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The Second American
Revolution, already underway, may be the "kindest and gentlest" — yet the
most fundamental — political revolution in the history of Western Civilization
One of the most difficult tasks in envisioning a free nation (or any new society) is to picture how it would come to be. Typically, it is assumed that in order to realize a free society it would be necessary to destroy an old regime and replace it. The regime of one's home country would have to be replaced or one would have to move to a foreign land where this had happened. Would the change from statism to voluntarism really require that a society's regime be replaced?
In this essay I will explore this question. I will begin by borrowing some important ideas from the late historian Carroll Quigley. Quigley advanced a theory of the rise and decline of civilizations in his book The Evolution of Civilizations. In exploring previous civilizations, he reviewed the mechanisms whereby fundamental change had occurred in the past. He noted that historically fundamental political change has not always required the replacement of a regime.
Quigley stated that all civilizations followed a pattern which resembled the life cycle of an organism. He contended that the final phase of the life cycle, involving the collapse of the civilization, could be postponed by a rejuvenation, though he believed that decay would again set in over time. I believe that the objective of the Free Nation Foundation will require no less than a rejuvenation of Western Civilization. Thus, Quigley's insights can be applied to this problem.
According to Quigley, any civilization is based upon methods of organization which are unique to it. A key mechanism exists for each civilization, which he called the civilization's "instrument of expansion" which allows it to grow and dominate a specific geographic area. Over time, he notes, the methods become "institutionalized": they become ritualized. As the real world changes, because of technological innovation or for other reasons, aspects of the instrument of expansion become obsolete. Yet many citizens still follow them blindly. The people of the society tend to forget why they do what they do and focus their thinking on how it is done. Traditions are followed without being understood. Method is emphasized to the detriment of goal. The society becomes dysfunctional and tensions among its citizens rise.
Most individuals in the society will see that something is wrong. Some will argue that something must be done to fix things. Basically there will be those who wish to focus on the methods the society uses to achieve its ends, and those that focus on the society's goals. Those who focus on method will seek greater adherence to tradition. Those who focus on goals will search for and advocate new methods of achieving the society's goals. In an extreme case, the advocates of change may promote a major change in the instrument of expansion or even its replacement by a new instrument. Quigley calls this conflict the "tension of development."
Quigley then describes what might
(The Evolution of Civilizations, Liberty Press, Indianapolis. Emphasis added.)
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The advantages of circumvention: the British example
For the most part, advocates of a free nation envision reform and reaction as the only alternatives. Reaction, of course, would be the result if no part of the earth could be transformed to a free nation, if statism in one form or another succeeded in suppressing efforts at reform in all parts of the world. There are endless examples of reaction in history with consequent erosion of the quality of life for the average citizens living under the resulting regimes.
Reform, it should be noted, can come in more than one way. It can be bloody, as in the French Revolution, or it can be relatively peaceful, as with the recent fall of the Soviet regime. The costs of bloody revolution are high. Not only is damage done during the revolution itself, but a resulting political instability often causes continued damage and inefficiency. Insecure revolutionary regimes often resort to purges and excessive intrusions into the lives of ordinary citizens in order to stay in power.
Yet peaceful reform can also be difficult for the society. The desire of the old aristocrats to retain their privileges impedes real change. Even when the top positions of power have been transferred to the new regime, the middle and lower levels are typically staffed by persons who have benefited from the system of privileges of the old regime. Peaceful transitions can be slow ones, as the new regime maneuvers to enforce its new methods on social institutions which are still geared to the methods of the old regime. Important technical or administrative knowledge is usually held by these lower-level persons. Often that knowledge is indispensable to any regime and can be withheld in order to slow the process of change. Consider the situation of the anti-Communist Russian reformers of today, as well as that of the anti-Apartheid regime of South Africa.
The alternative of circumvention is well worth consideration. The classic example of circumvention was used by the British to resolve the problems caused by the English Civil War (their earlier effort at bloody reform). In that war Parliament's armies commanded by Oliver Cromwell had defeated and beheaded King Charles. Then Cromwell had established a dictatorship as bad as or worse than that of the King. Upon Cromwell's death (by natural causes) Parliament reinstated the monarchy and its associated noble families to power. Yet the new King James had learned little from his predecessor's death and tried to pick up where King Charles had left off. Frustrated, Parliament made a deal with another noble, William, Prince of Orange, called the "Glorious Revolution." James was ousted in a bloodless coup. William was given the crown, but with very reduced powers. The nobles kept extensive lands, subject to Parliamentary law. Titled noblemen were forbidden to hold seats in Parliament. In the following years, Parliament whittled away the power of the King and his Lords. Titles and significant amounts of wealth remained in the hands of the nobility (as they still remain to a very great extent). But political power passed to the commoner politicians in Parliament.
The British Empire reached its height using this system.
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Revising the political tradition of Western Civilization
I would like to propose that the political crisis in the United States today might be resolved by a form of circumvention. In fact, I believe that this is already beginning to happen. Those of us seeking a free nation could take advantage of such a process. We can adjust our thinking and our strategies to work for and with a "new regime," while leaving the formalities of the old regime in place.
Let me first explore the nature of this "new regime." In my opinion, the territory of the United States is moving toward a voluntary political system. By this I do not mean a lack of political order, but merely that political relationships would not be based on conscription. To some this would be "anarchy." To others it would be "limited government." Rather than focusing on this labeling dispute (which I think is semantic, not substantive), let us focus on the application of the principle of voluntary relations to the political functions we feel need to be performed.
The current regime is usually considered to have three functions: the three branches of government — administrative, legislative, and judicial. For years, libertarian theorists have noted that the judicial function has a voluntary form. Private arbitration systems already exist and thrive. Since other writers have examined these in detail, I will not discuss the judicial function here.
Some attention has been paid to the possibility of a voluntary system of administration. Mostly this thinking has focused on the privatization of government functions. I will comment briefly on a few weak links in this discussion.
But virtually no thought has been done on a voluntary legislature. This is particularly unfortunate since citizen representation via elections, the cornerstone of the current regime's claim to legitimacy, is best embodied in its legislative institutions. Having a system of elective representation is the biggest difference between the modern state system and the feudal state system which it replaced. It is, in my opinion, the modern state's "instrument of expansion." Therefore, after some brief commentary on the new possibilities for voluntarist administrative systems to replace the system of elective representation, I will focus my comments on new "legislative" systems.
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The main administrative function thought to be inherent to government is the command of military or police forces. Less commonly noted by libertarians is the function of diplomacy. Certainly private guard services serve as a model for voluntary police, but what of military command? And what of diplomacy?
Voluntary militia systems have existed in the past. Yet the tradition of the militia is that it is always subject to mobilization (conscription) by a central government. Only in this way, it is argued, can many militias be coordinated in an orderly manner.
A voluntary model for coordinating the command of several independent militias already exists, though it is not used by any military force to my knowledge. It is the system used in the U.S.A. to coordinate fire departments (especially rural ones) in the event of a very large fire. If a local fire chief feels that his forces are inadequate, he may request help from neighboring fire departments. While not obliged to give assistance, neighbors usually give it, subject to prearranged rates of financial compensation. (In private systems, insurance could be set up to cover such a contingency). The assisting forces are always commanded by the department which calls on them, unless that department's chief (or his field deputy) voluntarily yields to another commander. This usually happens only when a particularly experienced leader from a "neighbor" department is seen by the local chief as having better skills. There is no presumption, however, that the local chief will yield. Further, the chief of an assisting force still has authority to recall his forces if he feels that action to be appropriate to his own department's priorities (as in the event of a fresh fire in his own hometown). Good will between neighboring fire departments has kept this system working for many years.
Diplomacy is being privatized. There is no reason why private international diplomacy cannot function in the same way as private arbitration. The pioneer work of Jimmy Carter in Korea and Haiti is the first well-publicized step. He was able to step in because the nation's official diplomatic officers (including the President) had become so bogged-down in statist agendas that they had lost credibility. Having serious international credibility, yet no commitment to the immediate policies of any government, Mr. Carter was seen as more objective than any diplomat with governmental rank.
In the future, individuals with none
of Mr. Carter's former government connections could provide international
diplomatic services in the total absence of government. As individuals
look to voluntary security services and to militias to protect them, each
of these forces may come to operate in a manner similar to a mini-government.
Relations among such forces would be based on diplomatic efforts. A "new
diplomacy" will begin with individuals who build their reputations negotiating
agreements among these little jurisdictions. Particularly talented individuals
would gain wider reputations and be invited to take on bigger problems.
Eventually, individuals who had never been associated with a state would
begin to address diplomatic problems on a worldwide scale.
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Finally there is legislation. It is very important to remember why we have legislatures. Legislatures debate and pass laws. That is, they coordinate the formation and the explicit listing of a community's highest-priority behavioral standards. When the feudal regime was overthrown, the ideal was established that all of the ethical standards of the society should have the voluntary endorsement of the people of that society (at least from a relatively large "citizen" class), rather than being the edicts of a relatively small elite. Yet this ideal presented a serious communication problem for any society which was larger than a small village. It was impractical for all the citizens to be directly involved in the discussion at the same time.
The system of elected representatives was invented to overcome this communication problem. At the local level, discussions would establish the character of would-be representatives and the sentiments of local voters. The local citizens would then pick representatives and collectively pay for them to travel several days and to meet with the representatives of other communities — the legislature. The representatives would shuttle back and forth between the legislature and the local citizens they represented, negotiating a common sentiment.
Theoretically, the representatives were to establish a common sense of what was appropriate behavior according to the society as a whole before writing it down as a law. This has worked to some extent. When serious competition for the job of representative is allowed, legislatures have a history of being less oppressive than feudal lords — at least towards those individuals who are allowed to vote.
But there are serious problems with the system of elected representation as a method of coordinating the citizens' desires. Minority rights are hard to maintain since the system allows any majority (or merely a plurality in most cases) to dictate behavior to the rest of the citizens. Since almost any citizen will be part of a minority on some topic, few citizens can completely avoid being victimized by some majority. Another problem is that communication via representatives, even representatives with the best intentions, is inefficient. Ideas get muddled as they pass from person to person. Finally, when many issues must be considered, a citizen usually cannot find a single candidate who agrees with that citizen on all issues. Yet that citizen's vote is still taken by the candidate as a mandate on all the candidate's publicly expressed opinions.
These factors all serve in practice to isolate elected representatives from the true will of their constituents. The societies which use the political system of elected representation find themselves stuck with many laws which do not really reflect the will of even a majority. Politicians find themselves empowered to enact unfair laws which most of their constituents do not really want or which abuse one set of constituents at the expense of another. Great rewards are offered to representatives who ally themselves with special interests which seek to exploit the common citizen.
It is important to note that most laws require voluntary compliance in order to be effective. Consider the speed laws on most U.S. highways. Most of the time they are not obeyed unless a police car is in view. Yet law enforcement officials may eagerly seek even a partial enforcement of an unpopular law. Patrolmen write tickets and courts collect fees knowing full well that they do not enforce the public will. The working environment of law enforcement, when laws are unfair, tends to attract and hold officers who enjoy enforcement for its own sake. Enforcement is to establish "respect for law" or to collect revenue rather than to enforce a true public moral standard. Both politicians and law enforcement officials begin to argue that loyalty to the system, to "the law," is more important than justice in establishing public ethics.
The average citizen has learned that it is quite normal to disobey a very large number of laws. Obedience to the law is a function of fear of being caught more than respect for ethical values shared with other citizens The legal system and the system of elected representatives are no longer seen as a vehicle for coordinating social values and for negotiating common ground. It is seen as a zero-sum environment where each citizen competes for the power to compel involuntary obedience from other citizens.
"Institutionalization" (in Quigley's sense) has set in.
The problem, as stated above, is due to the poor communication inherent in the system of elected representation. As the society has gotten larger and more complex, the problem has gotten worse. There are more things to discuss. Yet the method for transforming public discussion into law still revolves around elections.
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Talk shows and other new modes of communication promise to perform the functions of a legislature
Elections presume communication systems which were state of the art at the time of the American Revolution but which are quite primitive today. In the 1700s it was quite difficult for people to engage in public debate. Usually this required the individuals involved to meet face to face for the communication to go both ways. Citizens would usually need to come to a public meeting. Some communication was possible via newspapers or other journals, but this would be one-way, since few individuals owned printing facilities. Two-way communication required citizens to travel, which few could afford to do and which in any case took a great deal of time.
In other institutions within the society, coordination of policy has taken advantage of new forms of communication. Economic institutions increasingly use electronic methods for key communications. So do military institutions, academic institutions, and others. In each of these, speedy, electric, two-way communication is commonplace. The legislature, the institution which coordinates the legitimization of public policy, lags behind. New "legislative" forces are emerging to fill this void. The task of consensus building is being taken up by communication professionals — by journalists, specifically by "call-in talk shows" on television and most significantly on radio.
There are other channels of discussion, which supplement the call-in talk shows. Computer-based personal communications, ranging from one-to-one modem contacts, through local computer bulletin boards, all the way to the Internet offer a very free-form arena for citizens who have the appropriate equipment. An explosion in video communications, including expanded cable-TV, video tape stores, and more personal ownership of video tape players and cameras has put sophisticated multimedia productions in almost all citizens' homes. Computer programs and the hardware to run them, including better word-processing, graphics, spreadsheets, databases, and "game" environments have little political impact yet, but offer considerable promise as educational and modeling tools. More paper journals exist than ever before, because almost anyone with talent and a personal computer can enter the field of publishing.
But while all of the new forms of communication are contributing to formation of public opinion, the call-in talk show is absorbing the power of the legislature. Call-in talk shows have two advantages over other electric communication. First, they allow an intense two-way communication. Second, they allow the communication to occur while the citizens are going about everyday activities. Citizens can gather data through the other electronic media as well as through old-fashioned paper and face-to-face means. But only on the call-in shows can citizens randomly send their opinions back to the journalists in a way that other viewers or listeners can witness. Citizens are directly involved in proposing and endorsing policy, just as they would be at a public meeting. But unlike a public meeting, the audience can participate without traveling. Citizens can be brought together while at work, at home, or in vehicles.
The call-in show forum has a further advantage over elected politicians. Citizens can dismiss hosts at any time and transfer their allegiance to another. There is no need for term limits for a talk show host. As soon as the host loses the citizen's interest, the citizen switches to another broadcast. In addition, there is no limit to the number of shows and hosts. New hosts can offer themselves to the public at any time, without being certified by a party hierarchy or a ballot access requirement.
Yet despite their growing influence, talk show hosts cannot decide public policy. It is true that they can and do censor what gets on their programs. But they do so subject to instant competition by other programs. Ultimately, the power of the talk show host is the power to add to public debate rather than to limit debate. New ideas, new personalities, and new styles can all be offered to the public. Thus public consensus comes from the public's response to a true marketplace of ideas, which is how citizen-based social ethics should be forged.
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The shift in legislative power has already begun
The shift of power will not be instantaneous, nor should it be. People are still getting used to participating in call-in talk shows, to shopping for hosts and for ideas. But a great deal of progress has been made, as evidenced by the Congressional elections of 1994. The Republican Party has had very significant success because of support from radio talk show hosts. Yet the success, as most Republicans concede, is due to a public resolve to remove the old politicians and due to a new public volatility, rather than any permanent shift in party loyalties. The economic agenda of the Republicans has considerable appeal, as the polls and the talk shows reflect.
But the "moral" agenda typically associated with the Republicans has no such public support. Had the Republicans felt that they'd been given an old-style mandate, they'd have put the agenda of their Christian Conservative wing on the table along with the economic conservative agenda of the Contract With America. Instead they've felt that the public has used a line-item veto to limit the new mandate to economic concerns. Where was that veto exercised? Certainly not inside traditional Republican Party machinery. It has come from an extensive and open dialogue with the American public, coordinated by the talk show hosts — entrepreneurs with neither governmental nor political party rank.
Meanwhile, the legislatures themselves remain in session. While they do not drive the process of public policy formation, they continue to pass laws. It is also still true that a law in Britain requires the signature of the British monarch even though it has been passed by Parliament. Yet it has been a great many years since a British monarch dared not to sign what was passed by Parliament. The monarchs have feared, quite reasonably, that they would be replaced if they did not rubber stamp the public will as expressed through Parliament. The Second American Revolution has not yet come that far. But I believe an American Glorious Revolution (quite bloodless) is in the works. And it seems probable that Congress will soon find it extremely unwise to thwart any solid formation of public will which is consistently reflected by the call-in talk shows.
Phil Jacobson has been an activist and student of liberty in North Carolina since the early 1970s. For a living he sells used books, used CDs and used video games.
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