Just what is Government, anyway? Ask that question and you may get many different answers, such as, ‘the institution for creating and enforcing laws’, or ‘the agency to ensure equality’, or ‘society’s way of making sure people don’t kill each other’, or ‘the organization that ensures that human needs come before profits’. However plausible or inaccurate these expressions may be, they all fall short of distinguishing government unequivocably from other institutions such as for-profit business, non-profit charities, religious/spiritual organizations, professional/collegial associations, or leisure clubs. Any of these types of organizations may actually engage in similar activities, attempting to feed people in need, clean up a toxic waste dump, triumph over an adversary or provide uplifting entertainment or spiritual experiences to the public.
Here then is a definition which cuts to the core distinguishing characteristic:
Government is the insitution of human society which assumes a monopoly privilege on the use of force.
Government takes as axiomatic (rightly or wrongly), that within its defined sphere, whether geographical or political, that it alone may legitimately use forcible and/or deadly coercion, enforcement and punishment in the pursuit of its objectives. Regardless of any goal or program a government may have, such as feeding the poor, eradicating disease, providing employment for citizens or protecting the environment, the difference between it and every other agency is that government pursues its goals with the implicit (frequently explicit) and presumed legitimate threat of violence against any involved parties who may be disinclined to comply.
A private, for-profit business corporation may include people with a strong desire to feed hungry people, but it is constrained by its resources, which can only be renewed through the earning of an excess of revenue over costs (profit) in the service of customers who freely exchange their wealth for the products and/or services of the company. A private company cannot levy taxes on citizens to pay for its altruistic or any other activities. A private organization that would force payment of ‘taxes’ from individuals who do not volunteer to be customers or donors, is not a legitimate business but an organized crime entity, a mafia, prosecutable under the natural law of a free society.
Churches, synagogues, temples and mosques may solicit donations or tithes from their flock, and may appeal to people’s (sense of) responsibility to God, yet under law in a secular capitalist society, the appeal does not have the force of an obligation, punishable in the breech. A church that would enforce its appeals for offerings by force of arms is a theocratic state, incompatible with Capitalism.
Therefore the monopoly on the use of force clearly differentiates government from all other of society’s institutions. This understanding has tremendous ramifications for how we should regard government, its role in society and in the economy, what enterprises it ought to participate in, what problems it ought to be used to attempt to solve. When we look at the concept of government in this way, we are more cognizant of the danger inherent in the expansion of the scope of government.
Copyright©2006 by Howard Hyde. All rights reserved.