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What Is the True Purpose of Government?

Critics would rightly say it's to control and dominate because that's the nature of every government we've known. Every government since the days of feudalism has been corrupted in some form, "captured" in other words, by monied, elite interests. But what if we threw away everything we knew about the corrupt governments of the past and redesigned it from scratch? What would its purpose be?
By Tim Hjersted /
Feb 27, 2018
3.7 ·
What Is the True Purpose of Government?
An illustration of a gathering of the Iroquois League

I believe the purpose of government - the purpose of making decisions together and investing our resources collectively - should be investing in people. This purpose rests on the fundamental principle of individual and collective self-worth - a belief in the inherent dignity and worth of every human being.

For all those who are rightly skeptical of government, both on the left and the right, I want to stress this idea: the true essence of government - what it should be, stripped of all corruption and ruling class interest - is a form of decision making that allows groups of people to make decisions and invest their resources collectively - to do together what we cannot do alone.

Everything else is detail. Police, prisons, laws, the military - to what extent and in which ways we have them should theoretically be due to the values and will of the people. But we all know that's not the case historically because these creations have been the product of corrupted governments - governments for and by the ruling class, while the people exist merely to legitimize their rule.

We are told we are the true source of power because we vote for representatives in a democratic republic, but as most skeptics on the left and right know (and perhaps to the vast majority of people who don't vote), this is no decision making power at all. It is power deferred.

Historically crude and unjust methods of excluding people from decision making power (like it simply being illegal or only the province of Euro-American, land-owning men) has evolved much more sophisticated methods to disenfranchise the public while giving an appearance of democracy. That is the "big lie" of our modern age - the idea that we live in a truly democratic republic, that we are free, that the people have the power - when we truly do not. Real people power would look so much different than what we have now.

I totally understand why so many people across political lines don't like government and don't believe it can be reformed - libertarian capitalists and libertarian socialists both agree we would be better to design society without a state - but I believe this is because all the models we think about when we think about government have been completely homogenized by centuries of conquest, war, and ruling class domination. Almost all major governments today operate the same - using some variation of 'representative' government, followed by a host of rules which limit political parties, limit the way we vote, and limit what we can vote for in very strategic ways. The system is rigged, in other words, and not in our interests. 

But I believe an anthropological study of human history shows that government itself is not the problem - it is the homogenized form of government that has come to dominate almost all countries of the world that is the problem.

The original form of human government was the tribe - a successful evolutionary adaptation that served humans well for 99% of our lifespan on this planet. In the same way that pods evolved to work well for whales, flocks work for birds, and packs work for wolves - tested and refined over millions of years - the tribe evolved to work very well for its members and has continued to work for the last 10,000 years where colonialism and conquest hasn't stamped it out. Thousands of experimental ways of living on this planet existed before one way of life grew to replace and dominate the planet today.

Read about the Iroquois Confederacy, also known as the Iroquois League and the Six Nations. The Iroquois Confederacy was a sophisticated and effective government structure based on the wisdom and values of the original 5 nations, which was formed in the 17th century in North America. Their distinct form of government allowed the 5 (later 6) nations to unite in peace and collaboration while also retaining a healthy degree of autonomy and individual agency.

In an interesting twist that balanced the powers between the genders - men were selected to be representatives for the tribes, but it was the clan mothers at the local level who held the power to select the chiefs or remove and select a new chief when necessary.

This fact is pretty remarkable considering that this was a full 200 years before women would win the right to vote in the United States, let alone become active participants as representatives, and we still don't have some of the powers of democracy that they had.

If we need any more proof that "progress" doesn't always go in a straight line, and can sometimes go backwards horribly for centuries, well, there's the entire history of colonial America, but I digress! 

Sadly, while the Iroquois Confederacy was an inspiration to the designers of the United States Constitution, they made key changes that would ensure their "democracy" would remain the province of elite, white, land-owning males. More specifically, they designed it protect "the minority of the opulent against the majority" as James Madison so helpfully admitted.

The dysfunction with our current government sure makes a lot more sense with that context, doesn't it? It was baked in by design! Or rather, reveals that our corrupt government has been working beautifully for the purpose it was intended.

Now that we can learn more about the Great Law of Peace and the Iroquois Confederacy, it is surely worth studying for inspiration when thinking about a successor-system for today. It is proof that the concept of government isn't inherently corrupt. It isn't always a tool of suppression and control, but with the right structure and values, can work quite well for its members.

"But that was 200 years ago," you say! "How could we possibly..."

Well, read about the government of Switzerland.

This is fascinating:

"Switzerland is arguably the most decentralized nation in the world. Each of its twenty-six states, called cantons, retains a high degree of autonomy for governing its own affairs, including the official language spoken. Cantons have their own constitutions and parliaments, and each has enacted radically different policies with respect to education, labor, welfare, and the economy. Within the cantons, moreover, are 3,000 relatively autonomous local governments called communes that are the most important political units in the lives of the eight million Swiss people.

Swiss direct democracy is practiced through frequent referenda held at the federal and canton levels. A national referendum, which can be placed on the ballot with 50,000 signatures, can overturn any act of parliament. One hundred thousand signatures will place an affirmative proposition for a national vote, though it then must be approved by a majority of the country and a majority of the cantons.

The president comes from a collegial, seven-member Federal Council, chosen for a four-year term by an elected two-body legislature. Council members typically assume no more than one-year presidential terms, and the office of president carries no more power than that held by the other six members. Federal powers are largely restricted to topics that absolutely require national coordination, such as currency and railways. Even in the area of foreign policy, where other national governments boldly assert monopoly power, the studious neutrality of Switzerland means that the office of the presidency matters little.

By many metrics, the country’s performance is exceptional. It has a remarkably stable economy, where the per capita Gross Domestic Product or GDP (in real dollar terms) is the second highest in the world."


I believe the people who desire a world without a state do so because they want a world without rulers, hierarchy, and war - a world without police whose primary purpose is to serve ruling class interests (any time there is a strike or protest for human rights in our society, the police always side with the owner-interests in the fight rather than the workers - historically, often violently). When violence and force is used to prevent the people from organizing their workplaces in more equitable and humane ways, surely no one can call that the result of a free marketplace or a free society. 

Hierarchy is another problem that many have with the modern state, because the differences between the people and those in government power are so vast. Those on the right see the state as an unjust hierarchical relationship because the state wields too much power over the people and their freedom. Those on the left see the state as an unjust hierarchical relationship because the people don't have true, direct, participatory control over decisions, and they see how the influence of corporate power corrupts the ideal purpose of government. Instead of being a tool of the people, it is a tool of powerful corporations, who use government law to distort the natural forces of the market (like organized labor and competition with other businesses) to protect their state-guaranteed system of privilege.

Is hierarchy inherently bad? This is a philosophical question with no easy answers, but I'm sure even libertarian socialists and capitalists will agree, some hierarchy is fine so long as it's consensual, agreed upon and earned - ie legitimate. But we really don't have that today - in politics, in most places where we work, and in many of our family lives. What we need is mutuality and mutual consent - where power is shared and power is deferred by choice, not always in one way, but in both ways over time, creating a dynamic and flowing equilibrium.

Power that does not flow is power corrupted.

From personal relationships to family relationships to workplace government to city government to state government to national government to international agreements, we need to strive for power with, not power over. We need to create relationships and government forms that serve each individual and the collective whole in the same way that the cosmic idea of yin and yang balance, strengthen and complement each other.

If the governments of today are to remain relevant in the 21st century - they must evolve to truly serve all of its members, not just the interests of a tiny minority.

Governments must evolve, or like all evolutionary experiments that fail to serve its members, be relegated to the dustbin of history.

We are already on the verge of seeing many governments collapse. Many already have, due to their inherent flaws, which are common to all major governments. Even the stability of once stable nations have come in to question, and are requiring even deeper levels of media propaganda, surveillance, and police state repression to keep its populace from revolting.

To avoid a systemic and domino-style collapse of government that could be catastrophic for the world, leading to global war, totalitarian control and mass poverty the likes of which we have never seen, we must design our way out of this mess. Before this car we call civilization drives off the cliff, we need to give it wings, put the people in the cockpit and help it fly - into the skies of the future we want.

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