9.2.2 Limiting the Scope of Governance

Limiting the scope of governance is essential if people are to be as free as possible to live their lives in the way they want to.

Most people’s citizenship is involuntary – it was determined by where they were born – so they are subject to governance which they haven’t agreed to.  This appears to breach the minimum constraints on the natural liberty of the individual, as defined by John Stuart Mill’s ‘Harm Principle’ in his essay On Liberty

“the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” [Chap. I, Para. 9] 

A key area of contention in this statement is the expression “against his will”.  The individualist argument is that those who want governance that is more extensive than a “minimal State” (6.2.2.1) could only have this by imposing their will on other people – a “philosophy of violence and coercion”, as Milton Friedman expressed it (4.2.4.6).  Rousseau though, in The Social Contract, argued that people do not lose their freedom by contracting with others because:

“Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will, and, in our corporate capacity, we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole.” [Book 1 Chap. 6]

The concept of negotiability, as described in this book, contains some of the elements of Rousseau’s concept – we are collectively the masters of those aspects of governance which are negotiable (6.8.4) – but Rousseau failed to acknowledge the need to restrict the scope of governance, and he failed to mention the need to avoid the oppression of minorities.

A balance is needed between Mill’s concept of individual liberty and Rousseau’s vision of responsibilities to everyone else.  Isaiah Berlin articulated this clearly, as described in an essay by Michael Ignatieff:

“Without the equality of life chances created by shared public goods—decent homes, good schools, affordable transport, universities accessible to anyone with ability—liberty would remain the privilege of the rich and fortunate. So freedom from—from arbitrariness, injustice and monopoly power—had to advance hand in hand with freedom to—to choose your rulers and create a shared world in common.”

Mill’s ‘Harm Principle’ needs to be restated:

People should be as free as possible, subject to them not harming others and meeting their obligations to society.

The next two sections examine how governance can protect people’s “equality of life chances” (9.2.3), and the suggested scope of everyone’s obligations to society (9.2.4). 

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This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/922.htm.