George Walford: Pick Your Government

The concept of anarchy, a society without government (one correspondent has used “nonarchy,” which we had not met before), provokes speculation about its contrary, a society using every form of government. What could such a system be called – omarchy? The concept comes complete with difficulties, not least among them the relations between the different types of government, but it does offer, unlike the blankness of “anarchy” (or “nonarchy”), something to work with, problems which can perhaps be specified, and conceivably provided with working solutions.

The number of systems to be related may be smaller than at first appears. It is doubtless true that each individual person would, ideally, like a government which in some detail was different from that of everybody else, but it also true that these individual preferences tend to fall into classes, each major ideological group having its distinctive conception of the correct and desirable system of government.

And having got that far one goes a bit farther. Are these only conceptions? Are some of them not already functioning realities?

We can speak of “the government of Britain” meaning the group of people who at present exercise power. But we can also speak of “the government of Britain” meaning the process by which Britain is governed, and in this second sense “government” involved not only the rulers but also the ruled; their responses, as well as the initiatives of the rulers, go to decide how government shall operate.

Perhaps the clearest example is provided by the twenty per cent or so of non-voters at each General Election. Britain is officially a representative democracy, in which the electorate select the group which shall rule them from among a number of candidates, but the non-voters choose to exclude themselves from this system; they, by their own choice, are government by rulers in whose election they had no vote. So there are two systems of government operating in Britain, one in which the ruled select their rulers and one in which they do not.

Party leaders in the democracies tend to be selected by majority vote of the membership, but there are exceptions. The leader of the Conservative Party was not selected in this way until recently. He (at that time the leader was always male) emerged from discussions among the few most influential conservatives. Left to themselves, it is toward a system of decision-making in which some people exercise greater influence than others, rather than toward strict counting of heads, that conservatives tend, and although their preferred method no longer plays the part it once did in the government of Britain that government has shown itself capable of incorporating this method.

There is also another system operating in Britain: the ruled set the limits within which the rulers have to operate; in that sense, and to that extent, the ruled rule the rulers. As the American rulers of the time were unable to impose abstention from alcohol so the British ones were unable to stop off-course betting. No government has been able to stop theft, and modern governments, in spite of all the facilities at their disposal, are unable to stop the taking of drugs believed to be harmful. One thread in the complex weave of government is that the ruled set limits to what the rulers are able to do, the ruled rule the rulers. Bacon said, centuries ago: “There goes more to ruling the bidding it be done,” and when we look past the abstractions of formally-accepted systems to the way government actually operates, we find that is largely influenced by what the general body of the people are willing to accept. As different groups are willing to accept different types of government, according to their respective ideologies, so the present government, Britain, taken to mean the process by which Britain is governed, incorporates systems adopted to some, at least, of the major ideologies.

The conception of a society incorporating, if not every conceivable system of government then at least all the systems respectively adapted to the different major ideologies, is not such an absurdity as at first it seems. It is closer to being realised than is the conception of a society with no government at all.

from Ideological Commentary 16, January 1985.