Rebirth of Reason


Bottom-up View of Government
by Joseph Rowlands

There are two ways of approaching the topic of government from the perspective of justifying it. Ayn Rand used a top-down perspective. She recognized the need for individual rights to be protected, and asserted the need for some group or organization to exist that defends those rights. The group or organization is government. And so she saw the essentially nature of government as an organization tasked with the protection of individual rights.


I say that this approach is a top-down because it start with a demand for an organization to protect rights, and then looks deeper at the details to determine exactly what kind of organization it should be. In this view, government is a consciously created and planned organization.


A different perspective of government is the bottom-up approach. Instead of seeing government as a consciously planned organization, it sees it as a product of responses to various needs and conditions. It starts with a simpler model, and works its way up to a more complex organization instead of starting with a complex organization and fine-tuning details. The rest of this article will describe one version of a bottom-up approach.


The recognition of individual rights as a precise and detailed concept is not necessary to start with. Instead, we start with a primitive picture of individuals trying to live their lives in peace. These individuals recognize that the actions of others can be destructive to their own lives. The hard work they put into producing food can all be invalided by an act of theft or destruction. One person may physically harm another, leading to death or a significant reduction in the ability to survive. One need not grasp individual rights as moral ideal or political concept to recognize that the actions of others can be a threat to your life.


The solution to this may seem easy. If someone appears to threaten or harm your life, you respond violently, possibly taking their life as a necessary means of securing your own. Unfortunately, this method of dealing with problems is very insecure. They might be bigger and stronger than you. Then what?


The obvious answer is to cooperate with other peaceful people. While one person may be a threat to you, if you have a large group of people willing to fight alongside of you, the threat is significantly reduced. Not only would you have a better chance of surviving the encounter, but the threat created by the larger group would likely deter other threats.


There's another benefit of grouping together with other peaceful people. The possibility of trade, sharing knowledge, specialization, etc., can significantly increase your prospects for survival.


But one you create a group of people to fend of attacks, you are confronted by a new problem, and it is a problem that didn't exist before. What happens if someone in your group commits one of these acts of destruction? There was no problem when it was just a single individual acting to preserve his life. But once you start adding additional people, you have the possibility that one of those group members will be a problem.


You need to develop a system of dealing with internal threats. This new system is trickier, though. It involves members of your group using violence against other members. When outsiders are concerned, it may make sense to err on the side of being overly cautious. If someone else appears to be a threat, or even seems likely to be a threat, survival dictates that you don't let the threat manifest. You do something about it before any damage is done. It makes sense to be proactive.


Internal threats are different, though. Since you are a member of the group, you recognize that other members being too ambitious with violence could be very bad. It makes sense to use violence within the group much more cautiously and objective. Where erring on the side of caution might mean being untrusting or violent towards outsiders, it means something entirely different for insiders. It means having strict rules for when violence is used, and widespread agreement on when it is necessary. Allowing one person to make such a judgment call could lead to abuse and internal conflicts.


And this leads to one of the most crucial function a government provides. If the use of force is going to be used internally to the group, there must be some organized method for the group members to collectively decide whether force is appropriate or not. If individuals or sub-groups decided unilaterally to use force, they become a threat to all of the other group members.


One of the issues related to determining whether a use of force is appropriate is in the determination of what kinds of acts should be illegal. If members are going to avoid having the group turn on them, they need clear knowledge of what acts will lead to violence and which will not. They need a system of laws, even if not written down, just so that they can be aware of what is and isn't acceptable behavior.


Laws don't create themselves, though. There needs to be some way of generating these laws. The group must decide some mechanism or mechanisms for generating these laws. It could be a legislative body, it could be judges in a common law system, it could be direct democracy, or it could be a single individual.


As laws are generated, it is a useful step to write those laws down. One problem it can help solve is that the group may act and claim that a law was broken, even though it wasn't. People may remember things in many different ways, and especially when passions are raised. Putting laws on paper or some other form of permanent record allows the passions of men to be overcome by the thoughtful acts of reason.


Generating laws is only one part of the problem. It determines, in abstract detail, what actions are permissible or not, and what responses are appropriate. But context and details matter. The general principles behind the law need to be applied in a specific case, and the facts of the case must be judged to determine whether a law applies or not. So some method of determining and judging the facts, and applying the law appropriately, is eventually needed. This could be done by a judge, a jury, a combination of them, or many other possible methods.

It's worth noting that so far we have not referred to government, or an organization within the group. That's because a bottom-up approach does not start with an assumption that we need an organization. Instead, it recognizes problems that develop, and identifies methods of dealing with them. A group is formed because of strengths in numbers. Since violence within the group requires exactly standards, a method is created to determine in abstract what actions are criminal, and what consequences are appropriate. Another method is created to determine the facts of a specific case and apply the law.


The instantiation of these methods are most commonly seen in the form of government, an organization including selective members of the populace. But it's not necessary. A method for determining the guilt of a person and the appropriate punishment could be as simple as grabbing any 12 people as a jury and making a decision. This simple approach might have problems, like that it may not be representative of the overall group, but the point is that it is a method that works without requiring a permanent class of government employees. The method could be modified in several ways to increase the quality and legitimacy of the judgments.


Similarly, the actual creation of laws does not need to be created by a legislative body. Under common law, judges created the law through precedent. Many other possibilities exist.


The other key function of the group is the ability to use retaliatory force. The group may have been formed because of strength in numbers, but as it grows it need not rely on every member of the group to participate in the violence. It could, such as by using militias, but it doesn't need to. Like any other work, specialization can be more efficient. But the specialization does not necessarily need to be a central organization that taxes people. The specialization could come in the form of individuals contracting with others to perform the services.


We could go into more detail. We could explore how when dealing with other, external groups of people it makes sense again to be careful about the use of force to avoid going to war. We could look at the need separate internal police from external military, as their methods and aims are different. We could point out the need for a written Constitution that describes how these various functions and methods should be implemented. We could describe the need for alliances between groups, as well as treaties and methods of dealing with problems between the groups.


Instead of going into more detail, it seems useful to contrast this bottom-up approach with the top-down approach. The top-down approach assumed that an organization needs to exist within the larger group, with the purpose of protecting rights. The bottom-up approach found certain needs arise in a group of people trying to live peacefully together. It focuses on these problems, and determines that certain methods must be created to avoid the problems. But it doesn't demand an organization, like a traditional government, to solve these issues. That is one possible approach, but not the only possible approach.


We can see this in the realm of international affairs. Countries find ways of resolving the same issues without the need for a world government. They form treaties, they have boundaries to demarcate jurisdiction, and rely on method-based solutions instead of organization-based solutions.


The top-down view provides an obvious solution to a variety of different problems, solving them all in the same way. It suggests a group of people are empowered to make decisions and use violence on behalf of the rest of the people. But an obvious solution is not necessarily the best. The top-down approach to centralization of power, the need for taxation, and a reliance on the people within the government to remedy problems.


A bottom-up approach is more flexible and allows for a wider variety of solutions. It is compatible with decentralized enforcement. It is compatible with alternative methods of creating laws. It doesn't leave citizens helpless to preserve their lives or the lives of others, forcing them to be dependent on, or seek permission from, a ruling class. By dealing with issues by establishing a proper method for handling them, it empowers the citizens to preserve their own rights as long as they use the correct and approved methods.


Stripped of the assumptions of a single ruling body that is responsible for decision-making and the use of force, we can view the specific problems that need to be overcome and find alternative methods for solving them.


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