Norm Geras considers the role of Government, beginning with a quote from a friend:

On Twitter yesterday, a friend put up a tweet carrying this quotation from Adam Smith:

“Civil government…is in reality instituted for the defence of the rich against the poor” [Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations, bk 5, ch 1, pt 2]

It’s an idea that’s probably more familiar to many in its Marxist variants, amongst the best known of which is this one from the Communist Manifesto:

The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.

He goes on to maintain that whatever the purpose(s) of Government, that’s at worst only one of them, and offers a list of things a Government should do. I could of course quibble with his list of priorities, but what’s amusing to me is that he doesn’t seem to see the inside-out applicability of those quotes to Socialist aspirations.

It was perhaps clearer in the days before modern agriculture, when a return of 10:1 on the seed planted was cause for rejoicing. One of the many threads that make up the origin of Government was the necessity for guarding the seed grain. Here is this enormous store of food — but if the group eats it, or Feeds the Children, there is no crop next year and everybody dies. A guard must be posted, lest shortsighted (and hungry) individuals get into the store and kill everyone whilst satisfying their hunger.

The guardians of the seed grain are “rich” — they control a lot of food. They are even authorized to dip into it for their own sustenance, especially during times of privation. Guards who are listless from lack of nutrition won’t be effective. There must, in the past, have been many groups who found that offensive and took steps to spread the wealth. They don’t appear in the modern record, because they died out before leaving any traces.

Capital is the modern, industrial-society equivalent of the seed grain. It is resources, wealth, taken from society and embodied in the means of production. Like the seed grain, it is there before the society, clearly visible, but cannot be consumed, because if it is consumed the means of production no longer exist, and their products cease to be available. Like the seed grain, it must be guarded against the shortsighted — and the custodians and guardians of capital are “rich”. This is true independently of the means by which the guardians and custodians are selected.

“The People” is an abstraction, incapable of any real action. As a practical matter, The People form a Government to act in their behalf. That Government must, of necessity, take on the responsibility of guarding capital against opportunists and the shortsighted. If capital is converted to consumption, the means of production cease to exist and the society can no longer support itself.

But the guardians and custodians of capital are “rich”. Even if they aren’t specifically authorized to do so, they will inevitably dip into it a bit for their own sustenance — and in fact they are so authorized. The Cadre, the Vanguard of the Proletariat, must of course support itself in order to do the Work of the People.

So however socialist its ideals may be, the Government thus formed is obliged by sheer necessity to defend “the rich” against “the poor”. Is it not delicious?