The Role Of Government In Society
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The Role of Government In Society

One of the most important things that we, as thinking beings, can ask ourselves, is "What is the role of government in society?" But to answer it, we must first define government in a manner that satisfies all of us.

The thing that separates a government (or law, or the state, depending on the writer -- I am known to use all three) from any other civic or social organization is that goverments may legally initiate the use of force. Nothing and nobody else may do this. Not you, not me, not the Elks, not GM, not the Southern Baptist Convention, not Greenpeace, not Trek Bicycles, not Public Citizen, not the United Auto Workers, not your neighborhood block club, not ANYBODY -- except government. Only government has this power, which is called the police power. And politics is nothing more than deciding how this power should be used. That's why, when Chairman Mao Zedong said, "All political power comes from the barrel of a gun," he was not philosophising or speaking in abstract. He was stating a basic axiom.

Bear that in mind. Any time you elect a legislator, mayor, or other government official, you are hiring them to hold and use a gun on the people, including yourself. They may not do so directly, but anyone with the power to pass laws or write regulations has the power to decide when the police should come after you. And "you are disobeying a law" is ALWAYS reason enough.

Everything that a law demands that you do, or forbids you to do, is at gunpoint, if neccessary -- at the threat of death. Perhaps not for the offense itself, but if you are stubborn enough about not accepting the penalties that government places on you for breaking its laws, you can easily find yourself under the barrel of a policeman's gun.

The defining characteristic of government IS the legal use of force. And if the use of force is legal, then it also should be just. Now, just who is the government? In unjust societies, it is whoever has the power to force the others to his will. But in democratic societies, the government is either us or our representatives acting on our behalf.

In fact, the reason that mankind ever formed governments in the first place was to protect ourselves from others using force to kill us (violating our right to life), or to make us do their will (violating our right to liberty), or to take what was ours (violating our right to property). Everybody agrees that when somebody comes to hurt or kill you, or to enslave you, or to rob you, you can defend yourself. Government is the same thing, only in groups. The point of having a government is to organize force for the defense of a group or community (be it a neighborhood, a town, a city, a state, or a nation). And the government IS us. So at what point does it become justice for the government to do by force that which it is unjust for US to do by force?

The answer is, "Never." The role of government is to defend our lives, our liberty, and our property, from those who would violate them, and to punish those who do so by making them pay us restitution. When a government limits itself to this, people are pleased with it, to the very limited extent that they have to think about it at all. And they do not care whether it is an autocracy, an oligarchy, a democracy, a despot, or a republic -- except for those who want to use the police power to compel others to do their will.

I don't care what it is that you want the government to do for you -- if you can't see yourself doing it, gun in hand, then don't ask that the government hold the gun and do it for you. It is neither our job nor that of the government to use force to stop us from being stupid, or hateful, or immoral, or discriminatory, or to help the poor, or provide medical care, or schooling, or art, or homes. It is not for you, or me, or the government, to stop people from making informed voluntary exchanges, in business, employment, housing, friendships, churches, civic organizations, or love, no matter what the circumstances.

I might be able to tolerate government intervention in those few cases where it supports a public good (and there are very few real public goods), or in the case of regulating natural monopolies (and there are few natural monopolies, and innovation often creates competition, eliminating them).

However, I am very wary of this, and with good reason. The fact is, all of us look out for ourselves at all times. And almost all of us would love to be able to draw upon the resources of others without paying everything that they might demand. Throughout history, whoever has held the police power, be they few or many, has used it to benefit themselves at the expense of everyone else. When it was just a few, it was obvious and unjust. But as more and more people participate in the political process, nearly every single group has used government to benefit itself at the expense of everyone else.

And it's hardly surprising that they do so. After all, everyone else has done it. The group getting the benefit gains enormously, so it is worth it to them to lobby hard for it. Everyone else loses only a little, so it's worth little to fight it. And so we lose a little here to Steel, a little there to Medicine, a little elsewhere for the children, and on and on and on until it adds up to half of what we make. And all the while, using the government to steal gains more and more legitimacy, and people wind up having either to lose their moral outrage at violation of rights, or else lose their respect for all laws, including those that protect rights.

If we are going to have a just society, we must limit government to its core functions: protection of life, protection of liberty, protection of property, punishing those who transgress those rights, and gaining restitution from them for their victims.

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