Why Do We Need Government?
About twenty years ago a very intelligent man, whom Ill call Robert (hes actually a sort of composite of several men), told me he was an anarchist. He didnt believe in any government, period.
At the time I considered myself a conservative, with libertarian leanings. Much as I respected Robert, I believed in limited government under the U.S. Constitution but none at all? That was taking a good idea too far, I thought.
Notice the illogic of my reaction. I was thinking of a philosophy as a matter of personal taste, as if you could draw an arbitrary line and stop there. Would you prefer a little bit of government, a moderate amount, or a lot of it?
After a while (years, actually) it sank in that Robert wasnt just telling me what quantity of government hed prefer. He was saying that the whole idea of it was wrong in principle no matter whether it was democratic, Communist, monarchist, Christian, or something else. He would agree that some are worse than others, but he insisted that all were wrong. Any government is a monopoly of organized force, inherently unjustifiable; and once accepted, its bound to get out of control sooner or later.
This notion is hard for Americans to grasp, let alone assent to. After all, we have what looks like a solid rationale for government in our Declaration of Independence, plus a practical plan for keeping it within due limits in our Constitution and Bill of Rights. True, American government has become a staggering tangle of laws, powers, regulations, and taxes, with recurrent wars, public debt, debased money, and countless other evils, but couldnt this be cured by returning to the Constitution?
Thats what I used to think. Besides, what would we replace the government with? Who would protect us from violent crime and foreign enemies? Who would coin the money? Who would pave the streets and fix the potholes? Others would ask who would feed the destitute, care for the sick and elderly, protect minorities, and cope with myriad other crises, emergencies, and easily imaginable disasters most of which, by the way, didnt use to be thought of as responsibilities of government. Everyone has a horrible fantasy that makes the actual horror seem (to him) worth putting up with.
Read the label on a can of soup, and think how many laws and regulations the vendor has to comply with. The rationale for these is that the public has to be protected from what? Unhealthy ingredients of some sort, I suppose. But would we really be in any peril if there were no government enforcing these costly restrictions? Would it be in the sellers interest to poison his customers, even if there were no legal penalty for doing so? How often did that happen before all these laws were imposed? Roadside fruit stands are still unregulated. Are these dangers to the purchaser?
The other day I was ticketed, and my car briefly impounded, when a policeman noticed that I was driving with a cracked windshield. My car had passed the required safety inspection and had the required sticker before some vandal had thrown rocks at it, so I thought I was legal. I wasnt hurting or threatening anyone; I posed no danger I could see. The cop was as polite as a man with a pistol can be, but as he ordered the car towed away I asked him quietly, Just who are you protecting from me? The answer was a vague mumble about the public.
Later I joked to friends that Id been carjacked. An armed man had seized my car, I explained. Of course he had a badge, a uniform, and some sort of law on his side, so I, not he, was the criminal. Heaven help me if Id tried to defend my property. Self-defense would have been an even more serious offense. By submitting to force, I confined the evil to a mere nuisance. This time.
Carjacking or impoundment? We now have two vocabularies for wrongs, depending on whether private persons or government agents commit them. This is the difference between mass murderand national defense. Between extortion and taxation. Between counterfeiting and inflation. And so on. Other examples will occur to the astute reader.
Do you smell a fault? No wonder Frédéric Bastiat described government as organized plunder.
Yet for most of my life, I believed that social order depended on government. That is, I believed that freedom depended on force, and ultimately that a great good depended on a great evil. Im afraid most people believe such things, and accept armed men in uniforms as their benefactors.
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