anarchy archives


About Us

Contact Us

Other Links

Critics Corner


The Cynosure

  Michael Bakunin
  William Godwin
  Emma Goldman
  Peter Kropotkin
  Errico Malatesta
  Pierre-Joseph Proudhon
  Elisée Reclus
  Max Stirner
  Murray Bookchin
  Noam Chomsky
  Bright but Lesser Lights
  Cold Off The Presses
  Anarchist History
  Worldwide Movements
  First International
  Paris Commune
  Haymarket Massacre
  Spanish Civil War
  Art and Anarchy
  Education and Anarchy
  Anarchist Poets

Principles of Government



Rational obedience not founded in contract. - Kinds of obedience.
   - Compulsory obedience often less injurious than confidence. -Kinds of 
   authority. - Limitations of confidence. - Reverence to superiors considered. 
   - Government founded in ignorance.

THE two great questions upon which the theory of government depends are: Upon what foundation can political authority with the greatest propriety rest? and, What are the considerations which bind us to political obedience? Having entered at length into the first of these questions, it is time that we should proceed to the examination of the second.

One of the most popular theories, relative to the foundation of political authority, we have seen to be that of an original contract, affirming that the criterion of political justice is to be found in the conventions and rules which have been adjusted by the community at large. In pursuance of this original position, the same theorists have necessarily gone on and affirmed that the true source of obligation to political obedience was to be found in the same principle, and that, in obeying a government regularly constituted, we did nothing more than perform our engagements.

The reasonings in support of this hypothesis are obvious. "Suppose a number of persons living in any neighbourhood should perceive that great common benefit would accrue from building a bridge, sinking a canal, or making a highway. The simplest mode for them to adopt is to consult together, and raise the money necessary for effecting this desirable purpose, by each man assessing himself according to his ability, and contributing his quota to a common fund. Now it is plain that, in this case, each pays his assessment (supposing the payment to be voluntary) in consideration of the previous agreement; his contribution would be of no avail, however desirable was the object to be effected, had he not reason to depend upon the rest of the neighbourhood, that they would pay theirs. But government"' says the advocate of an original contract, "when regularly constituted, is precisely such a provision as the one here stated for building a bridge, or making a road: it is a consultation and settlement among the different members of a community as to the regulations most conducive to the benefit of the whole. It is upon this principle that taxes are paid, and that the force of the community is drawn out in such proportions as are necessary to repress the external or internal disturbers of its tranquillity. The ground therefore upon which each man contributes his share of effort or property is that he may perform his contract, and discharge that for which he has engaged as a member of the community."

The refutation of this hypothesis has been anticipated in the preceding chapters. - Government can with no propriety be compared to the construction of a bridge or a canal, a matter of mere convenience and refinement. It is supposed to be of the most irresistible necessity; it is indisputably an affair of hardship and restraint. It constitutes other men the arbitrators of my actions, and the ultimate disposers of my destiny. - Almost every member of every community that has existed on the face of the earth might reasonably say, "I know of no such contract as you describe; I never entered into any such engagement; I never promised to obey; it must therefore be an iniquitous imposition to call upon me to do something under pretence of a promise I never made." - The reason a man lives under any particular government is partly necessity; he cannot easily avoid living under some government and it is often scarcely in his powers to abandon the country in which he was born: it is also partly a choice of evils; no man can be said, in this case, to enjoy that freedom which is essential to forming a contract, unless it could be shown that he had a power of instituting, somewhere, a government adapted to his own conceptions. - Government in reality, as has abundantly appeared is a question of force, and not of consent. It is desirable that a government should be made as agreeable as possible to the ideas and inclinations of its subjects; and that they should be consulted, as extensively as may be, respecting its construction and regulations. But, at last, the best constituted government that can be formed, particularly for a large community, will contain many provisions that, far from having obtained the consent of all its members, encounter even in their outset a strenuous, though ineffectual, opposition. - From the whole of these reasonings it appears that, in those measures which have the concurrence of my judgement, I may reasonably be expected to co-operate with willingness and zeal; but, for the rest, my only justifiable ground of obedience is that I will not disturb the repose of the community, or that I do not perceive the question to be of sufficient magnitude to authorize me in incurring the penalty.

To understand the subject of obedience with sufficient accuracy, it is necessary that we should attend to the various shades of meaning of which the word is susceptible.

Every voluntary action is an act of obedience; in performing it, we comply with some view, and are guided by some incitement or motive.

The purest kind of obedience is where an action flows from the independent conviction of our private judgement, where we are directed, not by the precarious and mutable interference of another, but by a recollection of the intrinsic and indefeasible tendency of the action to be performed.1 In this case the object of obedience is the dictate of the understanding: the action may or may not be such as my neighbours or the community will approve, but this approbation does not constitute its direct motive.

The kind of obedience which stands next to this in its degree of voluntariness arises in the following manner. Every man is capable of comparing himself with his fellow. Every man will find that there are some points in which he is equal to or perhaps the superior of other men, but there are certainly some points in which other men are superior to him. The superiority in question in the present instance is superiority of intellect or information. It may happen that the point in which another man surpasses me is a point of some importance to my welfare or convenience. I want, for example, to sink a well. It may happen that I have not the leisure or the means to acquire the science necessary for this purpose. Upon that supposition, I am not to be blamed if I employ a builder for the first or a mechanic for the second; nor shall I be liable if I work in person under his direction. This sort of obedience is distinguished by the appellation of confidence; and to justify, in a moral view, the reposing of confidence, the only thing necessary is that it should be fitter and more beneficial, all things considered, that the function to be performed should be performed by me.

The third and last kind of obedience necessary to be adverted to upon the present occasion is where I do that which is not prescribed to me by my private judgement, merely on account of the mischievous consequences that I foresee will be annexed to my omission by the arbitrary interference of some voluntary being.

The most important observation that arises upon the statement of scale of obedience in the second degree ought to be guarded with as much jealousy, and kept to the person yielding obedience within as narrow limits as possible. The last sort of obedience will frequently be necessary. Voluntary beings constitute a large portion of the universe; we shall often have occasion to foresee their arbitrary determinations and conduct, nor can knowledge, as such, in any instance fail to be a desirable acquisition; our conduct therefore must and ought to be modified by their interferences. Morality, as has already been frequently observed, consists entirely in an estimate of consequences; he is the truly virtuous man who produces the greatest portion of benefit his situation will admit. The most exalted morality indeed, that in which the heart reposes with the most unmingled satisfaction, relates to the inherent and indefeasible tendencies of actions. But we shall be by no means excusable if we overlook, in our system of conduct, the arbitrary awards of other men. Nothing can be more certain than that an action, suppose of inferior moment or utility, which for its own sake might be right to be performed, it may become my duty to neglect if I know that by performing it I shall incur the penalty of death.

The mischiefs attendant on the frequent recurrence of this species of obedience, and the grounds upon which its interference is to be guarded against, as extensively as circumstances will admit, have already been stated.2 Yet obedience flowing from the consideration of a penalty is less a source of degradation and depravity than a habit of obedience founded in confidence. The man who yields it may reserve, in its most essential sense, his independence. He may be informed in judgement, and resolved in purpose, as to every moral and social obligation. He may suffer his understanding neither to be seduced nor confounded; he may observe, in its fullest extent, the mistake and prepossession of his neighbour, to which he thus finds it necessary to accommodate himself. It seems possible that he who thus pities the folly, while he complies with the necessity, may still, even under this discipline, grow in discrimination and sagacity.

The greatest mischief that can arise in the progress of obedience is, where it shall lead us, in any degree, to depart from the independence of our understanding, a departure general and unlimited confidence necessarily includes. In this view, the best advice that could be given to a person in a state of subjection is, "Comply, where the necessity of the case demands it; but criticize while you comply. Obey the unjust mandates of your governors; for this prudence and the consideration of the common safety may require; but treat them with no false lenity, regard them with no indulgence. Obey; this may be right; but beware of reverence. Reverence is nothing but wisdom and skill: government may be vested in the fittest persons; then they are entitled to reverence, because they are wise, and not because they are governors: and it may be vested in the worst. Obedience will occasionally be right in both cases: you may run south to avoid a wild beast advancing in that direction, though you want to go north. But be upon your guard against confounding things so totally unconnected with each other as a purely political obedience and respect. Government is nothing but regulated force; force is its appropriate claim on your attention. It is the business of individuals to persuade; the tendency of concentrated strength is only to give consistency and permanence to an influence more compendious than persuasion."

All this will be made somewhat clearer if we reflect on the proper correlative of obedience, authority: and here let us recur to the three sorts of obedience above specified.

The first kind of authority, then, is the authority of reason, what is really such, or is conceived to be such. The terms, both authority and obedience, are less frequently employed in this sense than in either of the following.

The second kind of authority is that which depends for its validity upon the confidence of him with whom it prevails, and is where, not having myself acquired such information as to enable me to form a judicious opinion, I yield a greater or less degree of deference to the known sentiment and decision of another. This seems to be the strictest and most precise meaning of the word authority; as obedience, in its most refined sense, denotes that compliance which is the offspring of respect.

Authority in the last of the three senses alluded to is where a man, in issuing his precept, does not deliver that which may be neglected with impunity; but his requisition is attended with a sanction, and the violation of it will be followed with a penalty. This is the species of authority which properly connects itself with the idea of government. It is a violation of political justice to confound the authority which depends upon force, with the authority which arises from reverence and esteem; the modification of my conduct which might be due in the case of a wild beast, with the modification which is due to superior wisdom. These two kinds of authority may happen to vest in the same person; but they are altogether distinct and independent of each other.

The consequence which has flowed from confounding them has been a greater debasement of the human character than could easily have followed upon direct and unqualified slavery. The principle of confidence, and the limitations with which it ought to be attended, are capable of an easy and convincing explication. I am bound, to the fullest extent that is consistent with my opportunities and situation, to exercise my understanding. Man is the ornament of the universe only in proportion as he consults his judgement. Whatever I submit to from the irresistible impulse of necessity is not mine, and debases me only as it tends gradually to shackle the intrepidity of my character. With respect to some men therefore it may be innoxious. But, where I make the voluntary surrender of my understanding, and commit my conscience to another man's keeping, the consequence is clear. I then become the most mischievous and pernicious of animals. I annihilate my individuality as a man, and dispose of my force as an animal to him among my neighbours who shall happen to excel in imposture and artifice, and to be least under restraint from the scruples of integrity and justice. I put an end, as to my own share, to that happy collision of understandings upon which the hopes of human improvement depend. I can have no genuine fortitude, for fortitude is the offspring of conviction. I can have no conscious integrity, for I do not understand my own principles, and have never brought them to the test of examination. I am the ready tool of injustice, cruelty and profligacy; and, if at any time I am not employed in their purposes, it is the result of accident, not of my own precaution and honesty.

The understanding must first be consulted, and then, no doubt, confidence will come in for its share of jurisdiction. The considerations which will have influence in the mind of an impartial enquirer to enforce, or to give an air of doubtfulness to, his opinions, are numerous. Among these, he will not refuse attention to the state of opinion in the present or any preceding generation of men. In the meantime it will rarely happen that the authority of other men's judgement in cases of general enquiry will be of great weight. Either men of equal talents and integrity have embraced both sides; or their prejudice, and deficiency as to the materials of judging, have been such as extremely to weaken their testimony. Add to this, that the only ground of opinion, strictly so called, is the intrinsic evidence of the opinion itself; upon that our judgement must be formed; and the decision of others can have no effect but that of increasing or diminishing our doubt of the rectitude of our own perceptions. The direct province of confidence is to supply, in the best way the case will admit, the defect of our knowledge; but it can never, strictly speaking, furnish knowledge itself. Its proper use belongs rather to the circumstance of actions immediately to be determined on, than to matters of speculation and principle. Thus, I ought not perhaps to refuse weight to the advice of some men, even when the reasons by which they enforce their advice are conceived by me to be problematical: and thus, I am bound, as before stated, to trust another, in the moment of emergency, in the art he has studied, rather than myself by whom that study was never undertaken. Except when the nature of my situation calls upon me to act, I shall do more wisely in refraining from any decision, in questions where I am not assisted to decide by information that is properly my own.

One of the lessons most assiduously inculcated upon mankind in all ages and countries is that of reverence to our superiors. If by this maxim be intended our superiors in wisdom, it may be admitted, but with some qualification. But, if it imply our superiors in station only, nothing can be more contrary to reason and justice. Is it not enough that they have usurped certain advantages over us to which they can show no equitable claim; and must we also humble our courage, and renounce our independence, in their presence? Why reverence a man because he happens to be born to certain privileges; or because a concurrence of circumstances (for wisdom, as we have already seen, gives a claim to respect utterly distinct from power) has procured him a share in the legislative or executive government of our country? Let him content himself with the obedience which is the result of force; for to that only is he entitled.

Reverence to our superiors in wisdom is to be admitted, but with considerable limitations. I am bound, as has already appeared, to repose certain functions, such as that of building my house, or educating my child, in the hands of him by whom those functions will most properly be discharged. It may be right that I should act under the person to whom I have thus given my suffrage, in cases where I have reason to be persuaded of his skill, and can not be expected to acquire the necessary skill myself. But in those cases of general justice which are equally within the province of every human understanding, I am a deserter from the requisitions of duty if I do not assiduously exert my faculties, or if I be found to act contrary to the conclusions they would dictate, from deference to the opinions of another. - The reverence we are here considering is a reverence prompting us to some kind of obedience; there is another kind, terminating in esteem only, that, so far from deserving to be confined within these strict limitations, we are bound to extend to every man who is the possessor of estimable qualities.

The reverence which is due from a child to his parent, or rather to his senior in age and experience, falls under the same rules as have already been delivered. Wherever I have good reason to believe that another person knows better than myself what is proper to be done, there I ought to conform to his direction. But the advantage which he possesses must be obvious, otherwise I shall not be justified in my proceeding. If I take into the account every chance for advantage, I shall never act upon the result of my own reflections. The mind of one man is essentially distinct from the mind of another. If each do not preserve his individuality, the judgement of all will be feeble, and the progress of our common understanding inexpressibly retarded. Hence it follows that the deference of a child becomes vicious whenever he has reason to doubt that the parent possesses essential information of which he is deprived. Nothing can be more necessary for the general benefit than that we should divest ourselves, as soon as the proper period arrives, of the shackles of infancy; that human life should not be one eternal childhood; but that men should judge for themselves, unfettered by the prejudices of education, or the institutions of their country.

To a government, therefore, that talked to us of deference to political authority, and honour to be rendered to our superiors, our answer should be: "It is yours to shackle the body, and restrain our external actions; that is a restraint we understand. Announce your penalties; and we will make our election of submission or suffering. But do not seek to enslave our minds. Exhibit your force in its plainest form, for that is your province; but seek not to inveigle and mislead us. Obedience and external submission is all you are entitled to claim; you can have no right to extort our deference, and command us not to see, and disapprove of, your errors." In the meantime it should be observed that it is by no means a necessary consequence that we should disapprove of all the measures of government; but there must be disapprobation wherever there is a question of strict political obedience.

A corollary which flows from these principles is deserving of our attention. Confidence is in all cases the offspring of ignorance. It must therefore continually decline, in relation, as was above stated, to "those cases of general justice which are equally within the province of every human understanding," in proportion as wisdom and virtue shall increase. But the questions that belong to the department of government are questions of general justice. The conduct of an enlightened and virtuous man can only be conformable to the regulations of government so far as those regulations are accidentally coincident with his private judgement, or as he acts with prudent and judicious submission to the necessity of the case. He will not act from confidence; for he has himself examined, as it was his duty to do, the merits of the action: and he has not failed to detect the imposture that would persuade us there is a mystery in government which uninitiated mortals must not presume to penetrate. Now it is sufficiently known that the empire of government is built in opinion;3 nor is it enough for this purpose that we refuse to contribute to overturn it by violence, the opinion must go to the extent of prompting us to actual support. No government can subsist in a nation the individuals of which shall merely abstain from tumultuous resistance, while in their genuine sentiments they censure and despise its institution. In other words, government cannot proceed but upon confidence, as confidence on the other hand cannot exist without ignorance. The true supporters of government are the weak and uninformed, and not the wise. In proportion as weakness and ignorance shall diminish, the basis of government will also decay. This however is an event which ought not to be contemplated with alarm. A catastrophe of this description would be the true euthanasia of government. If the annihilation of blind confidence and implicit opinion can at any time be effected, there will necessarily succeed in their place an unforced concurrence of all in promoting the general welfare. But, whatever may be the event in this respect, and the future history of political societies,4 we shall do well to remember this characteristic of government, and apply it as the universal touchstone of the institution itself. As in the commencement of the present Book we found government indebted for its existence to the errors and perverseness of a few, so it now appears that it can no otherwise be perpetuated than by the infantine and uninstructed confidence of the many. It may be to a certain degree doubtful whether the human species will ever be emancipated from their present subjection and pupillage, but let it not be forgotten that this is their condition. The recollection will be salutary to individuals, and may ultimately be productive of benefit to all.


1Book II, Chap. VI.
2Book II, Chap. VI.
2Book I, Chap.VI, p.46; BookII, Chap.III, p. 68.
4Book V, Chap. XXII, XXIV.
To Book III, Chapter VII.
To Table of Contents
Anarchy Archives Homepage


[Home]               [About Us]               [Contact Us]               [Other Links]               [Critics Corner]