Mises Daily

The Nature and Morality of Government

[Excerpted from chapter 2 of Society Without Coercion, 1969]

Bandits Roost

Government is, by definition, a “social monopoly of force.” The greatest instrumentalities of force which have ever been assembled, the police forces and armies of the world, are at the disposal of governments. With these great agencies of force at their disposal, the potential ability of governments to violate the rights of the individual is accordingly great and indeed it is easy to see that they have done so.

Whenever one thinks of the worst injustices in history — massive wastes, confiscatory taxes, purposeless wars, great depressions, slavery, concentration camps, and genocide — one inevitably finds that such injustices were either a direct or an indirect result of governmental action. At the same time, governments usually meet valid and basic needs of human society (although almost never in a valid way). Thus, governments also provide water power and roadways, prevent fraudulent business practices, combat air pollution, quell riots, protect patents and copyrights, capture criminals, and defend their citizens against foreign invaders.

Yet even in doing so, governments also almost invariably violate the rights of their citizens. What is it, then, that differentiates the proper from the improper actions of governments?

What determines what is proper and improper for governments to do are, in essence, the same principles which differentiate the proper from the improper actions of the individual. Despite the lofty pretensions of most governments, the fact remains that they, like any other group of men, are nothing more than a collection of individuals. The “rights of a government,” like the rights of any other association of men, can be morally no different than the rights of the men who comprise it. All that which is immoral for men acting individually is equally immoral for men acting in association. There is nothing a government can morally do, which individuals by themselves cannot morally do. The group is ethically no different from the individual.

Consider the following situation: During the course of a day, one man approaches a second and demands of him that he surrender a portion of his income, on the grounds that the claimant needs the money more and knows better how to spend it than does the second man. If the second man refuses to surrender his money, then the first man attempts to take it by force. If the second man continues to protest and resist, the first man then shoots him.

Now who would call the first man anything other than a thief and murderer? Who could regard the second man as anything but an innocent victim? The first man is clearly immoral and the second is clearly blameless.

Now let us suppose that instead of being one man, the would-be thief is a part of a larger gang, which calls itself “the Mafia.” Now if the Mafia proceeds to rob the second man as did the lone criminal, would their actions be any the less criminal simply because there were five or ten of them instead of only one? The only rational answer is that their actions would not be any different, that robbery is robbery and murder is murder whether it is being committed by a single thief by himself, or by a thousand acting in concert.

Finally, let us say that our original thief is a member of a very large gang, that he in fact claims to be a representative of a group called “the Internal Revenue Service” and that this group is further empowered to seize money and property by an even larger group which is called “the government.” Instead of calling himself a criminal, our thief calls himself a “tax collector,” and instead of saying that he is taking money and property for himself, he claims that he is collecting it for “the poor.”

Now how, I ask, is this “tax collector” any different from the lone criminal or a member of the Mafia? Like the criminal, the so-called “tax collector” is taking money or property which does not belong to him, for a purpose which his victim does not choose to voluntarily support (for if the victim voluntarily supported the tax collector’s cause, there would be no need for him to forcibly seize his money or property). Like the criminal, the tax collector will seize the man’s property if he does not surrender it to him, and like the criminal the tax collector (or his agents) will kill the man if he attempts to protect his own property.

It is irrelevant whether a man steals by his own authority or with the sanction of a million others, whether he takes money for himself or for “the poor,” or for any other group which did not earn it. Theft consists of taking a man’s property against his will, regardless of the beneficiary.

“The ‘rights of a government,’ like the rights of any other association of men, can be morally no different than the rights of the men who comprise it.”

If the individual has an inalienable right to his own life, liberty, and property, then morally his life and property are his own to do with as he pleases. It is just as immoral for a government to attempt to tax his earnings, regulate his business, or draft his sons as it would be for some isolated individual acting on his own authority to do so. The association of men into a group called “government” does not free them from morality or sanction actions otherwise immoral.

It is also irrelevant whether the tax collector’s victim has some of his property returned to him in the form of road usage, postal services, police protection, etc., or not. Since it is government, rather than the individual, which is deciding what is to be taken and what is to be given, the individual’s control of his own property has still been lost. The return of the tax collector’s victim’s property in the form of certain governmental services is not trade but theft.

In trade, exchange is conducted by the mutual consent of the individuals who wish to participate in it, according to their own terms. In taxation the individual’s property is taken from him without his consent and services may be returned to him according to the government’s decrees. For this reason, the only thing which one can call taxation, the foundation of modern governments, is theft.

Now that it has been made clear that the same moral law applies to governments as applies to individuals, we can begin to enumerate the actions of governments which are clearly immoral.

Firstly, any actions committed by governments which force the individual to act are immoral since they are violations of his human right to life and liberty. Thus, in modern times, forcible participation in social security or medical care programs, conscription, forced housing and public accommodations laws, and compulsory attendance at public schools is immoral.

Secondly, any interference with actions conducted by the mutual consent of the individuals involved is immoral. Thus laws prohibiting certain forms of sexual intercourse, laws against drugs, and anti-abortion laws are immoral.

Thirdly, any interference with free trade is a violation of man’s right to property. Thus antitrust laws, censorship, gun registration, and minimum-wage laws are immoral.

Finally, the deprivation of the individual of any value, physical or mental, is immoral. Thus taxation, welfare programs, rent controls, the regulation of currency, zoning, subsidies and tariffs are immoral.

To put it on a more personal level, whatever else it should do, a government can not morally tell a middle class office worker that he must pay 20 percent of his income to feed unwed mothers and ship computers to the Soviet Union, send his children to a school that will teach them that their father is a member of a corrupt and sinful generation, contribute to socialized medicine, and censor his TV set.

The government of a moral society could not tell a poor Negro willing to work for less than $1.60 an hour that he cannot work for that amount, even though his employer cannot afford to pay him more; tax his income to build space ships and to pay farmers not to work; force his children to fight in Vietnam; or destroy his home in the name of “urban renewal.”

“It is irrelevant whether a man steals by his own authority or with the sanction of a million others, whether he takes money for himself or for ‘the poor,’ or for any other group which did not earn it.”

Government also cannot properly tell a corporation president that he must force his employees to join a union, cannot build a new factory without government approval, must pay 52 percent of his profits to subsidize Appalachia and build dams in the Tennessee Valley, cannot merge with GM, and cannot charge less than his competitors.

In general, government can not morally coerce, threaten, harass, intimidate, investigate, conscript, regulate, censor, compete with, tax, subsidize, insure, license, inspect, indoctrinate, spy on, or murder its citizens. In other words, whatever else it does, the government of a free society does not itself act as a criminal in the name of its citizens, or try to judge and live their lives for them.

What then are the functions left which government might conceivably engage in? The answer is those which deal exclusively with the use of retaliatory force, for government to essentially act as a “policeman of man’s rights.” This is exactly the limitation of functions which philosopher-novelist Ayn Rand proposes. Miss Rand defines what she considers to be a proper government as “an institution that holds the exclusive power to enforce certain rules of social conduct in a given geographical area,” in essence, a social monopoly of retaliatory force. This is what we will call a limited government.

It would seem that the limited government advocated by Miss Rand would restrict its functions to primarily those now conducted by the Judicial Division of the US government. Specifically, the primary functions of a limited government (and its associate implementary agencies) would be as follows:

  • the passage of laws defining and dealing with the use of initiatory and retaliatory force (the legislative branch)

  • the administration of such laws (the executive branch)

  • the registration of patents and copyrights (the Bureau of Patents and Copyrights)

  • the enforcement of contracts (Contract Enforcement Division of the Justice Department)

  • the prosecution of fraud (Anti-fraud Division of the Justice Department)

  • the investigation of crimes and the arrest of criminals (police forces)

  • the prosecution of criminals and the adjudication of the differences between men (court system)

  • the punishment of criminals (penal system)

  • the protection of the society from foreign invaders (armed forces)

We will now consider the morality of such a limited government.

The Morality of Limited Government

Although such a limited government as described above would be a tremendous advancement over all of the political forms which man has ever known, there are still a number of questions which arise concerning its morality.

First there is the question of how its national boundaries are properly determined and what makes its laws (e.g., its constitution and procedural rules) binding upon a society.

Second, there is the question of whether a limited government can require men to patronize its services or participate in its activities.

Lastly, there is the question of how a limited government can morally prevent competition with its own functions — i.e., how can it maintain its “social monopoly of retaliatory force?”

Historically, national boundaries have been finally decided by force — the power of a ruling elite to maintain dominion over a given territory, against domestic and foreign challenges to their authority, by virtue of force of arms. If there was a dispute over which national group controlled a given piece of land, differences were settled by going to war, victor take all. Similarly, national laws were historically decided by force — the power of the ruling elite over its citizens. The state and its government then emerged, in general, not as the product of rational thought and voluntary agreements, but primarily as a consequence of simple brute force.

The United States is only a partial exception to this rule. It is true that America originally offered groups, such as the Puritans or the Germans or the Catholics, if not individual members of such groups, a place where they could live according to their own beliefs. However, throughout its history, in the Indian Wars, in the Mexican-American War, in governmental sanctioning of slavery, and in hundreds of other instances, the boundaries and the laws of the United States have been based upon force. The most that can be said for the United States is that it was, in the 19th century, the freest country of the modern world, and is still, in the 20th century, among the freest.

If one recognizes that the rights of the individual, including his property rights, are inalienable, then the only way in which social boundaries could be properly formed is by individual property owners voluntarily coming together to form a community whose boundaries are defined by their holdings. If within the perimeter formed by such holdings there existed an individual who did not wish to be a party to the community or consider himself a member of its “state,” then he morally would be free to do so; and the external community would not have a right to force him to pledge allegiance to their national territory, flag, or goals.

“The most that can be said for the United States is that it was, in the 19th century, the freest country of the modern world, and is still, in the 20th century, among the freest.”

In a free society, each individual is in fact an autonomous state in himself, free to associate or not with a larger group. In a free society, cooperation between men, and hence the geographical boundaries of social groups, is a product of voluntary association.

Applying the social principle of voluntarism to an existent nation-state such as the United States, we find that its present political boundaries are essentially the arbitrary product of the coercive organization of the state, rather than the product of a voluntary association of men. Consequently, there is no reason to consider present US boundaries as either necessary, or as necessarily proper and just.

In addition to having a right to associate himself with a larger group, in a free society any individual would also have the right to dissociate himself from a formal society at any time (so long as he did not in the process violate a prior agreement). At no time can it be assumed that simply because a present political boundary exists, men are morally obligated to respect it. It may be impractical and irrational not to respect existent political boundaries; but there is nothing sacred about them, especially not today when virtually all societies are coercive.

Similarly, there is nothing sacrosanct about the laws of today’s societies. As we have already seen, most of the activities of the government of the United States are clearly immoral and in violation of the rights of the individual. Since the individual always has the right to retaliate against those who initiate force against him, there is no obligation on the part of the individual to obey most existent laws. Indeed, since the draft, censorship and a host of other laws threaten the very physical and intellectual existence of the individual, draft evasion, underground presses, and a host of other illegal acts are thoroughly moral and proper.1

There is simply no obligation on the part of the individual to obey laws simply because the laws exist. If the individual’s rights are violated by laws, he is morally justified in regarding the unjust laws as a criminal invasion of his privacy and in retaliating accordingly.

There is, however, one type of law which is morally binding on all men — objective law. An objective law is one which is based on the objective facts of reality and on principles derived from those facts. In general, objective social laws are those which prohibit the initiation of force and protect the rights of men. Laws against theft, rape, embezzlement, arson, larceny, assault, fraud, and murder are examples of objective social laws.

The individual is bound to obey objective social laws in the same way in which he is bound to obey objective physical laws. Both are statements of facts of reality whose attempted evasion will be to the detriment of the individual. Just as an individual risks physical destruction when he tries to evade the law of gravity by attempting to fly by jumping off a cliff and flapping his arms, so an individual risks psychological destruction by attempting to build a fortune on stolen money.

Both the would-be flier and the would-be “robber baron” are attempting to defy objective conditions of their environment. This can only result in the attainment of the opposite of what they seek. Thus, the would-be flyer falls to the ground rather than rises in the air, and the would-be entrepreneur finds that his property mocks him rather than gives him happiness.

“In a free society, each individual is in fact an autonomous state in himself, free to associate or not with a larger group. In a free society, cooperation between men, and hence the geographical boundaries of social groups, is a product of voluntary association.”

If the “constitution” of a society consists of a statement of objective law which prohibits the initiation of force, then it is objectively valid and morally binding on men — all men, in fact, and not just the men of the particular society for which it was written. However, if the constitution of any society attempts to do more — for example, to prescribe political forms for the society, such as elections, and a division of powers, then that constitution is not binding upon men in those aspects.

The reason that a constitution is not binding upon men in those respects should be obvious. How for example, can some group of men, declaring themselves to be the “representatives of the people” require that men vote every four years, or indeed at all? What principle of objective justice requires men to pledge their allegiance to the national political structure simply because they were born in a land where the structure exists?

This leads us to the second question about the morality of a limited government: to what extent, if any, can such a government require men to participate in its activities? Remember first, that a free society is a voluntary association of men, according to their own terms, for their own ends. Thus a free society cannot compel men to vote in its elections, register their inventions with its bureau of patents and copyrights, or make them patronize its courts (unless they have committed a crime). A free society can only prohibit initiatory force.

In essence, a free society is one in which participation is also free. If an individual wishes to live in the territory of a given society, without participating in its institutions and programs, that is his right. So long as he respects the rights of others, he is totally free to do as he pleases. So long as he violates none of his past agreements, his future choices are his to make.

Finally, we come to the crucial question of how a limited government can morally prevent competition with its own functions — i.e., how can it maintain its “social monopoly of retaliatory force?” Let us first consider this issue in terms of a specific case. What happens if, for example, a group of men living within a “limited government” United States of the future decide that the state’s police force is inefficient and that they could do a better job themselves. They then proceed to create their own “agency of retaliatory force” by hiring detectives and guards, and advertizing their services on TV and in the newspapers.

Let us assume that they proceed unhampered by government for awhile and build up a sizable business through their competency. After a few months this private police force is serving thousands of citizens and is so competent at their task that they make fewer false arrests, catch more criminals, prevent more crimes, and charge less proportionately for their services than does the state police force.

Eventually, the state of course notices this “private defense company.” What are they to do now? The state has two basic alternatives: it can either leave the new free market defense company alone to prosper or fail, as dictated by its future actions, or it can decree that the defense company has usurped a rightful function of the state and order it to cease operations under penalty of fine, imprisonment, or death of its managers and employees.

Now if the state does the former, if the state adopts an attitude of laissez-faire toward the defense company, then the state’s monopoly of force will have been broken, and it will no longer be a government at all in the sense of a “social monopoly of retaliatory force.” However, if the state does the latter, if it attempts to intimidate or to physically destroy the new defense company, it has then initiated force against innocent victims (persons who have not initiated force themselves).

“Competing agencies of retaliatory force are practical because they are moral; they are not ‘immoral’ because they are ‘impractical’.”

It does no good to assert that the state’s action is moral since somewhere along the line the private defense company might have violated someone’s rights through an error on the part of one of its policemen. The state also makes such mistakes, yet the proponents of limited government do not advocate its dissolution for this reason. If policemen of a free market defense company err, they should be punished for their error, as should the policemen of a state police force. But unless that error is a matter of company policy, then the managers and the corporation itself cannot be morally prevented from doing future business by the state. In general, if a free market agency of retaliatory force obeys objective social laws, acts as a policeman of man’s rights, and gets its customers through their voluntary consent, it has just as much right to exist as do the agencies of retaliatory force of the nominal state.

In short, the state has no moral right to prevent competitive agencies of retaliatory force from existing. In a free society, men are at liberty to form those agencies of retaliatory force which they wish to form in order to protect their rights. The form, number, and relationship between such agencies in any given geographical area can be variable. There may be one or many such agencies in any given area, and they may be functionally distinct or operationally integrated. What their form and number will be is for the free market to decide, which means it is for the voluntary judgment of each individual who participates in the market to decide. If the state intervenes, if it tells men that they cannot form such agencies under penalty of fine, imprisonment, or death, then the state is violating the rights of men to associate freely, and has in fact assumed the status of a coercive monopoly.

In a truly free society there would then be nothing to prevent the formation of competing agencies of retaliatory force, nor would there be anything to fear from them so long as they operated on the basis of objective law. It is true that it is possible for such competing agencies of retaliatory force to violate the rights of the individual or to fight among themselves (as Miss Rand points out). However, it is not true that such possibilities are probable, or that the existence of such possibilities implies that competing agencies of retaliatory force are inherently immoral. The moral determines the practical, not vice-versa.

The concept of “practicality” only has meaning in relationship to specific ends. Since morality is “a code of values to guide man’s choices and actions — the choices and actions which determine the purpose and the course of his life,” it is morality which enables man to select his ends; and because ends determine means, the moral determines the practical. Q.E.D.

Competing agencies of retaliatory force are practical because they are moral; they are not “immoral” because they are “impractical.” Moreover, it is also possible for government to violate the rights of the individual, and in fact every government in history has done so on an incredibly vast scale. The gas chambers of Nazi Germany, and the rolls of Vietnamese dead of welfare-statist America are a mute and tragic testimony to the human destruction wrought by governments.

There is no such evidence that competing defense agencies would wreak similar carnage. Governments also fight among themselves, as R.A. Childs points out, but when they do, what occurs is not termed a battle, but a war; and the victims are numbered in the millions rather than the hundreds.

There is nothing innately necessary or moral about a limited government. What defines the morality and practicality of any organization of retaliatory force in a free society is not whether its agencies are one or many, but whether they are just and objective. A “social monopoly of retaliatory force” whose existence depends upon the initiation of force is worse than a contradiction in terms — it is an epistemological absurdity. Since a “limited government” cannot, by definition be limited to dealing solely in retaliatory force, we necessarily conclude that limited government is inherently immoral and must be rejected by any advocate of human freedom and justice in favor of competing agencies of retaliatory force.

  • 1Whether they are to the individual’s rational self-interest is another question, the answer to which depends upon many specific situational factors, such as the probability that the individual will be penalized for engaging in them or that his later success will be jeopardized by such acts.
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