Last night while playing pool and drinking Lone Star at Hole in the Wall, I engaged in an argument on the topic of limited government. One member of the company proposed, though did not go so far as to assert a full and settled conviction, that "it is absurd to promote or favor limited government." He said such a principle can have no practical application in the current era and in this country, that there is already excess of government and will forever continue to be since government will not be constrained but will overpower any attempts to constrain it, and a policy of limiting government is bound to be disastrous. The basis for the argument was that government does not merely include state organs, but includes all powerful organizations, including corporations, and since there is no way for people not to be governed, the question is only what they will be governed by; shrinking the organs of the state would only be to increase government by corporations or other powerful entities; therefore to speak of limiting government is merely to prefer government by different organizations than are currently felt to be in power.
To my interlocutor I posed the question whether it is equally absurd to promote or favor unlimited government. He hesitated but at length affirmed that it was, since to do otherwise would be to affirm that unlimited government is reasonable while limited government is absurd, and he would not go so far. Yet his own position, that all people are always under some form of governance and that "government" is not limited to public agencies of the state but includes all modes of institutional and social power, clearly is an argument for currently existing unlimited government. Monopoly of force, I added, is a characteristic of formal federal government, and can hardly admit of a peer among the other organizations that are allegedly equal forms of government. Corporations do not have armies; even if we grant that some of them have small mercenary bands, we must acknowledge that these exist at the will of the public authority, and in terms of military power do not present a significant rival.
The only argument I could think to make at the time was that corporations, if they be admitted as governing structures, exist only insofar as consumers continue to buy their products and use their services. They collapse into bankruptcy, or into government-administered (!) life-support, if their consumers dwindle or disappear. Hence consumer relationships with corporations are voluntary, critical exceptions being utilities and groceries and a few others providing basic necessities. Certainly even these latter relationships are more voluntary than the relationship with the civil authority that exacts taxes, administers justice, and wages police action and war. Unless one is inclined to elevate tangible organizations into a metaphysical category and argue that the corporate sector is unified and derives its power and wealth from the same source, one must recognize that corporations are in fact in competition with each other, to such a degree that governance by corporations can only be conceived as a confederacy, not as a centralized power comparable to formal federal power. Even if one does not voluntarily go to the grocery, one does voluntarily choose which grocer to go to. The high degree of inter-corporate competition means greater pressure on companies at all times, hence they are weaker and less capable of exerting "power" or coercion over their customers. The voluntary relationship between consumers and companies, and the confederate relationship of companies to each other, and the extreme element of contingency woven throughout both these relationships, should show that even if rule by corporations were the necessary consequence of limiting governance by state institutions, this rule would inherently prove weaker and less uniform than that of state institutions. In other words, even if one grants that reducing one form of authority will only usher in other forms of authority, nevertheless these forms of authority will differ in their applications and qualities.
The remaining question, on this line of thought, would be whether one prefers strong and uniform government by federal institutions, or weak and multiform government by "corporate" institutions. Both have their disadvantages and dangers. One thing is clear: the concept of limited government allows of gradations, whereas the concept of unlimited government is an absolute. As far as absurdity goes, absolutes seem much better suited to meet the definition. If it were true that "government" extends to all organizations that have power over people's lives, then its unlimited nature resides in the definition -- it needs no advocates.
Of course, the dichotomy of state-government and corporate government is false. It is only an absurdity to propose limiting unlimited government if one includes self-government in the definition of unlimited government. One can rationally call for limiting corporate and state government, if that is what is meant by unlimited government; while to oppose limiting the "illimitable" power of government would not only be to oppose limiting federal power but also to oppose limiting corporate power and the power of all other overarching organizations. Ultimately the great omission of my opponent's argument and other such arguments reveals itself, continually, to be even a hint toward the concept of any sort of control exerted by a person upon his or her self. The argument for the absurdity of limited government on the basis that government is inherently unlimited (and defined as the aggregate of all powerful institutions and organizations) now appears in its true light as an argument for the abolition of self-government.