Jeffersonian Governance, Burkean Conservatism, and Anarchism

By Chris Shaw

The conceptions of Jeffersonian governance pride equality before the law, the democratic will of the people tempered by intelligent argumentation and natural societal hierarchies, and a belief in limited, decentralised government. Within this tradition, governance should never truly invade the sensibilities and direction of succeeding generations, and should never supersede the choice of governance that one believes in. From such ideas came the Articles of Confederation, a decentralist set of ideas that gave significant autonomy and rights to the individual states of the Union. Further, Jefferson’s concept of sunset clauses naturally implanted within legislation and law-making[1] the decentralist idea of individual sovereignty and the right of the generation of the living to not be burdened by the collective irresponsibility’s of their ancestors.

            Such a conception of governance and societal convention however has been seen to go against a fundamental grain within society, that of continuity, precedence and stability. In other words, the idea of conservatism. As Burke has noted, the capacity to destroy societal convention for the whims of intellectual abstraction or for the tyranny of the majority (or even minority) creates situations akin to the French Revolution. A production of blood and steel, all for a revolutionary society of intellectuals and labourers, working together toward the false god of equality. The former were tyrannical, and the latter gained nothing except for a meaningless slogan. Liberté, égalité, fraternité. Such is the production of extremism that is allowed to fester in a society that has no anchor to precedence, to the political systems and conceptions of their forefathers.

            As a result, we need those little platoons of society, those timeless institutions that shape our lives, both individually and collectively[2]. From the stable family household to the community centre and the local church. These things change the way we see our society and our morality. These are important elements to a stable society that breeds continuity and peace. Relations of familiarity and community are built along and on top of these little platoons. So in arguing for a society that does not accept the passing down of debt and legislation, how can one value those institutions which foster peaceful relations. How can one accept the good without the bad.

            Well the answer is encapsulated in the understanding that Jeffersonian governance is not the same as refusing to accept the consequences and dynamics of our ancestors. Rather, it follows a similar path to the legal principles which Jefferson believed in, chief among them the ideas of precedence and inalienable rights. Concerning the former, precedence is the acceptance of the influence of older cases in determining how particular cases and forms of legislation are dealt with in the current context. This has two sides to it. The good, old law was the basis of common law and its fundamental belief in equality before the law[3]. However, laws that had particular nuances or systemic consequences were open to judicial and juridical reform, or could even be ignored through creating new precedents or even jury nullification. Similarly, with inalienable rights, individuals cannot be subjugated to unnecessary restrictions on their individual liberty. Thus the national debt, the subject Jefferson addresses when theorising on these sunset clauses[4], is the creation of collective irresponsibility that cannot be lumped onto future generations. One cannot simply have their cake and eat it, although since the dawn of central banking and government expansion many are trying.

            “It may be proved that no society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law. The earth belongs always to the living generation. They may manage it then, and what proceeds from it, as they please, during their usufruct. They are masters too of their own persons, and consequently may govern them as they please. But persons and property make the sum of the objects of government”[5]. Here Jefferson implies that law cannot bind every generation to the next. Yet instead of looking at this as breaking with the past, it can be seen in the light of adaptability and continuity depending on the needs of succeeding generations. In the letter Jefferson makes use of the term nature in describing the manner through land and law move from one generation to another, yet nature is not simply the production of the earth’s goods, but also the production of past generation’s body of law and conception of government. Nature comes from the past of humanity as well as earth.

            The Burkean and Jeffersonian ideologies then can fit very well together. They encourage temperance and societal restraint through an understanding of future consequences and past concerns. Rather than refusing to accept what the past has given, a Jeffersonian government learns and adapts through consistent reform and the evolving needs of individuals. Debt is not a constant system in need of repaying, slowly starving an economy of entrepreneurial spirits and prosperity brought by economic activity, but rather something that is negotiated and wound through, much like the precedents of common and private law.

            Further, within Jeffersonian governance there exists the belief in the capability of secession. The inalienable rights of man include the freedom of association, and thus with it the ability to secede from a construct one no longer wants to be a part of. “If it is justified for a state to secede from the union, then this applies, too, to the situation when a county wishes to secede from the state. Or, to a city which no longer aspires to be associated with the county”[6]. As Block explains, the conceptions of decentralism and secessionism that Jefferson sets out have qualifications that allow for their decentralisation all the way down to the level of the individual. Mises has expounded similar ideas, but placed them within the realistic context of individuals who desire national identity and homogeneous, solid spaces of political action[7]. These decentralised spaces of political action have been shown to actually create the kind of governance structures Jefferson believed in. In a system of local parliaments and a polity where there is a significant connection between the representatives and the represented, government spending is lower[8]. When one can see the direct actions of government policy, the time horizons of political action fundamentally change toward looking at longer-term consequences and the issues of burdening future generations with unnecessary, wasteful spending.

            Democracy, and its tendency to devolve into tyranny, becomes tempered by the realisation of politics as having consequences. Representatives are not merely there to accept public diktat, but rather to understand and channel the views and opinions of those they represent, much as Burke saw the role of the representative being. “His unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion”[9]. Governance is a system of mutuality and entailed custom. Democracy is entangled with social hierarchy and the importance of long-term decision-making.

            These conceptions of governance and society, of the belief in little platoons transforming into solid institutions that are open to consistent reform through precedence and the ability to secede, are completely compatible with an anarchist society. However, unlike the anarchist schools who believe in the fantasy of a radical break with the past, discarding all traditions and institutions which have helped form wealth, prosperity and a hierarchical society, the anarchism I talk of is one rooted in Burkean conservatism and Jeffersonian decentralism. Government is actually by and for the people, rather than a coercive abstraction that reaps havoc on the population at various times. There is the natural right to ground one’s society and nation in their own beliefs and conceptions, and secede from structures they deem unsatisfactory. Mutualities of the type Burke describes when seeing the relation being the governing and the governed are not simple palates upon which one loads the other. Instead governance is negotiation, custom and above all contractual, both in the legitimate and the social sense.

            Many of the precedents that come from common and ancient law are grounded in early concepts of feudal society, such as the myriad manorial rights and many different court systems that in some ways provided an early concept of equality before the law. Looking into the interstices of feudal governance, decentralised monarchies and polities structured by ancient customary law were a major element in feudal societies.

            Thus we see the connection between Jeffersonian and Burkean governance play out in these multitudinous, pluralistic societies and structures. There is the continuity of tradition that maintains itself in law and the system it practices through, but the concession that law itself is not timeless in its action or reaction, but is adaptable to circumstances unforeseen. Thus precedent develops and judgments can be made. Such a system was held and protected by hierarchical governance in semi-fluid political structures. Decentral monarchies and city-states were able to uphold the decency of governance through obligation and consent, rather than the modern needs of coercion and monopoly found in the nation-state.

            The modern nation-state has led to its ruin. In place of common law and jury trial has come human rights law and the predominant power of legislation. Law can no longer be shaped and adapted, but is crafted as a timeless reality that does not bend to change. In this sense, Burkean governance is destroyed as the opinion and judgment of the governed is no longer consulted through the mechanisms of little platoons, but is instead ignored in favour of vested interests and the further abstraction of the state from those it claims to represent.

            A system of pluralistic, voluntary governance structures is the best way to maintain these traditional systems of governance with common law courts, a natural subsidiarity and a maintained right to secession. Such systems can already be seen in the interstices of feudal and Middle Age systems, and in a world of adapting national and cultural identity and the increasing irrelevance of national borders, such a system is entirely feasible today, so long as the precedents of history and historical thought are maintained and upheld.

            It is from these precedents that a private law society can be thought of. A society of decentralisation with the right of association and secession, and law defined by competing courts that judge on precedence and contract. These are the principles of Jefferson and Burke. They have the seeds of peace within them, stabilising society while allowing for freedom and liberty to prosper.

[1] Jefferson, T. To James Madison Paris, Sep. 6, 1789

[2] Burke, E. Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1790


[4] Jefferson, T. To James Madison Paris, Sep. 6, 1789

[5] Jefferson, T. To James Madison Paris, Sep. 6, 1789

[6] Block, W. Secession, 2007, 4

[7] McMaken, R. Anarchism and Radical Decentralization are the Same Thing, 2016

[8] McMaken, R. Why Large, Local Legislatures Are Better than the EU Parliament, 2016

[9] Burke, E. Speech to the Electors of Bristol, 1774


  1. Interesting and thoughtful piece. I think it does encourage one to think more deeply about what government is and why people imagine a coercive state to be necessary. Are you advocating for something like the nation-state, but on a smaller geographical scale, or are you calling for a completely different kind of social organization? If the latter, how will this alternative organization carry out the state’s main role of protecting individuals against the assaults of other individuals? This is the problem that always arises in my mind when people talk about “voluntary governance”. Surely governance should only be “voluntary” for those who adhere to the non-aggression principle; for aggressors, on the other hand, their consent is meaningless, and the whole purpose of government is to violently resist their own acts of violence. How does any governance structure acquire legitimacy by seeking consent only from the non-aggressors? Is that how governance worked in the Middle Ages?

  2. In the short-term I’d like to see smaller, more decentralised nation-states that begin to codify the right of secession. Once that is codified, as it has been in more ancient legal codes such as Saxon law, the monopoly of violence which I think defines the state and from which many other monopolies (such as those defined by Benjamin Tucker) flow from can be more easily broken. I think this is best accomplished today simply because state’s cannot crush movements (localist, decentralist, secessionary, etc.) in an age of mass media and 24 hour news without some form of backlash. Already this can be seen in the increasing importance and significance of nationalist and regionalist movements throughout Europe. There is no possibility that the EU could seriously mount more than a political offensive against such movements who are increasing in power.

    Similarly such movements can be seen in nascent forms in the Middle East, where despite significant monopolies on violence emerging from Syria, ISIS and al-Nusra, there still exist groups like the PKK and other decentralist Kurdish movements in Syria and Iraq as well as more tribal forms of governance which are maintaining peace the best they can in such situations.

    This then comes to the heart of voluntary governance, as it really is only for non-aggressors as would be the case in establishing the rights to secession and private property. There will obviously be those who do aggress, but anyone who aggresses blatantly violates the spirit of any basic legal code and must therefore be removed and excluded. However under modern states such does not happen. Instead of exclusion, we have a pathetic criminal justice system that allows individuals to get away with many things, ranging from vandalism and assault to theft and general violence, and when they are finally “brought to justice”, they are placed within taxpayer-subsidised prisons with high rates of recidivism. Aggressors, instead of being treated as inimical to legality and governance, are instead given every opportunity and then some. And even if it comes to the point of a community or nation wanting to exclude them, we have the vagaries of international law and “human rights” which demands that one cannot be stateless and must therefore be provided for by the taxpayer via the state.

    In looking interstitially at Feudal and Middle Age governance structures, there are forms of quasi-voluntaryism that have been developed. In early Saxon and common law governance was established by consent, and those who ignored such prevailing legal order were excluded from the benefits of collective action. Even in the most egregious crimes such as rape and murder, rather than imprisoning someone at the expense of the community, there were made to pay blood money and if they didn’t they lost the benefit of tribal structures which helped guarantee their safety. Such structures were also seen in a more voluntaryistic sense in Iceland and Ireland. Further, in city-states similar mechanisms were used by stopping those who did aggress against the community/city from going past the city walls, and excluding them from the everyday life they did not respect.

    Overall, I don’t take the atomistic view that some libertarians do in assessing the right to secession. I can’t seriously imagine many people wanting to secede individually from every governance/political structure. Rather, through radical decentralisation I think more pluralistic arrangements develop, both at a tribal level and a community level with many overlapping jurisdictions that fundamentally allow for exclusion via mechanisms of trust and respect, as existed in Saxon, Brehon and Icelandic law and that exist in different forms today in internet marketplaces when assessing buyers and sellers. Fundamentally the nation-state could not exist as it does today as it could not easily externalise costs onto taxpayers of its own (as well as other) jurisdictions, and could not simply rely on the monopoly of violence in an age of scaleable technology, mass media and an increasing inability to tackle movements and structures which are able to circumvent its typical avenues of power.

Leave a Reply