Sunday, January 22, 2006

CLASSIC POST: "Government: The Unnecessary and Constant Threat"

Since the last post was on anarchism, I thought I would repost one of my favourite (and final) pieces from my old blog. There has actually been recent interest in my arguments against Objectivist defences of government, after a discussion on the Libertarian Alliance e-mail list, and I have also been working on an examination of Tibor Machan's addition to this, which I will post here. So here is something to wet our readers' whistles (Quotes from Rand come from "The Nature of Government" and "Government Funding in a Free Society"):

Government: The Unjustified and Unneccessary, Constant Threat
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On his own Web Log Unfettered Robert Wolf attempted to provide a refutation of anarcho-capitalism in his post Government: An Inevitable and Constant Threat.

A brief scan of his argument, though, shows that what he was criticising wasn't anarchism, which is the desire for an absence of government, but his own view of it. This is plain because his entire argument seems to be based around the statement "A rule here, an agreement there and before you know it you have a government. Whenever two people come together, there are rules; as more people join the association more stipulations are needed. Eventually, the rules have to be enforced and a government is born." This is plainly not a criticism of anarchism because it does not reflect the idea that there should be an absence of what anarchists view as government. No anarchist has ever said that people shouldn't form agreements. They have never said that there should not be rules shared by people, or that those rules should not be enforced.

What Robert forgot was whilst enforcement of rules is a necessary part of the definition of government, it is not sufficient. "Rule enforcing institution" is a necessary but insufficient feature of a definition of government. In order to be a government an institution must be more than simply a rule enforcing institution - it has to be a particular kind of rule enforcing institution having features not held by others. And it is these features to which anarchists object.

Robert writes,


Anarchists go a step further believing it is possible to do without government altogether by consigning our fate to private protection agencies. When pressed they will allow that there will always be rules and regulations, but we are assured that these private companies will never quarrel with each other or exceed their authority to evolve into (shudder) governments.



This is entirely a strawman. Anarcho-capitalists do not suppose that private agencies will never quarrel. They simply say that they will be more likely to resolve these disputes through arbitration in private courts rather than through violent conflict.

Needless to say, when Robert published his post on Liberty Forum there was much debate. Much of it between Robert and myself. Since the debate centred on just what a government is, I asked Robert what his view of government was. He said that it was essentially the same as Ayn Rand's. So as a result I gathered much research on Rand and have been putting together an article on the matter. It is twelve pages long so far! But don't worry, I won't publish it here, as it is likely to form part of my dissertation. However, here is a summary I posted on the Objectivism Online Forum:

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Rand defined a government as


...an institution that holds the exclusive power to enforce certain rules of social conduct in a given geographical area… The difference between private action and governmental action – a difference thoroughly ignored and evaded today – lies in the fact that a government holds a monopoly on the legal use of force.



This is her definition of government. It is not her view of what a government ought to be, it was her description of what government qua government is. On top of this, she also wanted government to have other features.

Anarchy etymologically means “absence of ruler,” a ruler being a person or group of people that exercises sovereign authority. It is commonly used, then, to describe an absence of government. Anarchism is the political philosophy that desires an absence of government. Ayn Rand's definition of government was "A government is an institution that holds the exclusive power to enforce certain rules of social conduct in a given geographical area." If there is nothing that satisfies Rand's definition of government, then government does not exist so far as Rand defined the term, and we have what anarchism may seek to establish ("may," because "an absence of government" is not the same as "all absence of government" - the term "an" implies a specific or particular type of absence of government).

Ayn Rand's definition of government allows for two particular alternatives under which government does not exist:

1) There is no institution that enforces certain rules of social conduct over a given geographic area. In other words, with in a given geographical area, for whatever rules of social conduct that may exist, there is no institutionalised means of enforcing them.

2) Institutions for enforcing whatever rules of social conduct there may be exist in a given geographic area, but they do not possess the power to enforce them exclusively. In other words, they do not prevent anybody who wants to, from establishing their own similar institution within the same given geographic area and enforcing what rules of social conduct there may be.

Notice that these examples leave open the question of whether there ought to be a single body of known, universally applicable rules of social conduct, or whether there be a mishmash of such rules, competing. This is because this issue is irrelevant to the question of whether there be an organisation that has an exclusive power to enforce these rules of social conduct or not, and so is irrelevant as to whether what Rand calls a government exists or not.

A refutation of anarcho-capitalism must be a refutation of option 2).

Rand explained why the use of force was justified - because men must use their minds in order to live; and so they must have rights to use their mind, and act on their decisions; and so they have a right to defend these rights. In order for men to act rationally in a peaceful and civilised society force has to be kept from human relationships. This means that the use of force must be suppressed: People must be prevented from initiating force. Government can have no right except the rights that people have, since governments are nothing more than people, and so all people have the right to suppress initiations of force. This right, Rand hopes, would be delegated to what she called a government.

However, this just justifies the use of force to suppress force. It doesn't tell us why an organisation should exclusively possess the power to do so. Hence, telling us why having the power to suppress the use of force is not enough to tell us why having a government is necessary. Why not have sinmply institutions able to enforce certain rules of social conduct prohibiting the use of force, instead of having an institution with the exclusive power to do so?

The anarchist argument against Rand's defense of government is essentially this:

1) The initiation of coercion and force is immoral. “The only proper function of the government of a free country is to act as an agency which protects the individual’s rights, i.e., which protects the individual from physical violence. Such a government does not have the right to initiate the use of physical force against anyone - a right which the individual does not possess and, therefore, cannot delegate to any agency. But the individual does possess the right of self-defence and that is the right which he delegates to the government, for the purpose of an orderly legally defined enforcement. A proper government has the right to use physical force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use.”

2) Government is an institution which maintains a legal monopoly on the retaliatory use of force in a given geographical area. “A government is an institution that holds the exclusive power to enforce certain rules of social conduct in a given geographic area… The fundamental difference between private action and governmental action – a difference thoroughly ignored and evaded today – lies in the fact that a government holds a monopoly on the legal use of physical force”. “This distinction is so important and so seldom recognised that I must urge you to keep it in mind. Let me repeat it: A government holds a monopoly on the legal use of physical force.”

3) But to maintain a legal monopoly on the retaliatory use of force, a government must initiate coercive force to exclude competitors. It is a logical possibility that other agencies or institutions in society can use force in a purely retaliatory or defensive manner, and therefore in a non-initiatory manner. Suppression of this use of force, then, would not be a use of force that is itself purely defensive or retaliatory. “A proper government has the right to use physical force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use.”

4) Hence, to exist as a legal monopoly on the retaliatory use of force, a government must employ immoral means. A government is defined by its existence as a monopoly. Should competitor’s exist, this defining feature would be absent, and so the institution would cease to be a government. Therefore a government, in order to exist, must suppress its competitors, which means initiating the use of force.

5) Government is thus intrinsically immoral.

6) Hence, Ayn Rand's pro-government position contradicts her basic ethics

In short, an organisation dedicated to prohibiting the initiation of force must allow similar organisations - that is, organisations dedicated to prohibiting the initiation of force - to exist in the same geographic area. However, this would result in an absence of an organisation possessing the exclusive power to enforce certain rules of social conduct in a given geographic area, and so an absence of what Rand calls a government. It would thus be anarchism.

Rand said that "In a free society men are not forced to deal with one another. They do so only by voluntary agreement and, when a time element is involved, by contract." She believed this so strongly that she believed that government could only be just if it was voluntary, saying


The source of the government’s authority is “the consent of the governed.” This means that the government is not the ruler, but the servant or agent of the citizens; it means that the government has no rights except the rights delegated to it by the citizens for a specific purpose.



and,


The principle of voluntary government financing rests on the following premises: that government is not the owner of citizens' income and, therefore cannot hold a blank check on that income - that the nature of the proper governmental services must be constitutionally defined and delimited, leaving the government no power to enlarge the scope of its services at its own arbitrary discretion. Consequently, the principle of voluntary government financing regards the government as the servant, not the ruler, of the citizens - as an agent who must be paid for his services, not as a benefactor, who dispenses something for nothing.



and,


…the government of a free society may not initiate the use of physical force and may use force only in retaliation against those who initiate its use. Since the imposition of taxes does represent an initiation of force, how, it is asked, would the government of a free country raise the money needed to finance its proper services?

In a fully free society, taxation - or, to be exact, payment for governmental services - would be voluntary. Since the proper services of a government - the police, the armed forces, the law courts - are demonstrably needed by individual citizens and affect their interests directly, the citizens would (and should) be willing to pay for such services, as they pay for insurance.



The trouble is that government, by Rand's definition, can never ever be voluntary. This is government is an institution that excludes others from having the power to enforce certain rules of social conduct in a given geographic area. The result is that it forcibly prevents people from choosing not to delegate their right of self-defense to the government, and give it to somebody else. Rand’s government, in order to be a government, must prevent people from either contracting other agencies to use legitimate force in that given geographic area, or prevent them from establishing such agencies. For this reason it cannot possibly pass the voluntarist test of legitimacy. Since, in order to remain a government, the government must maintain an effective monopoly and suppress competition, government initiates force and is compulsory, not voluntary. It coerces citizens into accepting government as the only arbiter of their disputes and enforcer of their rights. In what way could it meaningfully be said that citizens are delegating their right to defend themselves to the government, when the government coercively prevents them from choosing to delegate them to somebody else?

On top of this is the fact that anybody able to use force must be subject to controls that prohibit the initiation of the use of force, and this also means institutions charged with the power to enforce rules prohibiting force. Government, being the exclusive holder of the power to enforces certain rules of social conduct in a given geographic area, is therefore free from institutional restraint on its ability to initiate force. This is because nobody but the government can enforce rules against the initiation of force, and so nobody but the government can enforce these rules against the government!

Objectivists try to counter this fact by saying that government's actions have to be rigidly defined, delimited, and subscribed. They say that government needs to be controled. Government's actions have to be rigidly "defined, delimited and subscribed" by who? "government has to be controled" by whom? After all, if government is the institution for bringing the retaliatory use of force under objective control, as opposed to simply being an institution for bringing the retaliatory use of force under objective controls, then there is no institution to turn to when the government uses retaliatory force outside of its objective standards, or even initiates it.

Indeed, "If physical force is to be barred from social relationships, men need an institution charged with the task of protecting their rights under an objective code of rules," and this means an institution charged with the task of protecting men's rights against the government. If this institution is to protect people from the government, then it cannot also be the governnment. But if such an institution were to exist, though, the government would no longer be the institution for regulating the use of force, but would simply be an institution for regulating the use of force, amongst others. It would not have any exclusive power to accomplish this task, since others would also have this power. In short, it would not be a government.

Therefore,

a) Physical force ought to be kept human relationships.

b) "A government is an institution that holds the exclusive power to enforce certain rules of social conduct in a given geographic area."

c) "If physical force is to be barred from social relationships, men need an institution charged with the task of protecting their rights under an objective code of rules."

d) Since government is exclusive and monopolistic in its nature, then were a government to exist there would be no institution to regulate government's use of force, retaliatory or otherwise.

Therefore,

e) Government ought not to exist. Whilst there ought to be an organisation with the power to enforce certain rules of social conduct, namely, to bring the retaliatory use of physical force under objective control, it ought not have exclusive powers to do this, but ought to allow other institutions to have this power, too, so that they can enforce rules of social conduct against it.

In other words, given Rand's definition of government, anarchism follows from the premise that "If physical force is to be barred from social relationships, men need an institution charged with the task of protecting their rights under an objective code of rules." This is because some institution must bar the use of physical force by government, but the government would cease to be a government by definition were such an institution to exist.

12 Comments:

Anonymous Julius Blumfeld said...

Indeed.

Speaking as a lawyer, I find the popular attachment to the notion that courts and allied enforcement agencies must have a territorial monopoly in order to be able to function effectively, most perplexing. Grocers compete. Why not courts and bailiffs?

Having thought about it further, I think the pro-State argument confuses a territorial enforcement monopoly with the desirability of legal uniformity. People think: how can law work if the courts all apply different laws? It cannot. So we must have just one court system with a legally enforced monopoly.

But this is confuse courts with the laws they apply. In fact of course it does not follow from the proposition that courts should be permitted to compete, that they will apply a mishmash of rules.


Quite the contrary. The cost savings to all concerned in applying a uniform body of laws are overwhelming and therefore I would expect uniform laws to emerge within territories, whether or not the courts themselves within that territory are competitive. To draw an analogy (not original I am sure): laws are like languages. Territorial uniformity emerges naturally without legal enforcement. Courts, on the other hand, are more like language schools. All the better when they compete for our business!

Julius

6:06 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

Julius, you are absolutely correct. In my upcoming criticism of Tibor Machan's defense of the Randian Model, I notice that he effectively says exactly the same thing you say: That there are strong incentives for a single set of legal rules to emerge. He takes this to mean that government is a natural, and not a coercive monopoly (I also take him to task on the very idea of natural monopolies). But, as you accurately point out, it implies nothing of the sort.

In fact, it is a common error. It is simply the claim that there are strong incentives towards uniformity. But that doesn't imply monopoly: Philips video cassettes fit in Sony machines, for instance. ATM cards are all the same size and shape, but there is no monopoly in producing them.

And, for an historical case of a privately produced law, the Law merchant evolved precisely because merchants throughout the world couldn't be certain of uniformity if they relied simply on the laws and customs of whatever country they happened to be in.

Richard

11:58 PM  
Anonymous Julius Blumfeld said...

The other feature of a private system which is crucial but rarely acknowledged is rules of recognition and priority (aka "conflict of law rules").

People worry about the prospect of competing courts arriving at conflicting judgments. Even Rothbard (from memory) fell into this trap. The fear is that with all these competing courts, even if they all applied the same law, there would be chaos with claimants forum shopping until they found a court in which they could win. The result (so it is said) would be a plethora of conflicting rulings and judgments -i.e. anarchy in the bad sense.

But the fears are nonsense. No court would stay in business very long if it took on all comers. Rather, competing courts would inevitably develop rules to determine when they will hear a case, when they will give way to some other court, what judgements of other courts they will recognise etc etc. Market forces will then cause those rules to become broadly harmonised.

For an exact analogy, consider the private international law rules that existing national state courts apply when considering cases with an international element:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conflict_of_laws

The result is that true jurisdictional clashes between competing courts would be extremely rare and certainly nothing to worry about.

Julius

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Eva, absolutely. Anoying that the site went down then: I had some stuff on monopoly I just posted, and now its gone!

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