But What is Government?

Updated: Aug 20, 2020

Are we sure our fantastical view of government as our knight in shining armor is real?

If you are in deep credit card debt and your bank sells you another credit card to help you fill in this hole you’ve dug yourself into, you need to run. Why? Because you don’t drink more alcohol to kick alcoholism; you don’t fix a problem with more of the same problem.

And yet with the fevered rise in social unrest resulting in division and exasperated disparities we keep looking to the same quack to prescribe us more of the same elixir; we bought a lie, drank the potion, and things got worse—but they got better for a flash before they got worse, and like all poison, we remember the good part. So we drank another, and another, and another. Besides, isn’t it easier to cross our fingers and hold someone else responsible than it is to look inwardly and change ourselves?

When the economy goes through its cycles, when the weather gets a little hotter, when nature’s toll is taken on our bodies; when someone disagrees with us, when prices get a little too high, or when we didn’t come up with the next big thing; simply put, when life doesn’t go our way we look to our government. And we look to our government because we want to believe government has the collective solutions to our individual problems despite a preponderance of evidence to the contrary. We look to government to save us from ourselves.

...we look to our government because we want to believe government has the collective solutions to our individual problems...

Stop it right there. If we charge government with the immense responsibility of problem solving, it might seem prudent to ask an essential question, really a question of essence: what is government?

Every living person is born into the world where a preexisting structure of authority exists, whether we like it or not. Government, in one form or another, has always existed, if perhaps transformed along the way with very short-lived attempts to survive without it. And if you don’t accept the wisdom of history, we have now seen in real-time the formation of authoritative structure based on force in the dwindling anarcho-communistic experiment taking up a few blocks of this country. Power, through force, rises to the top and subordinates others. Like gravity, it doesn’t matter how you feel about it.

At the very heart of the existence of government lies the need for security; security because in the real world there is real bad that is done by real people. Left unchecked in society, the natural course of events puts those bad people in a position to multiply the bad they can do to innocent people. This occurs in society through the use of force which generally can only be combated by force.

But the complex needs of life make living in a society conducive—either you build your own home, farm and hunt your own food, and subsist off the land, fashioning your own tools; or you interact with other people who can build a house for you, sell you food, or at a minimum sell you tools to ease your pain. Society is necessary. But the fact remains society contains bad people who use force to get what they want instead of dealing civilly. After all if everyone dealt civilly no one would need force to attain their ends.

So we can exist in a society where force determines justice, where the law is made at the whim of the strongest, whether it’s a king, dictator, an invader, or fifty-one percent of society—or we can agree to peaceably coexist in society, instituting basic laws that govern all and empower some with the authority to use force on our behalf and only in our defense. Government is just that; government’s sole purpose is to defend each individual against another’s use of force.

Government’s sole purpose is to defend each individual against another’s use of force.

But why shouldn’t a benevolent dictator or the mob get to determine the laws that govern all and employ any means or severity of force necessary to compel compliance? Why shouldn’t your neighbor force you to work for him at gunpoint or burn down your home?

Fundamental to ordered society are the principles of rights and equality.

I can think of no better way to express the foundational nature of rights and the proper duty of government to protect those rights than the Declaration of Independence when it says:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

The authors noted very carefully that governments exist because of our rights, not the other way around. Either you are born with no rights and government grants you certain rights—rights as determined by those who believe themselves in a position to define the common good—or you are born with natural rights and government exists to protect those rights. If government is in a position to grant rights, by necessity it is in a position to take those rights away. And being that those in government are not immune to corruption and abuse of power, it is necessary that rights exist independently of government and that government is subordinate to rights.

Take the right to life for example; if my right is to my life, then that means another person, whether a king or a stranger, cannot deprive me of my life. But if my rights are subordinate to government; if government is the grantor of rights; then the government may deprive me of my life at any time for any reason. If our rights are foundational and government exists to protect them, then government must prevent both itself and a stranger from depriving me of my life. The same goes for liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Government, as the protector of rights, has a legal monopoly on (or exclusive right to) force because the defense against force involves the use of countering force. Because government is a legally constituted monopoly on force, every action taken by government comes with the backing of force. Every law or regulation ultimately has the force of the gun or prison behind it.

Simply put, governments compel; they do not ask, they do not suggest. Regardless of how dressed up the order may come, or how nicely the mayor asks, government orders are non-negotiable and non-compliance results in force.

An important feature of government is that it universally applies in a given locale—in other words, laws passed by government govern every citizen of that society. This goes for laws with negative characteristics (don’t do such and such) and positive characteristics (you must do such and such) alike. So when it’s against the law for one person to rob a gas station at gunpoint (which is itself the use of force) it’s against the law for all. Conversely, if the law states you must purchase health insurance, then you must purchase health insurance. Whether you like it or not. Why? Because the government, legally authorized to use force, says so.

A health insurance salesman cannot compel you to purchase health insurance. It’s his responsibility to persuade you, with reason, to purchase a policy, if he wants to make the sale. But he cannot pull a gun on you and demand that you purchase his health insurance policy.

The government, on the other hand, does. The government acts on behalf of all, for all.

Inherent in our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is the ability to use our mental reasoning faculties to determine the best course of action through life. Life and liberty mean choosing where to live, how to employ ourselves, and what needs and wants to pursue or not.

If government takes any action or issues any mandate, negative or positive, that is not done in the interest of protecting all rights for all people, it is an abuse of power. If government grants a legal monopoly to a utility company, government is universally telling you what to buy, from whom, and moreover blocks any competitors (which drive prices down, by the way) from providing an alternative, perhaps better service. This is on behalf of one, for all. This is injustice and abuse of power.

If government makes it illegal to pay a willing employee less than a mandated threshold, government is universally telling you how to run your business and deploy your resources, and government also blocks a person from earning what he would agree to earn otherwise, often resulting in higher unemployment. If no one is willing to work for a certain amount, the market will force you to pay higher. But such a government mandate is on behalf of some, for all. This is injustice and abuse of power.

In fact, government action needs funding, from the act of legislation to the work that could be funded by the private sector, where competition drives quality up and price down. But government is, despite all the potholes, funded by you and me, by the taxpayers. Therefore, every action by government is a cost carried by the citizens. This means that any government action that a citizen would not necessarily personally fund, like the funding of a park or the dispatching of law enforcement to protect certain vegetables (yes, this actually happened), requires you to use your property in a manner that you did not choose.

Government action, when not for the sole purpose of protecting its citizenry from the use of force, either foreign or domestic, is an abuse of power, it is theft, and it is unjust.

Just because fifty-one percent of people want a new park, doesn’t mean the other forty-nine percent have to fork over their hard-earned dollars. Let the fifty-one percent organize and fund it themselves; then if a forty-nine percenter wants to enjoy the park, he can pay upon entry.

Most importantly, those in government must always remember each action taken by government is universal and backed with the power of force. Government must leave living up to your choices, and use force only to defend you from those who would use force to compel you rather than using reason to persuade you—including government itself.

If these objective and moral reasons for limiting the powers of those with a monopoly on power are not sufficient, all we need to do is look to history. No matter how good the intentions may be, government’s involvement in the economy, in religion, in health, in personal living, in the choices we make, only tends to worsen whatever problem needs solving. all poison, we remember the good part.

So why do we look to government, which at the end of the day are people with the same mental faculties as you and me, to make the hard choices for us? Why do we look to those who defend our rights to infringe the same rights of another? Why do we ask government to intercede and pretend to do something anytime life gets rocky? Why do we seek government’s assistance if we know that all government action is ultimately force, funded by our neighbors? Why do we want so badly to abdicate responsibility and hard choices to those who have power over all? Are we sure our fantastical view of government as our knight in shining armor is real?

You are responsible for your own actions and your own well-being, but not another’s. And nobody else is responsible for your actions or well-being either. Looking to government for that purpose is an act of force.

This is the genius of the limited and balanced powers granted to government by our consent; this is why the constitution was written to regulate government’s actions towards the people, rather than the people’s actions towards the government.

I agree with Henry David Thoreau: “I heartily accept the motto, ‘That government is best which governs least’; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically.”

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Commit your works to the Lord; And your thoughts will be established. Proverbs 16:3