and active population and even so will never be perfect?

    (I would call this the more traditional American liberal position.)

    So, upshot, I’m not sure you actually disagree with John Shirley.

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