Steve G.

Why I Reject Mike Gravel’s National Initiative

In Activism, Democracy, Libertarian, Local Politics, Minorities, Personal Responsibility, Spending, US Government on February 10, 2010 at 6:37 pm

For some time now, Mike Gravel, a former Democratic Senator representing Alaska, has been advocating the National Initiative for Democracy (NI4D).  It was, in fact, the main focus of his 2008 campaign for the U.S. presidency.

The NI4D is a proposal, put forward by The Democracy Foundation, to create ballot initiatives at the U.S. federal level, that is, allow the American people the power to propose and vote on laws directly, bypassing the politician in Washington.  Along with Gravel, Ralph Nader and Tom Knapp have also endorsed this proposal.

Gravel makes this sound good, claiming that the people can, under his proposal, repeal the many egregious laws foisted upon us by the political class.  He provides a solidly libertarian defence, saying that this initiative will “stem[] government growth.”  Writes Gravel,

American citizens can gain control of their government by becoming lawmakers and turning its purpose to public benefit, and stemming government growth—the people are more conservative than their elected ofcials regardless of political party.

With all due respect to Mr. Gravel, whom I still consider to be a hero for his role in ending the draft and the Vietnam War, I reject the NI4D proposal.  While it’s not the worst proposal in the world, it fails to address the fundamental problem of governance vis-à-vis the natural, inalienable rights of the individual.  It does not promote true self-government, but rather erects an illusory self-governance.

We need to devolve all government power, not simply down to the state level, not simply down to the county level, not simply down to the level of the local community (although that would certainly be a step in the right direction), but all the way down to the individual level.  No person should be able to have power over another person’s life except insofar as the second person chooses to allow the person to have said power, and for a duration no longer than the second person allows. Unfortunately, democracy allows majority factions to rule over minorities, and as such, I have to reject democracy in favour of individualist anarchism.

Now, by anarchism I certainly do not mean that chaotic state of existence we call lawlessness or anomie.  By anarchy, I merely mean that state of existence in which no person is considered to legitimately rule over the person or justly-acquired property of anyone else.  My anarchism is clearly a libertarian anarchism, for I consider such actions as rape, murder, and the theft or unconsensual destruction of someone’s justly-acquired property as violations of natural law, what I call “natural crimes.”  Of course, one is justified in using defensive force, if one so wishes, against these “natural criminals,” so long as the defensive force used is proportional to the initiatory forced employed by the criminal.

Benjamin Tucker, the nineteenth century individualist anarchist most famous for his newspaper Liberty, defined anarchists as

simply unterrified Jeffersonian Democrats.  They believe that “the best government is that which governs least,” and that that which governs least is no government at all.  Even the simple police function of protecting person and property they deny to governments supported by compulsory taxation.  Protection they look upon as a thing to be secured, as long as it is necessary, by voluntary association and cooperation for self-defence, or as a commodity to be purchased, like any other commodity, of those who offer the best article at the lowest price.  In their view it is in itself an invasion of the individual to compel him to pay for or suffer a protection against invasion that he has not asked for and does not desire.

Gravel correctly notes, in his defence of the NI4D, that “[g]overnments throughout history have been tools of oppression,” but he then incorrectly adds: “they need not be.”  The state is an inherently oppressive, inherently aggressive institution, for all states, in order to be states, either must steal the products of someone’s labour, must dictate how people may live their lives and spend their money (even when said people are acting entirely nonviolently), or must use aggression to prevent private security agencies from having an equal footing under the law with itself.  If the state were to cease doing these three things, then it would cease to be a state, but would instead become simply a private charity or firm.

In an address delivered in 1877, the venerable liberal Lord Acton stated,

It is bad to be oppressed by a minority; but it is worse to be oppressed by a majority.  For there is a reserve of latent power in the masses which, if it is called into play, the minority can seldom resist.  But from the absolute will of an entire people there is no appeal, no redemption, no refuge but treason.  The humblest and most numerous class of the Athenians united the legislative, the judicial, and in part, the executive power.  The philosophy that was then in the ascendant taught them that there is no law superior to that of the state, and that, in the state, the law-giver is above the law.

If the NI4D is established, people will be no freer than they were prior to its establishment.  All that will have changed is that the individual will gain a single, minuscule vote on matters of dire importance, a vote that will be completely overwhelmed by the combined votes of the others.  In other words, the individual will still be under the tyrannical control of others, will still be a victim of oppression.

If people are reticent in telling George Bush and Barack Obama, “No, you don’t have a right to run my life,” how much less willing will they be to say that to the supposed vox populi?

In summation, the National Initiative for Democracy sounds nice, but it won’t give people the freedom to control their own lives, all it will give them is a vote in the control of the lives of their neighbours.  Worse yet, because it will create the illusion of self-rule, of self-government, it will discourage people from fighting for their own liberation, and as such, is a highly anti-libertarian and counter-revolutionary idea.

—Alexander S. Peak

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  1. My response to this and some other libertarian purism is this: “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. But in practice, there is.” ~Yogi Berra

    IF EVERYONE would play by Alex’s rules, it sounds nice. But history shows that “power abhors a vacuum.” If nobody is in charge, the very worst people TAKE charge. If EVERYONE is in charge, as in Gravel’s NI4D, it is the best form of government, though not perfect like a theoretical one.

    Libertarians think THEY should determine the functions of government, instead of ALL of us. I reject such cultism. Don’t tell me what’s “natural”: I live outdoors half the time, and with indigenous peoples from Mexico and Guatemala who have many centuries of PRACTICE, not theory, of self-government. When left alone most groups let EVERYONE participate in setting law and policy, and the much-evolved result is quite different from Alex’s or others’ theories -and varies from place to place. The Zapatista rebels of Mexico have set the standard with local, state, national and even international “consultas” [consultations or referenda, like in Gravel’s project].

  2. Mr. Ravitz writes, “But history shows that ‘power abhors a vacuum.'”

    Actually, I believe history shows the opposite. For around a thousand years, Ireland was essentially stateless. While there were kings, these kings had no real power, and were essentially religious figureheads. Should a dispute arise between a king and someone else, the king didn’t necessarily get his way, but had to argue his case before the voluntary clans called Tuaths just like anyone else.

    Despite being essentially stateless, ancient Ireland had the most cultually advanced societies at the time.

    Moreover, the lack of a central power was an asset rather than a liability to the Irish. That great naval power England tried to invade, and found it extremely difficult to do so. While the eventually did succeed, it took a couple hundred years, I believe. The reason a central power is a liability is that an invading army merely needs to conquer the central power and replace its rulers, while it cannot do so when there is no central power to seize. As it were, the English had to conquer each area as it went along, because no tribe had the power or authority to surrender for all of Ireland. Instead, what they usually did was immediately surrender, and then go back to their own ways as soon as the army would move on to the next location. The English called the Irish barbaric for this lack of allegiance, but I’d instead argue that it was the English military that were barbaric. In any event, history demonstrates that it is not true that power abhours a vacuum.

    Of course, the situation in Somalia is quite different. The reason we have warlords fighting for dominance there is that they know that whichever group actually succeeds in acquiring power will be recognised by the U.N. and the international community as the “legitimate” ruling power, and that with this recognition comes certain privileges, such as international aid (which they’ll of course exploit). While the warlords want this privileged status that the international community will confer, the majority of people in Somalia would prefer to go without a state. They recognise their clan-based system as superior to even democracy, so all attempts to impose power upon them by the U.N. and the politicians of the U.S. is actually the factor causing many of the problems there. Even with the violence resulting from this attempted external imposition of power, Somalia has strong and growing economy, thus showing the benefits of relative freedom even in the face of the failing attempts to impose power externally.

    Mr. Ravitz goes on to say, “If nobody is in charge, the very worst people TAKE charge.”

    This is a nice theory, but in practice it’s not necessarily the case. And where it is the case that people will try to take charge, such as Somalia, we’re dealing with a situation in which there’s not truly a power vacuum, but rather a power structure being offered by external powers. In a true anarchy, where such external powers would not exist, it would not be in the interest of the Somalian warlords to try to impose their criminal rule over others on a large scale, as the costs would often outweigh the benefit. (This is not to say that no crime would take place in a stateless society, only that it would not be as prevelent as it is in a statist society, and that the larger the criminal enterprise, the less likely it will be able to evade detection and prosecution.)

    Mr. Ravitz continues, “Libertarians think THEY should determine the functions of government, instead of ALL of us [should].”

    (1) Mr. Gravel is a Libertarian.

    (2) While your statement may be true of many big-L Libertarians, I don’t think it is reflective of small-L libertarianism. I, for one, don’t wish to determine the functions of the state, as I do not believe there should even be a state whose functions I could then determine.

    Finally, Mr. Ravitz writes, “Don’t tell me what’s ‘natural.'”

    When person A imposes his or her will upon person B without the consent of person B, his is naturally illegitimate. It violates the principle of equal authority (see Roderick Long’s “Equality: The Unkniwn Ideal”). Why does it violate the principle of equal authority? Because it clearly represents one person imposing his or her authority upon another, who is rendered authoritatively inferior to the person doing the imposing. This is true whether it be one person or a million doing the imposing.

    We should never allow the term self-government to be perverted to include the imposition of government upon the minority by some external faction, even if said external faction is in greater numbers than the minority. Democracy, in short, is nothing less than the principle that might makes right. One does not become a libertarian because of a desire to oppose merely the imposition of tyranny by a minority faction, but because of my opposition to all forms of tyranny, of authority imposed through aggression.

    I would urge Mr. Gravel to search his heart. Deep down, he knows that authoritative inequality is a threat to everything he holds dear. I’m sure he already entertains a vague inclination of this, lest he wouldn’t be proposing the NI4D in the first place. But, upon greater reflection, NI4D will not yield the athoritative equality he, deep down, desires.

    Sincerely yours,
    Alex Peak

  3. I would add to Evan’s response by paraphrasing Tom Knapp: as long as there is a government, no matter what size it is (obviously he prefers, and so do you, very small), it’s better that the majority of people have a voice in it than not. We’ve seen the damage rule by minority can do, and it would be good to balance that out with (without abolishing Congress or any other branch of government) the voice of the people.

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