This essay is the first in a series, designed to question and debate the role and size of modern government.

Say you were setting up your own government. You’d want the best and brightest to work there, wouldn’t you? You’d want idealistic, gung-ho worker bees, rabid to effect change and make the world a better place. You’d want people who understood how awful oppression is; how important it is to allow people to make their own place in the world without others holding them back; how vital a safety net can be for those who are down on their luck. Should any bad apples manage to sneak their way in, you’d excise them as quickly as possible, scourging their very presence from your hallowed halls, and immediately return to the ongoing efforts to protect the innocent and the weak. Makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? The shame of it all is that it doesn’t work. Not well, and not for very long.
How can that be? You ask incredulously. We would have top men and women busting their guts out there in the trenches every day, working as hard as they could to bring justice to the weak. The only thing that could possibly stand in their way would be the apologists for the greedy corporations and other special interests. If we could just get those suckers out of office, everything would be hunky-dory. Sorry, but it doesn’t work that way. Even if all of the opposition were to be replaced by right-thinking worker bees, Utopia would never, could never, result from such a system. Instead, believe it or not, the structure would inevitably fail, and topple from its own weight. That’s the nature of the beast.
Believe me, I’d love it if larger government were the way to go. If all I had to do to secure my place in society were to pay some money to some nameless bureaucrats, who would make sure that all of my rights were protected; that I would be free to vote, to live and work wherever I felt like; and to marry or have sex with whomever I pleased; and no one would bother me–what could be better? I would feel safe in the streets and in my home, without ever having to personally enforce any laws, rules, or regulations. All I would have to do when annoyed or frightened would be to call for assistance and wait for help to arrive, which it would in plenty of time, before anything awful would happen. And if I should fall ill, or lose my job, I would be taken care of. Utopia, right?
Unfortunately, in the essence of the solution lies the kernel of the problem. All along, those worker bees would have been striving on my behalf, and on the behalf of all of the other citizens, protecting rights, and dishing out rules and regulations to keep everyone safe. Every time they would’ve gotten wind of some injustice, they’d have scouted around for the perfect solution, drafting proposals to ensure that it never occurs again. While this may seem to be the perfect system, there are many reasons that it is unsustainable.
In the first place, even though it may seem to be counter-intuitive, rights are a tricky thing. Almost everyone can agree on the biggies: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But even here we start to run into trouble right away. We can’t even agree on when life begins, so how can we decide what protecting life means? Even for something so fundamental, protection of one person’s right to life by its very nature means an infringement of another person’s liberty. We have suddenly gone from idealistically protecting everyone to balancing the rights of individual people. We’re only on the first two, major, fundamental, human rights, and those worker bees are already being restricted. Their idealism must inevitably begin to bow to compromise. We’ve already started to exchange our government of ideals for one of practicality. Our Utopia is slipping away, and we haven’t made it past the first mark.
One problem with protecting rights, even fundamental rights like life and liberty, is that they mean different things to different people, and government is a one-size-fits-all animal. Even small government, even local government, is too large to adjust to individual circumstances. And the higher up the scale we go, the worse it gets. Countries are not made up of citizens, that amorphous blob of conformity, they are made up of individuals. And this country has over 300 million of those individuals. Stop and think about that for a minute. 300 million! Can we even wrap our heads around such a large number? And yet, every day, government employees are busy crafting rules and regulations that are purported to protect each and every one of those people, to be fair to all of those individuals. Meanwhile, each one of those 300 million people has his own life story, prejudices, wants, needs, and desires. No regulation can cater to each one of those.
Each individual has his own lumps and bumps and personality. Unfortunately, government doesn’t do lumps, bumps, or personality. Government works best with smooth–laws created to protect an average citizen. And despite claims to the contrary, the average Joe doesn’t exist. Laws can only approximate justice for all, which means that they actually create injustice for some. And the more laws that are on the books the more lumps that are lopped off, the more bumps that are broken, and the less that personalities prosper.
So it turns out that idealism and government don’t necessarily play well together. That doesn’t mean that we should give up, right? We can always just try for the greatest good for the greatest number. If the rights of some people get squashed along the way, well, at least we can hope that it’s not too many people, and not too much of the fundamental rights. That’s just the price that we have to pay for the overall protection of the state. And since the state doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon, discussion about its role is a valuable thing. Which is fine, so long as we realize that any discussions from here on out cannot rely on unfettered idealism. That concept has no place in the debate over the size, scope, or purpose of government. That being understood, we can move on the next point.


Filed under Politics


  1. You’re absolutely right …… but I cant believe you haven’t mentioned the elephant in the room (well the biggest one – there are many!)

    The initiation of violence!

    There are two basic types of ‘right’ which we can call ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ rights.

    Positive rights would be the right to ‘free’ healthcare, welfare, and many other types of other benefits and services if you qualified for them. Basically positive rights are the right to have other people provide you with stuff, do stuff for you and give you stuff.

    Negative rights would be the right to be left alone. Property rights, self ownership and so on. The right to NOT have people do stuff to you (such as hit you, rape you, steal your property, invade your house etc).

    The main problem with governments (and positive ‘rights’) is that they are all based on the initiation of violence. Negative are NOT based on the initiation*** of violence.

    *** ‘initiation of violence’ makes it distinct from, say, self defence where an appropriate level of violence is justified because you did not INITIATE the mugging or the home invasion or whatever. So shooting a mugger in the foot is OK. Shooting someone and stealing their car is obviously not.

    The right to ‘free’ welfare, ‘free’ education, ‘free’ anything else sounds great on the surface but what it actually means is the right to compel other people to provided these things for you. And what THAT means is the right to use force or even violence against them in order to compel them to provide these things for you. Without force or violence being part of the equation these kinds of ‘rights’ cannot exist. The right to receive welfare WITHOUT violence just means the right to ASK people for charity, because without violence (either threats or actual) you can not force anyone to give you their money. So the ‘right to X’ must always be based on initiating violence against others. That violence might be very well hidden or disguised, but it is always there.

    If men had the ‘right to sex with a woman’ it would’t make any difference if men disguised their violence by buying you jewels and fine clothes and taking you to a posh hotel every time they wanted to exercise that right. That ‘right’ means it is based on violence (should a woman ever try to resist) otherwise it is not a right, it is just wooing and seduction.

    In reality the government acts as a third party agency of force/ violence for people’s ‘rights’. For example, it uses threats of force/ violence to compel us to hand over a percentage of our earnings every week and then it redistributes this wealth as it decides.

    If you try to redistribute your own wealth (ie stop paying taxes) the government will (after making a few initial threats) send round men in blue costumes who will drag you off in the back of a van, kidnap you and lock you up you in a cage. If you try to resist or defend your property from this kidnapping they might even shoot you.

    This is the reality of positive ‘rights’.

    We are all taught from about age four (in, er, government run schools) that these positive rights (welfare etc) are what makes us a civilised society and that government performs a noble function in this regard – and that it is why we invented government in the first place.The idea is that most people don’t want to see people starving in the streets or not getting hospital care or education and so a government is just using violence to help provide us with what we would do anyway. This is a bit like saying that most women enjoy sex with men anyway, so what’s wrong with men having the right to sex with a woman? It’s just a way of helping relationships run more smoothly…. etc.

    An interesting experiment to test if positive rights really are good and wholesome is to imagine there is no government, but that society still recognised the same rights. So you are walking home one day with your wages for the week and a poor man comes up to you and of course he has the *right* to welfare but there’s no government to provide it) so he pulls out a gun and says “I’ll have $20 thank you very much. If you don’t pay me I’ll have my heavies lock you up inside a cage”. So you pay him the money.

    Or ….. you can imagine being the person with the rights to certain ‘free stuff’ which the government would normally provide. Imagine going door to door with a gun and some heavies waiting in a van and using threats of violence against each household to get what you are entitled to. If they said “No thanks, I’d rather not pay you”? would you turn your threats into action and kidnap them and lock them up in a cage, or simply take their money at gunpoint? It’s OK, you have the right, remember! It’s just that in this scenario you are having to do all the government’s dirty work. But it’s still you right by law.

    I would imagine most people would NOT be prepared to use violence to ‘redistribute’ wealth in their favour, nor would they be happy about others using violence to ‘redistribute’ wealth from them. So why do we accept government using violence to redistribute wealth? Is it because the violence is generally out of site? Is it because governments are in charge of our ‘education’ from the age of four? Is it because we are bombarded with government propaganda our whole lives?

    Without a government if someone was so poor and destitute and desperate as to resort to violence I think most people would be happy to help them out *voluntarily*. More than that it would be in society’s (selfish) interests to ensure that we helped such people find work, get their life back together and become self sufficient again. It is (contrary to government propaganda) very much in an individual’s selfish interest (and thus in society’s selfish interests as a whole) to eradicate poverty, and have a functional, content, considerate, healthy, happy society. The idea that we would never contribute time, energy, effort, money to society without government redistribution of wealth by force is absurd. Even in the most cynical sense a functional, happy, caring society is a zillion times less expensive to run and less dangerous to live in than a dysfunctional, crime ridden, fearful, stressed out society.

    By contrast, if the government eradicated poverty and most people were happy, self sufficient and managing to be responsible for themselves and others there would be a lot less need for government! It is simply not in their interests to *solve* society’s problems – only to *treat* the symptoms in the short term. Perhaps we might even say that the more problems there are in society the more it benefits government. The more dysfunctional society becomes, the more government can justify taking our wealth by force and inventing new laws to ‘treat the symptoms’. The more dysfunctional society becomes the bigger and more powerful and intrusive government can become.

    In reality we (the people) never invented governments to solve social problems or ‘help run society’. Think about it. The idea that we would decide to ‘invent’ an agency and grant them a monopoly on the right to use violence against us is absurd. LOL

    You would never hire an agency to manage your own business (including all of its finances) and do so with NO contract, NO accountability and giving them the right to use force or violence against you! You’d never give that agency access to the company credit card on TRUST. You’d never be fooled into thinking that such an arrangement would end up serving your business the best. If someone suggested it you’d say “Are you Mad!!!!???? With all that power they would take the ball and run with it, and we’d end up with a failed business and in massive debt!!”

    We all KNOW this is true in our own lives. So why do we believe it would work on a national scale?

    Look at the state of your country today. Look at the state of the world. Isn’t this exactly what has happened? They have taken the ball and run with it!

    In reality governments were not invented by the people at all – they just evolved from criminal gangs (mafia). They are the most successful mafia gangs of all and as such they have taken over, not just a city or district, but the entire country! They have taken control of most aspects of society including the economy. They even educate our children. That is why we grow up calling them ‘the government’ instead of the mafia!

    You cannot put an agency of violence at the heart of society and expect society to function properly. And *we* never put them there in the first place. But the root problem is not really government, it is *violence*. There is nothing wrong with social organisation or agencies being set up to help run society more efficiently. But they just can’t operate through violence that’s all!

    The rest of society is based on fairly basic moral principles *don’t initiate violence* and *don’t steal*. Those two form the basis of our day to day business AND personal relationships / transactions. And we recognise that when people violate these principles they are doing wrong. If we just applied these moral principles to government the world would change overnight. Without being allowed to use violence the government would become just another service provider in (what would now finally be) a free market. If we didn’t like its crappy, overblown, inefficient, over priced and downright fraudulent services (such as its fake economy or endless wars or disastrous education) we could just switch to a better free market alternative (and we would not still be forced to pay for the government alternative!) No longer could the government use FORCE to make us use its services or obey its ‘laws’. Instead they would have to attract our business just like everyone else. And if the free market could provide better services than the government alternative, then government would simply go out of business. There’s democracy in action! 🙂 A free market is the only true democracy. Every voluntary transaction becomes a ‘vote’.

    And so if government wanted to ‘provide’ us with the ‘service’ of a ten year long genocidal illegal war against Iraq which costs $3000 a second and results in over a million dead civilians and a hundred year legacy of traumatised survivors and grieving victims’ family members, they would have to try and persuade us this was indeed a worthwhile and beneficial ‘service’ or ‘product’ worth paying for. They could no longer just FORCE us to pay for it. Would you choose to pay for this kind of service?!

    Only when you imagine a world without ‘government’ can you see that violence is at the heart of all positive ‘rights’.

    And only when you imagine a society where universal moral principles are actually applied UNIVERSALLY (such as not using violence) do you see that the idea of ‘government’ is completely insane. It is the only agency which is still based on initiating violence to achieve its aims. It is a legacy of the dark ages.

    See my ‘philosophy’ section for more on this subject 🙂

    • Thanks for your impassioned and articulate response! It sounds like you do not believe that there are any functions that only government can handle; that everything necessary can be provided in some measure by private interests. However, your examples used mostly what the government calls “entitlements”, that is, redistribution of wealth. What is your position on the other types of functions that government fulfills (legislation, the court system, roads, defense of the country, treaties, minting money, etc.)?
      Even if you believe that those types of functions can also be let out for private contract, we are, of course, not currently in that situation. Your premise that we merely abolish the right of the government to use violence to achieve its goals is an interesting one, but I think the chasm is too great for one leap. If we abolish the governmental right to use violence in one fell swoop, I believe the result will be, not an immediate filling of the void by up-and-running private enterprise, but anarchy.
      And if you think that the government has some role to play, but violence is not the proper means of enforcement, then what is? Realize that the threat of government force is also ultimately what keeps private industry running (if you don’t fulfill your end of the contract that we have, I’ll sue, and the round men in the blue costumes will take the money that you owe me from you and give it to me).
      So, being the eminently practical person that I am, while I applaud your version of Utopia, where everyone is happy, productive, and wise, and all needs are filled voluntarily, I think we need a bit more of a concrete plan to get there. My plan consists of exploring the current governmental system, to learn what makes it unsustainable, and to discern what functions (if any) should be in the province of the government. At this stage would be discussions on whether governmental violence would be morally acceptable against those who choose to not fully engage in their citizen duties, and if not, what actions (if any) may be taken against those who use the benefits provided by other citizens (like roads and prisons) without contributing to their implementation or upkeep, or those who refuse to fulfill their contractual obligations.
      The struggle is to figure out how to provide what needs to be provided, however we may define those needs, while realizing that not everyone wishes to contribute even to those services or products they use, or from which they benefit. As I said, government consists in compromise. The compromise seems to have shifted too far to too many benefits to too many people. The question is, how did that happen, what do we do about it, and how do we prevent it from happening again?

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