The Government of the absolute majority instead of the Government of the people is but the Government of the strongest interests; and when not efficiently checked, it is the most tyrannical and oppressive that can be devised. John Calhoun, Speech to the U.S. Senate (15 February 1833)

John Calhoun is an interesting figure in American history, and worthy of students of political philosophy. To the modern left, he is seen as a relic of a time when people took states’ rights seriously and wanted to impose a tyranny of the minority upon the majority. He was also a slave-owning Southerner, which is as close to the Devil as you can be in the eyes of a modern American (though we don’t seem to care so much if slavery is required for producing our iPhones). To the modern right, he is someone who you name buildings after and then forget about, except for those times when a leftist accuses your campus of racism for having a building named after him. For the modern anarchist, however, his works are to be examined and explored to better refine our own ideas on political thought. After reading his Disquisition on Government, I feel the need to share some of Calhoun’s ideas, both those that are useful and those that are flawed, regarding the manner of the state. His observations are very useful in explaining why we see the problems in statehood that we do, and why we cannot fix it through more of the same.

Useful Observation #1 – Man Has A Nature

The Disquisition is logically laid out, with its initial two assumptions stated in the beginning section of the text. Upon these two assumptions Calhoun rests the entirety of his work. The first assumption is that it is man’s nature is be social. This is correct. The second assumption is that man needs government to control his nature. This is false, but we’ll save the discussion of that for later on. It is the first assumption that matters. According to Calhoun, man is necessarily a social being and has never been found to be a solitary creature in his development. Furthermore, man has three aspects to his nature: he feels more for those who are close than those who are far, he is self-preserving, and has a need for protective services. Lastly, he observes that society necessarily precedes the state; government only exists to serve society. As Gustave de Molinari mentioned in his The Production of Security:

…society is a purely natural fact. Like the earth on which it stands, society moves in accordance with general, preexisting laws.

Man has a nature that is unique to him, and this nature guides his societal interactions (leading to the formation of the state). The idea that man has an innate nature is not so commonplace, nor would the average academic be caught claiming that people follow natural laws across time and space.  In this regard, Molinari must be quoted again at further length:

What natural impulse do men obey when they combine into society? They are obeying the impulse, or, to speak more exactly, the instinct of sociability. The human race is essentially sociable. Like beavers and the higher animal species in general, men have an instinctive inclination to live in society. The instinct of sociability brings him together with similar persons, and drives him into communication with them. Therefore, impelled by the self interest of the individuals thus brought together, a certain division of labor is established, necessarily followed by exchanges. In brief, we see an organization emerge, by means of which man can more completely satisfy his needs than he could living in isolation.

While Calhoun’s second assumption is commonplace (that man requires government) but the first assumption is taken for granted and typically glossed over. Many Americans conflate the the state and society as being the same entity, even going so far as to say that the state IS the people. Therefore people say that we have a state and must have one because we are the state itself. But what are we to think when agents of the state, like the police, kill their fellow citizens unjustly? The statists who conflate the state and society tell us that the answer is more statehood as a way to counteract man’s selfish nature. But how can the state counteract man’s nature, when man’s nature is the underlying foundation for the state itself? If people are motivated by self-preservation, are more concerned with their immediate locale, and are desirous of ensuring their own protection, will not every government of man be based upon these very traits as well? Calhoun himself puts this in the following manner:

But government, although intended to protect and preserve society, has itself a strong tendency to disorder and abuse of its powers, as all experience and almost every page of history testify. The cause is to be found in the same constitution of our nature which makes government indispensable. The powers which it is necessary for government to possess, in order to repress violence and preserve order, cannot execute themselves. They must be administered by men in whom, like others, the individual are stronger than the social feelings. And hence, the powers vested in them to prevent injustice and oppression on the part of others, will, if left unguarded, be by them converted into instruments to oppress the rest of the community.

To sum up this observation, Calhoun is telling us that man has a nature and follows it just as any other natural thing obeys the laws that are inherent to it. Even if man requires a government (which I will argue against later), any government he makes will carry his traits, for it is a creation that precedes out of human society (and therefore does not precede man). This means that every government will be based on a need for protection, preservation, and local interest, and in essence all corrupting forces in the state issue forth from this. Calhoun later goes to on to say that a constitution in a government is meant to check this part of man but that a constitution by itself is insufficient, as we will soon see.

Useful Observation #2 – Government Produces Class Conflicts

Ideally government can be constrained by a constitution, for a constitution is to government as government is to society; the former of each pairing is a product meant to aid the latter. According to Calhoun, a government cannot survive without a constitution to steer it. But alas, even a constitution cannot truly control a government. Even if a constitution exists, there must also exist a power to enforce that constitution upon a rogue government, thereby creating another seat of power that can be corrupted by the same forces that corrupt government. A limited government cannot be sought as a solution either. A government that is too limited to be used as a corrupting force is too limited and feeble to exist, and according to Calhoun such a government would simply wither away. Not to mention that, yet again, another seat of power would be required to make sure the state stays limited. What about the right to vote? If people vote wisely, surely this is enough. Not so, says Calhoun. While it is an invaluable right to him, voting itself does not change the laws of man’s nature; it only enables people to choose elected officials. Since voting does not negate the desire to protect one’s interests, it becomes merely a tool for one community to live at the expense of another. As Calhoun puts it:

On the contrary, nothing is more difficult than to equalize the action of the government, in reference to the various and diversified interests of the community; and nothing more easy than to pervert its powers into instruments to aggrandize and enrich one or more interests by oppressing and impoverishing the others; and this too, under the operation of laws, couched in general terms — and which, on their face, appear fair and equal. Nor is this the case in some particular communities only. It is so in all; the small and the great — the poor and the rich — irrespective of pursuits, productions, or degrees of civilization — with, however, this difference, that the more extensive and populous the country, the more diversified the condition and pursuits of its population, and the richer, more luxurious, and dissimilar the people, the more difficult is it to equalize the action of the government — and the more easy for one portion of the community to pervert its powers to oppress, and plunder the other.

This leads us to Calhoun’s very useful method for understanding social classes in society. There are only two social classes that exist in such a model: the tax-consumers and the tax-payers. The tax-consumers are those who take in more tax monies than they pay out. The tax-payers are those who pay more in tax monies than they receive back in goods or services by the state. And this division of classes must necessarily be so in any system of government that operates upon taxation. In any government that operates on taxation, there will be those whose livelihoods depend upon the taxation that pays their bills. This includes people in the military and police departments, elected officials, unelected bureaucrats and technocrats, postal employees, and so forth. Calhoun, himself a member of the political class due to being a senator, understood this well. He said:

The administration and management of a government with such vast establishments must necessarily require a host of employees, agents, and officers — of whom many must be vested with high and responsible trusts, and occupy exalted stations, accompanied with much influence and patronage. To meet the necessary expenses, large sums must be collected and disbursed; and, for this purpose, heavy taxes must be imposed, requiring a multitude of officers for their collection and disbursement. The whole united must necessarily place under the control of government an amount of honors and emoluments, sufficient to excite profoundly the ambition of the aspiring and the cupidity of the avaricious; and to lead to the formation of hostile parties, and violent party conflicts and struggles to obtain the control of the government.

For example, civil servants. There cannot be a way where a civil servant’s paycheck is equal to the amount they pay in taxes. On the other hand, a merchant can pay more taxes than he receives back in some form from the state. So here is one group, the civil servant, who receives more than he pays, and another group, the merchant, who pays more than he gets back; this is the source of great civil strife and competition for the ability to control the power that government dispenses. If the merchants seek to petition for less taxes, the civil servants will use their powers against them. If the merchants seek to use the power of the government for their own benefit, the other members of society will either emulate them or seek to block them. In other words, the power inherent in government makes different groups compete for the ability to take in more through taxation than they pay out, and this is due to man’s nature. In Calhoun’s own words:

Such being the case, it necessarily results, that the right of suffrage, by placing the control of the government in the community must, from the same constitution of our nature which makes government necessary to preserve society, lead to conflict among its different interests — each striving to obtain possession of its powers, as the means of protecting itself against the others — or of advancing its respective interests, regardless of the interests of others. For this purpose, a struggle will take place between the various interests to obtain a majority, in order to control the government. If no one interest be strong enough, of itself, to obtain it, a combination will be formed between those whose interests are most alike — each conceding something to the others, until a sufficient number is obtained to make a majority. The process may be slow, and much time may be required before a compact, organized majority can be thus formed; but formed it will be in time, even without preconcert or design, by the sure workings of that principle or constitution of our nature in which government itself originates. When once formed, the community will be divided into two great parties — a major and minor — between which there will be incessant struggles on the one side to retain, and on the other to obtain the majority — and, thereby, the control of the government and the advantages it confers.

To sum up our two useful observations thus far, we reach the following understanding of politics. Man has a nature that guides him to act towards his own preservation, care more about the near than the far, seek out means to protect himself from threats, and exist within society rather than without it. When men come together to form government to better society, every government they create will be based on the natural laws that govern man. Despite the best efforts of the wise, most remedies cannot correct the fatal tendencies that corrupt governments; this includes constitutions, voting, and limited government. Calhoun, based on these observations, introduces his weapon against the corrupting influences in government: his concurrent majority.

Calhoun’s Solution – Vetoing The Majority

Calhoun’s concurrent majority is, in essence, the ability of minorities to nullify the execution of laws that they oppose. In order to establish what a concurrent majority is, Calhoun contrasts it with what he calls the numerical majority. Let’s imagine, for instance, that there was a bill that required over 50% of the vote to pass in a senate. If there were 51% who voted for it, that 51% would be the numerical majority and the 49% would be the minority. Let’s then take that same example and introduce a concurrent majority. Even if 90% of senators voted for that bill, it would still require a majority within every voting party to pass; a single party voting no on the bill would prevent its passage and execution. To Calhoun, this is a negative power that protects against the inherently centralizing trend that grows inside of every government. In his mind, every majority forms into a single controlling force in government which comes about regardless of the type of government:

It is, indeed, the single, or one power, which excludes the negative, and constitutes absolute government; and not the number in whom the power is vested. The numerical majority is as truly a single power, and excludes the negative as completely as the absolute government of one, or of the few. The former is as much the absolute government of the democratic, or popular form, as the latter of the monarchical or aristocratical. It has, accordingly, in common with them, the same tendency to oppression and abuse of power.

The concurrent majority, the constitutional ability to nullify, acts as a negative power against the position power of the government. The idea here is that requiring a concurrent majority would check the ability for power to centralize and concentrate within groups of interested parties at the expense of minority parties. Rather than compete against each other and cling to party politics, parties would have to learn to compromise rather than deceive and aggress. Without this power to check other forces within the government, there can be no true constitutional protection of liberty:

It is this negative power — the power of preventing or arresting the action of the government — be it called by what term it may — veto, interposition, nullification, check, or balance of power — which, in fact, forms the constitution. They are all but different names for the negative power. In all its forms, and under all its names, it results from the concurrent majority. Without this there can be no negative; and, without a negative, no constitution.

Now this sounds all good and well, as far as minarchy is concerned, but we are concerned with anarchy. Indeed, Calhoun’s mistake was that he could only understand political philosophy in a manner that required the existence of a government. It is now time for us to discuss this fatal error.

Calhoun’s Mistake – The Assumption Of Necessary Governance

Calhoun’s second assumption, that society requires a government, must be grappled with in two separate pieces. The first piece is the nature of government itself. The second piece is why Calhoun thinks we need a government. The two are intertwined but are two separate topics, and must be dealt with as such. I believe that both mistakes are directly related to the times that Calhoun himself lived in, and therefore he was ignorant of other possibilities in political philosophy.

The first piece here is that Calhoun does not differentiate between a state and a government. Calhoun sees proof for the necessity of government in the observation that no group of people in the world are without a government of any form. While it’s possible that this is true, Calhoun conflates his idea of government (a state) with the governments of all people (governments that are not a state). But this comes from, in my opinion, the inability for early Americans to imagine a government that did not align with their conception of it (the state). Throughout the Disquisition, Calhoun describes a government that maintains armies, civil servants, and other members of a political class that require taxation to live. Indeed, the corruption he describes comes directly from taxation itself; the battles between tax-payers and tax-consumers would not exist if taxation did not exist. Calhoun was not alone in his inability to understand this, however. This passage from Albert Jay Nock’s Our Enemy, The State is worthy of quotation at length to demonstrate this world view:

Mr. Jefferson, for example, remarked that the hunting tribes of Indians, with which he had a good deal to do in his early days, had a highly organized and admirable social order, but were “without government.” Commenting on this, he wrote Madison that “it is a problem not clear in my mind that [this] condition is not the best,” but he suspected that it was “inconsistent with any great degree of population.” Schoolcraft observes that the Chippewas, though living in a highly-organized social order, had no “regular” government. Herbert Spencer, speaking of the Bechuanas, Araucanians and Koranna Hottentots, says they have no “definite” government; while Parkman, in his introduction to The Conspiracy of Pontiac, reports the same phenomenon, and is frankly puzzled by its apparent anomalies.

Paine’s theory of government agrees exactly with the theory set forth by Mr. Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. The doctrine of natural rights, which is explicit in the Declaration, is implicit in Common Sense;  and Paine’s view of the “design and end of government” is precisely the Declaration’s view, that “to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men”; and further, Paine’s view of the origin of government is that it “derives its just powers from the consent of the governed.” Now, if we apply Paine’s formulas or the Declaration’s formulas, it is abundantly clear that the Virginian Indians had government; Mr. Jefferson’s own observations show that they had it. Their political organization, simple as it was, answered its purpose. Their code-apparatus sufficed for assuring freedom and security to the individual, and for dealing with such trespasses as in that state of society the individual might encounter – fraud, theft, assault, adultery, murder. The same is as clearly true of the various peoples cited by Parkman, Schoolcraft and Spencer. Assuredly, if the language of the Declaration amounts to anything, all these peoples had government; and all these reporters make it appear as a government quite competent to its purpose.

Therefore when Mr. Jefferson says his Indians were “without government,” he must be taken to mean that they did not have a type of government like the one he knew….

The second piece to Calhoun’s error is that he could not understand a society where the state, a government of people that exercises the political method of gaining wealth (plunder), was not required to produce security. To Calhoun, the state’s primary role is to produce security; the force of the state is the positive power that balances out the negative power of liberty. Much like with the distinction of government and statehood, Calhoun does not even consider the idea of private security in this regard. But thanks to people like Molinari and the ancient Irish (voluntarily support of or secession from tuatha), we know that other options are possible. There is absolutely no reason why we cannot have private security companies (or even local militia forces) rather than a monopolized police force, either from an economic perspective or a political one. Indeed, this monopolization, like other state-backed monopolies, only hurts the consumer. As Molinari points out in the same work:

If, on the contrary, the consumer is not free to buy security wherever he pleases, you forthwith see open up a large profession dedicated to arbitrariness and bad management. Justice becomes slow and costly, the police vexatious, individual liberty is no longer respected, the price of security is abusively inflated and inequitably apportioned, according to the power and influence of this or that class of consumers.

Is this not a portrait of our own times? Is there not another possibility for creating societal harmony? I suggest that there is, through anarchy.

Calhoun’s Redemption – Anarchy As The Ultimate Veto

 Calhoun’s concurrent majority was nothing less than groundbreaking. However, it still does not solve the problems created by the state. As long as there are monopolies (which only truly arise from state backing) and taxation, we will always see the kind of class conflict Calhoun describes. Calhoun himself believed that a perfect form of government would, in fact, draw upon the consent of the entire population itself; majorities were only needed because there was no way to get the consent of everyone. As he put it:
A perfect government of the kind would be one which would embrace the consent of every citizen or member of the community; but as this is impracticable, in the opinion of those who regard the numerical as the only majority, and who can perceive no other way by which the sense of the people can be taken — they are compelled to adopt this as the only true basis of popular government, in contradistinction to governments of the aristocratical or monarchical form. Being thus constrained, they are, in the next place, forced to regard the numerical majority, as, in effect, the entire people; that is, the greater part as the whole; and the government of the greater part as the government of the whole. It is thus the two come to be confounded, and a part made identical with the whole.
In his own times this may have been the case. In our times, however, it is now possible for everyone with access to a computer or phone to make their wishes known. Thanks to the market economy, these things are plentiful and cheap to a degree never before possible. Indeed, even those without those things can go to a variety of places with phones and computers present. In fact, it is through market forces that a system of universal consent is possible! If a person wants one type of food and not another, it is through the market that this person’s desire is met; no is forced to partake of a good or service that he or she does not want to purchase. Not so with our current state. If you don’t want the police, you’re out of luck; you still must pay for them to beat you . If you don’t want the judicial system, you’re still out of luck; you still must pay for them to imprison, feed, and vocationally train your rapist. This answer for this is clear: the state is zero-sum and the market is not. Walter Williams, in his article Conflict or Cooperation, makes it obvious:

When’s the last time you heard of beer drinkers in conflict with wine drinkers, or three-piece suit lovers in conflict with lovers of blue jeans? It seldom if ever happens because beer and blue jean lovers get what they want. Wine and three-piece suit lovers get what they want and they all can live in peace with one another.

It would be easy to create conflict among these people. Instead of free choice and private decision-making, clothing and beverage decisions could be made in the political arena. In other words, have a democratic majority-rule process to decide what drinks and clothing that would be allowed. Then we would see wine lovers organized against beer lovers, and blue jean lovers organized against three-piece suit lovers. Conflict would emerge solely because the decision was made in the political arena. Why? The prime feature of political decision-making is that it’s a zero-sum game. One person’s gain is of necessity another person’s loss.

Through a free market where all goods and services were available, including defense and law, we wouldn’t need a zero sum arrangement. We wouldn’t need to support racist police officers, corrupt officials, and incompetent paper-pushing bureaucrats. We could buy and sell what we want from who we want, or we could produce it ourselves with like-minded people who share our ideas on what proper policing looks like. As Murray Rothbard puts it in his Revolt Against Nature and Other Essays:

…Calhoun does not push his pathbreaking theory on concurrence far enough: he does not push it down to the individual himself. If the individual, after all, is the one whose
rights are to be protected, then a consistent theory of concurrence would imply veto power by every individual; that is, some form of “unanimity principle.” When Calhoun wrote
that it should be “impossible to put or to keep it [the government] in action without the concurrent consent of all,” he was, perhaps unwittingly, implying just such a conclusion.

But unfortunately Calhoun could not envision such a possibility, where each person could join up with or secede from a variety of different governmental options, or rather, companies that provide the services commonly associated with government. But this is a very real possibility for our own times. We have the technology needed for people to purchase what they will, or produce it themselves, if so desired. We have the knowledge that such arrangements are possible. How much abuse will it take for people to hunger for a different option? How much oppression is required before people thirst for liberty? Until that time arises, we will continue to see more and more government corruption, centralization of power, and abuse at the hands of the police.  The only thing holding us back is ourselves and our desire to kneel to the state. There is no greater time than now to consider these words, in parting, from Calhoun himself:
A reward more appropriate than liberty could not be conferred on the deserving — nor a punishment inflicted on the undeserving more just, than to be subject to lawless and despotic rule.

Further Reading: