Governments Are Just Monopolies on Force
“The most dangerous man, to any government, is the man who is able to think things out for himself without regard to the prevailing superstitions and taboos. Almost inevitable he comes to the conclusion that the government he lives under is dishonest, insane and intolerable, and so, if he is romantic, he tries to change it. And even if he is not romantic personally he is apt to spread discontent among those who are.”
~ H.L. Mencken
I give a good number of speeches each year. For some time I’ve asked audiences a question: “What useful purpose does the US government serve?” I do that not to be challenging or provocative, but to actually find out if anyone else can think of a useful purpose the government serves. The question at first shocks, then amuses and then perplexes almost everyone because it is both so obvious and outrageous that no one ever thinks of asking it. Most people accept the institution of government because it has always been there; they have always assumed it was essential. People do not question its existence, much less its right to exist.
Government sponsors untold waste, criminality and inequality in every sphere of life it touches, giving little or nothing in return. Its contributions to the commonweal are wars, pogroms, confiscations, persecutions, taxation, regulation and inflation. And it’s not just some governments of which that’s true, although some are clearly much worse than others. It’s an inherent characteristic of all government.
The essence of something is what makes the thing what it is. But surprisingly little study of government has been done by ontologists (who study the first principles of things) or epistemologists (who study the nature of human knowledge). The study of government almost never concerns itself with whether government should be, but only with how and what it should be. The existence of government is accepted without question.
What is the essence of government? After you cut through all the rhetoric, the doublethink and the smokescreen of altruism that surround the subject, you find that the essence of government is force. And the belief it has the right to initiate the use of force whenever expedient. Government is an organization with a monopoly, albeit with some fringe competition, on the use of force within a given territory. As Mao Zedong said, “The power of government comes out of the barrel of a gun.” There is no voluntarism about obeying laws. The consent of a majority of the governed may help a government put a nice face on things, but it is not essential and is, in fact, given with any enthusiasm.
A person’s attitude about government offers an excellent insight into their character. Political beliefs reflect how a person thinks men should relate to one another; they offer a practical insight into how he views humanity at large and himself in particular.
There are only two ways people can relate in any given situation: voluntarily or coercively. Almost everyone, except overt sociopaths, pays at least lip service to the idea of voluntarism, but government is viewed as somehow exempt. It’s widely believed that a group has prerogatives and rights unavailable to individuals. But if that is true, then the Ku Klux Klan, the Irish Republican Army, the PLO – or, for that matter, any group from a lynch mob to a government – all have rights that individuals do not. In fact, all these groups believe they have a right to initiate the use of force when they find it expedient. To the extent that they can get away with it, they all act like governments.
Terrorists, Mobs and Governments
You might object that the important difference between the KKK, IRA, PLO or a simple mob and a government is that they aren’t “official” or “legal.” Apart from common law concepts, legality is arbitrary. Once you leave the ken of common law, the only distinction between the “laws” of governments and the ad hoc proceedings of an informal assemblage such as a mob, or of a more formal group like the KKK, boils down to the force the group can muster to impose its will on others. The laws of Nazi Germany and the USSR are now widely recognized as criminal fantasies that gained reality on a grand scale. But at the time those regimes had power, they were treated with the respect granted to any legal system. Governments become legal or official by gaining power. The fact that every government was founded on gross illegalities – war or revolt – against its predecessor is rarely an issue.
Force is the essence of government. But the possession of a monopoly on force almost inevitably requires a territory, and maintaining control of territory is considered the test of a “successful” government. Would any “terrorist” organization be more “legitimate” if it had its own country? Absolutely. Would it be any less vicious or predatory by that fact? No, just as most governments today (the ex-Communist countries and the kleptocracies of the Third World being the best examples), demonstrate. Governments can be much more dangerous than the mobs that give them birth. The Jacobin regime of the French Revolution is a prime example.
Is the State Necessary?
The violent and corrupt nature of government is widely acknowledged by almost everyone. That’s been true since time immemorial, as have political satire and grousing about politicians. Yet almost everyone turns a blind eye; most not only put up with it, but actively support the charade. That’s because although many may believe government to be an evil, they believe it is a necessary evil. (The larger question of whether anything that is evil is necessary, or whether anything that is necessary can be evil, is worth discussing – perhaps in another forum.)
What, arguably, makes government necessary is the need for protection from other, even more dangerous, governments. I believe a case can be made that modern technology obviates this function.
One of the most perversely misleading myths about government is that it promotes order within its own bailiwick, keeps groups from constantly warring with each other and somehow creates togetherness and harmony. In fact, that’s the exact opposite of the truth. There’s no cosmic imperative for different people to rise up against one another – unless they’re organized into political groups. The Middle East, now the world’s most fertile breeding ground for hatred, provides an excellent example.
Muslims, Christians and Jews lived together peaceably in Palestine, Lebanon and North Africa for centuries, until the situation became politicized after WWI. Until then an individual’s background and beliefs were just personal attributes, not a casus belli. Government was at its most benign, an ineffectual nuisance that concerned itself mostly with extorting taxes. People were busy with that most harmless of activities, making money.
But politics does not deal with people as individuals. It scoops them up into parties and nations. And some group inevitably winds up using the power of the state (however innocently or “justly” at first) to impose its values and wishes on others, with predictably destructive results. What would otherwise be an interesting kaleidoscope of humanity then sorts itself out according to the lowest common denominator peculiar to the time and place.
Sometimes that means along religious lines, as with the Muslims and Hindus in India, or the Catholics and Protestants in Ireland; or ethnic lines, like the Kurds and Iraqis in the Middle East or the Tamils and Sinhalese in Sri Lanka; sometimes its mostly racial, as whites and East Indians found out throughout Africa in the 70s, or Argentines, Guatemalans, Salvadorans, and other Latins discovered more recently. Sometimes it amounts to no more than personal beliefs, as the McCarthy era in the 1950s and the Salem trials in the 1690s proved.
Throughout history government has served as a vehicle for the organization of hatred and oppression, benefiting no one except those who are ambitious and ruthless enough to gain control of it.
December 30, 2009