9.2.2 Limiting the Extent of Governance

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” ( could only have this by imposing their will on other people – a “philosophy of violence and coercion”, as Milton Friedman expressed it (  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 the need for checks and balances to avoid the oppression of minorities.

An individual’s freedom is constrained by any governance framework, irrespective of how it was constructed and how popular it is.  Society requires governance in the Economic, Legal, Moral and Political Dimensions of Power – and also commits people to participate in State use of Ungoverned Power.  It is important that governance is more of a support to freedom than a threat to it, so its scope should be no wider than is necessary to ensure that everyone has both ‘positive’ freedom – which here is taken to mean having the ‘capability’ to make desired choices – and ‘negative’ freedom: the absence of constraints other than the requirement to grant similar freedom to other people.  As Karl Popper wrote, in The Open Society and its Enemies:

“I demand protection for my own freedom and for other people’s….

I demand that the fundamental purpose of the state should not be lost sight of ; I mean, the protection of that freedom which does not harm other citizens.  Thus I demand that the state must limit the freedom of the citizens as equally as possible, and not beyond necessity.” [Chap. 6, p. 96]

There is an important principle stated here in the last three words: “not beyond necessity”.  Given that almost all power relationships have required someone to concede at least part of their wishes, the scope of governance should not infringe on people’s liberty beyond what is necessary to protect other people – recognising that this scope is itself fiercely contested.



This is a current page, updated since publication of Patterns of Power Edition 3a.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/922b.htm