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Universal Rights, Common Wealth and Confederacy

Presentation to the 11th Shed A Tier Congress, Gippsland, Victoria, 9-10 July 2005

Reading the literature relevant to the movement to abolish State governments in Australia one cannot help but quickly discern that there is a gentle irony in the title "shed a tier". Most proponents in the movement recognise the historical importance of State governments. They recognise that six or more disparate entities was not a viable or sensible means of economic or political organisation in the 1890s, let alone as a matter of national identity. By the same token, one cannot help but also recognise that, unlike the early and mid 1970s where there are few people seriously arguing for the "rights of the States". Today it seems that almost all senior politicians in the Federal government (and even the States, although grudgingly), from both the government and the opposition, recognise that the States are an impediment to national and economic development whose primary function - and it is a quite legitimate function - is to act as a political balance to a political system which would otherwise provide dictatorial power to whichever political organisation could muster fifty percent plus one votes in the Federal houses of parliament.

It is in this spirit therefore that this presentation will attempt to outline the basic principles for an alternative political and economic system to replace what is an increasingly dysfunctional federal system that exists in Australia. This is of course, nothing more than a cursorary sketch, but theoretically grounded. It does not discuss means of implementation or go into much detail about fiscal implications. Such limitations are quite appropriate. This is derived from many years of reasearch in different social and political systems and is meant to represent a system which is universally applicable to any society in our modern, secular age. It is meant to be falsifiable and fallible, the propositions are meant to be tested for empirical verification and the operators for logical consistency. It is meant to evolve and to be elaborated. To use the phrase of politically active computer subculture; "Hack politics, reverse engineer government, and rebuild society from the source".

In order to do this one must recognise in the first instance what the State actually is. Now whilst one will typically find a legalistic point of view, for example, "a body politic with common sovereignity", the more practical point of view that is actually materially prior to the legal definition is something that has a Marxist background: "A specialised armed force which enforces their laws over a population and prevents other armed bodies from doing so". Now whilst this doesn't sound terribly pleasant, and certainly the experience of nominally Marxist governments in practise provides some indicatation of how bad this rule of force can be, it does provide a boundry and a geographical entity from which a social system can base itself.

At this point it the concept of natural and universal rights needs to be introduced. The entire point of universal human rights is that in virtue of membership of the species individuals have rights which are independent of local factors, such as the legal jurisdiction in practise, their nationality, their ethnicity, the membership that mythic category "race", their sex and so forth. These rights may be accrued, such as in the transition from childhood to adulthood and, in some cases, from resident to citizen. They are inalienable, meaning they cannot be taken or even given away. Now of course, not every state, or arguably, any state in the world, provides this degree of universal rights. Indeed, a strong case can be made that whilst the world has States - those specialised armed bodies enforcing laws over people – that we will not have universal human rights. However, accepting the pragmatic reality that different nation-states will exist for the immediate future, consider the possibility of a State whose specialised armed body exists to prevent government (both local or external) from intervening in the free lives of its citizens and members.

Least that such a suggestion seem fanciful, keep in mind that this is precisely the sort of thing that was attempted by both the American and French revolutionary governments in establishing their modern forms of government in the late eighteenth century and which has one finds at least partial replication in the new governments of both Timor-Leste and South Africa. As correctly pointed out by Hannah Arendt in her highly insightful and innovative text, On Revolution, the U.S. Bill of Rights represents one of the most important documents protecting the individual from the public, even when that public is democratically elected. Because democracy is actually a combination of two components. One, the most commonly known, is that of a pleocracy, or rule of the majority should refers to the process of a democratic system. The second, less commonly known, is that of isocracy, or rule of equals, where each and every participant in the process has the same formal rights as a requirement for engaging in a democratic process.

Indeed, this is the critical error that the Victorian government is currently making in its attempt to establish a Charter of Human Rights (public submissions close this Monday – didn't you know?). It argues that parliament must retain sovereignity over determining human rights. This is undoubtably the worse possible circumstance for it reduces human rights - which are supposed to be universal and transcendent of local contexts - to the vagaries of the political populism of the day.

In contrast it comes as no surprise to discover that there in studies on what constitutes universal rights there is actually a great degree of uniformity, obviously dating as far back to such radicals as John Locke, Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft, including classic liberals from John Stuart Mill to Isiah Berlin and John Rawls, and to modern practical philosophers such as Jurgen Habermas and Noam Chomsky. For example, among all such authors one will find that it considered almost trivially self-evident that all adults of adult reasoning should be allowed freedom of conscience and expression and have the right to make decisions concerning their own body. It logically follows likewise that like individuals are therefore entitle to engage with relevant others on the basis of mutual and informed consent. Likewise one would also expect, given these freedoms and autonomy, that the individual would be protected from violence, the threat of violence and from discrimination by the social system. After all, there is little point in having, for example, freedom of religion, if persons of a particular religion are systematically discriminated against.

None of this is terribly difficult to understand, yet it would be a challenge to find a legislature in the world which has established such principles. Nevertheless, the purpose of this presentation is to engage in a bit of speculation which is at least possible, if apparently, against conventional real-politik. So to continue, imagine a situation where the State, the armed body enforcing laws, is actually established to ensure that individuals have the freedom to go about their lives as peaceful acting and transacting members of the public – and to protect those individuals from violent individuals within the State or from external forces which would wish to enslave them. Assuming a State, one where there the government has deliberately, purposefully and timelessly, limited its own juridiction - this raises the question of what actually is the legitimate role of democratic government at all, if it is not for the rule of the government over people.

The answer to this lies in the Roman concept of res publica,"the public thing". If the lives of peaceful flesh and blood humans is not subject to public rule, then all that is left for the State is administer is quite correctly "things", to paraphrase Saint-Simon, "the government of persons is replaced by the administration of things". The most obvious "thing" and one which no human being in the right mind to have any legitimate claim over creating of their own labour or investment, is natural resources itself. The exclusive ownership in perpetuity of natural resources is one of those rare, areas of economic relations which is both simultaneously anti-capitalist and anti-socialist, a fact recognised economists ranging from the radical right to the radical left and all shades in between, including such individuals as Milton Friedman, Robert Solow, Paul Sameulson, Franco Modigliani and William Vickery – all of whom are Nobel Lauretes. Consider also the fact that in 1991 no less than thirty five of the top economists of the United States – all Nobel prize winners, professors, and university deans, across the political spectrum – urged then President of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev that, in the transition from a command to a market economy, that public ownership of natural resources be retained and common income be generated from land-rents.

So rather than exclusive ownership of natural resources, natural and legal persons would have the opportunity to rent, at the site-value, whatever they considered suitable for their use. The income from such rents could then be used to generate a guaranteed minimum income, far superior to the intrusive bureaucracy of the welfare state. This is itself is an extraordinarily important in universal right in both philosophical and practical terms. On a philosophical basis there can be little doubt of the principle that we are but managers and custodians of the earth which we all have a legitimate share of and responsibility towards. It is an elusive political and environmental principle which hitherto has been much ignored and it perhaps only on the brink of environmental catasrophe, of the massive and sudden loss of biodeversity, and even the possibility of of the atmosphere reaching the limit of its capacity to absorb heat from industrial processes, that suddenly this issue has regained its importance.

On a practical and economic level, those who were frugal in their use of resources would be rewarded and those who abused the earth or wasted resources would receive punitive financial damage. It is, in effect, a voluntary tax system and is designed to actually replace all existing taxes, fees and surcharges and one which, according to the detailed study by Terry Dwyer, visiting fellow to the Asia Pacific School of Economics and Management at the Australian National University, is well within possibility. Those who invest their money and labour in productive activity, that is anything which has a good or service resulting from that investment, would be better off. Those who accumulate wealth from the work of others by renting their sites, will be worse off.

The final point in this speculative sketch is the notion of confederacy. This too is something that is worth considering as an important, universal human right. Representative democracy is under enormous pressure. There is a groundswell of opinion that actually considers (and try not to laugh) that politicians have lost touch with ordinary people. Now whilst a variety of cyncial reasons may be suggested for this, the institutional reason is that it's simply is no longer possible. To cite as an example, in the 1901 Federal election the seat of Gippsland had 9,888 people on the electoral roll. Under such circumstances it is well within the realm of possibility for the Federal member of parliament to spend 15 minutes per year with every single member of their constituency. In the 2004 Federal election, the seat of Gippsland had 92, 557 people on the roll. The potential of the public directly influencing engaging in the Federal politics is likewise weakened.

It was John Selden, the British jurist and politician of the 16th and 17th centuries who made the pithy comment that parliament was invented because "the room would not hold us all", thus justifying the move away from direct democray and political participation by citizens to representative democracy and participation by vocational politicians. At the same time one cannot help but notice that every time since those words were uttered when "normal people" have taken political administration into their own hands, bypassing their unpopular rules and often to the total surprise and complete irrelevancy of dedicated revolutionaries, that organic forms of direct democracy have been established. Establishing these "natural republics" became an almost obsessive interest of the elder Thomas Jefferson who wanted to protect what he considered the most important gains of the American revolution the idea that democracy meant the participation of people in the political process. He spoke of "breaking the Councils in Wards" which would be governed by the "Rule of One Hundred Families".

Such "natural republics" could establish, among themselves, a confederate system of government, whereby the natural republics retain the right to sovereign decision making and only grant responsibility to the higher authority on the basis of mutual consent and agreement for a specified period of time. On a national scale matters such as a common defense policy, foreign affairs, foreign trade and common currency are obvious candidates. There is certainly no reason however why regional tiers (and irony was referred to in the beginning of this presentation) cannot be established on geographic and economic utility. This is obviously vastly different to the federal system of government whereby the constituent States have had their powers limited by constitution and whereby local governments, which are the least empowered and yet hold the greatest particpatory potential exist under suffrance of the unitary State governments who may revoke the existence of local government at any time. There is a great deal of grim irony that the political institution that is closest to allowing direct participation by civilians is the one whose existence is the least guaranteed. There is more than just argument to suggest that in the final instance, the right to able to directly participate in the political system is a universal right which ought to be implemented.

Critics of local governance and participatory democracy often claim, with some justification, that the proper interests of such community politics should be limited to "roads, rates and rubbish", as is these are trivial things in themselves. Thomas Jefferson however had a very different and radical point of view. Apart from being the body that would concern itself with local management, the natural republics would also be the body that would elect representatives to the next tier of governance or to bodies to organise mutual activities, and so forth. More importantly however – and this is where this presentation completes the circle, returning to the definition of the State – Jefferson also recommended that the natural republic would also be locus of establishing militia – that peculiar combination of armed force, police, and emergency services - whose poor reputation is only due to those who establish such things as paramilitary groups. The idea of decentralised universal and voluntary militia is that everyone has the opportunity to be involved and has input – pacifists included – and that the military formation is organisationally unable to engage in invasions, yet is well prepared for defense and encourages community responsibility and the keeping of the peace.

In summary, this presentation has recommended the governments make a widespread commitment to civil and political rights and guarantee that there will be, for perpetuity, areas of life where they will make "no law". It has recommended that the ownership of natural resources be abolished along with income tax, the GST and most company tax, and all individuals be entitled to a guaranteed minimum income funded through resource rents instead of the highly-administrated social welfare system. It has recommended that that the police, army and emergency services be unified in favour of a all-inclusive militia system. It supposes that the federal system of government be replaced by a confederacy of neighbourhood governments where everyone has the opportunity to participate. It's all just pure speculation, despite a claim of internally consistency and with backing of historical examples. It's just an ideal, far removed from the political reality and conventional wisdom. Yet it is suggested, that if Australia is to move "beyond federation" in its abolition of State governments that it must have an idea of what it is moving towards. This is one proposition, a proposition which provides more personal freedom, greater wealth, security, peace and democracy. It would be interesting to hear about others.

Commenting on this Blog entry will be automatically closed on September 10, 2005.

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