Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Understanding Government: Force

The institution central to politics is government. Understanding the nature, actions, and limitations of this institution is essential to understanding our world.

The first question to consider is exactly what is government? Having a sound definition is essential to any further analysis.

A government is an organization that has a near monopoly on the use of force in a given geographical region.

It need not have a complete monopoly, since most government recognize a right to self-defence against private criminals. However, it must be able to effectively resist any potential challengers.

To do this, a government must have some sort of armed body, whether it be police or military. This body will need to be funded. Thus there must be taxes, which are money taken from the people of the geographical region by force to fund the government.

Most governments also spend money on programs and enact various laws and regulations. These are all based on the threat of the use of force. Anyone who does not participate in or abide by these programs or regulations is threatened with a fine or jail time. This can only be enforced by the use of violence. The same is true of taxes. Anyone who attempts to resist this violence, as they would a private criminal, risks being killed by the government.

Compliance with government decisions is not based on force if it is voluntary. This happens when it is seen as having authority. Authority is the belief that a given decision-maker is legitimate. However, no government is based entirely on consent, because otherwise there would be no need for legal penalties. Indeed, it is likely that if government did not punish those who did not abide by its decisions, it would lose its authority in the eyes of many people. Governments usually depend on widespread popular support for their existence.

What lesson can be taken from this? The fact that all government programs and regulations are ultimately based on the threat of violence does not imply that no government actions are ever legitimate. What it does mean is that when considering a proposed government action, it is not enough to determine that the goal of the program is desirable. In addition, it must be determined that the use or threat of force is justified to achieve that goal.

Having a more realistic view of the nature of government is essential to determining the morality of government policies.

1 comment:

Matthew said...

Great post, Allan.