In Defense of Government
MAY 01, 1980 by P. DEAN RUSSELL
Dr. Russell is Professor of Management, University of Wisconsin at La Crosse.
Some of the worst evils in this world are committed by persons on government payrolls. This includes the official acts of the agents of Genghis Khan, Stalin, and Hitler—as well as those of the Shah and the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran. It also includes such official acts as the Inquisition in Spain, the various slaughters recorded in the Old Testament, and the Russian soldiers in Afghanistan today.
The evil that’s committed in the name of government includes economic destruction along with human destruction. To cite but one of hundreds of similar examples, just look around you at the results of government housing programs. For more than half-a-century now, our officials have poured hundreds-of-billions of our tax dollars into programs to clean up slums and to help the people who live in them. As a direct result of these governmental activities, we now have more slums (and more slum dwellers) than ever before.
These destructive governmental activities have been going on for many thousands of years. The trend appears to be increasing.
I have several friends and acquaintances who have reached the conclusion that the only way to stop this continuing evil is to get rid of the institution that’s causing it, i.e., to abolish government itself. But even though I understand their motivation, it’s literally impossible for any person or group of persons to abolish government. When they try, they are faced by a sort of”catch 22,” i.e., the persons who abolish government are the government, and there’s no possible way to get around it.
You see, government is not an object. It’s a process. And it happens in one form or another when two or more people first meet and decide to cooperate or not to cooperate, as the case may be. It can’t be abolished (even in theory) for this simple reason: Government is however a people acting together as individuals. The only situation in which “no government” can exist is when no human beings ever do anything with (or for or against) other human beings. Even then, government hasn’t been abolished; it just doesn’t exist.
Thus the only option open to successful rebels (whether by ballot or bullet) is to change the form of their new government and, of course, to repeal laws they don’t like and to add laws they do like.
The first preference of every peace-minded person is, of course, to maximize self- government, i.e., to settle agreements and disagreements voluntarily rather than to resort to compulsory processes. In fact, there can be no freedom at all if self-government is totally missing. But even peaceful solutions to disagreements are also a method of government; for that process, too, includes procedures for (1) paying for the services of the “arbitrator,” however selected, and (2) what to do when some persons inevitably prove their humanness by finding the actions of other persons unacceptable.
Thus, while there’s no possible way we can abolish the governing process as such—or even permanently restrict its activities—any one of us can refuse to obey a particular law. Many of us do. Much of the enduring literature of mankind is inspired by this ever- present conflict between conscience and conformity. It always encourages me when I hear about a person who refuses to obey a law that’s contrary to his or her conscience. Of course, we law-breakers must pay a price—sometimes a fearful price—for our illegal actions.
That consequence is hardly surprising. Aider all, a law can’t be voluntary. That would be a contradiction in terms. Without exception, all laws (all acts of government) compel an unknown number of people to do something we wouldn’t do voluntarily. The acts we are compelled (or forbidden) to do may be good or bad. That’s another issue, and it’s not related to the inherent nature of government itself.
I encountered this no-government or “voluntary law” idea in the American Civil Liberties Union in the 1960s. I discovered that intelligent lawyers in my own New York chapter of ACLU were using that argument to defend persons who refused to participate in our war in Indochina. I did my level best to convince the leaders of our organization that they were using an illogical (even nonsensical) approach to the problem. I failed to dissuade them.
Those leaders were with me completely in my opposition to the draft, as well as to our government’s decision to send troops to Vietnam at all. But in spite of my written protests and arguments, they continued to use my membership dues to advance the strange idea that laws should be voluntary, i.e., every person should have the right to disobey a law without penalty if the law is contrary to his moral convictions. That concept (stripped of legal phraseology) was in the mainstream of ACLU defense of draft evaders during the 1960s.
I had been attracted to ACLU because of its magnificent work for “equal treatment under law” for racial minorities and most everyone else. I wanted to continue my support of that type of work. But I couldn’t figure out any way to support the one without supporting the other. Thus (with great reluctance) I finally resigned from my longtime membership in ACLU. I just couldn’t continue to associate myself with people who participated in such shallow thinking as voluntary law.
When all is said and done, the officials of government never deal with “things” but only with people and our interrelationships. For example, it is impossible to pass a law against high prices. The law is necessarily against persons who raise prices above a level set by an official. Whether or not our government should involve itself in various human relationships is debatable—and is debated. Necessarily the debate always concerns persons, and what we should be compelled to do and forbidden to do. Things, e.g., tides and floods, are not subject to man-made laws; only people are.
Do you remember when the Swedish people began their national debate concerning whether or not parents would be permitted to spank their children? We Americans laughed. We shouldn’t have. In the United States, we spank our children only with the permission of government. It’s always been that way. And if you-the-parent exceed the legal limit of punishment delegated to you by our government you can end up in jail and have your children taken away from you. Your crime will be called “child abuse.” Personally, I’m in favor of laws against parents who beat up and physically injure their children. And vice versa!
We are legally forbidden (as specified by government) from abusing any human being. The ages of the persons involved—and their relationships—doesn’t deny this reality of the purpose of government. And the fact that governments always (no exception) exceed the limits of this protective function doesn’t deny the logic for legal protection against aggressors.
Early Forms of Government
Some form of government appeared when the first two people on earth had their first disagreement—or agreement, as the case may have been. The first government was most likely a patriarchal dictatorship; for example, the process of government followed by Abraham when he decided to sacrifice Isaac. It could have been some form of democracy, however; for example, the type of majority rule followed by Joseph’s brothers when they debated his fate. Nobody knows.
We can logically deduce from the inherently self-centered nature of man, however, that some sort of government automatically came into existence whenever two or more people lived in the same neighborhood. For whatever reason, they observed at least a few simple rules, with known ways of enforcing them. Even one rule or understanding backed by an effective threat of sanctions of some sort is, by any definition, government.
Whether the particular community is a family, a tribe, or a nation will surely alter the form of government and how to pay for its services. But that doesn’t alter the principle of government.
Government in one form or another has existed throughout the thousands (or millions) of years that man has been on this earth. There have never been people without laws and ways to pay the enforcers of the laws, i.e., government. That’s persuasive evidence indeed that government is inherent in the nature of man and his relationships with other human beings. It even supports the idea that government is perhaps as necessary and as natural as eating. They both came at the same time and for the same purpose, i.e., survival. True, in our efforts to survive, we human beings do strange things, both individually and collectively. That proves only that we are human beings.
A Contradictory Process
Another compelling reason why government won’t be abolished (even in theory) is that the people who say they wish to do away with it are persons who sincerely want to be helpful. That’s why they want to abolish government—because it’s evil. And obviously they won’t leave in place all those unjust laws that caused them to topple the government in the first place. A clean slate is called for.
How would they go about rectifying all those bad laws? Surely not by whim or chance. Something more logical is required, such as one final use of the political mechanism itself—for a noble purpose. That’s why the philosophers who argue for the abolition of government make this promise in one way or another: First we’ll wipe the slate clean by abolishing all those bad laws. Then we’ll do away with government itself.
But, again, government is not merely a mechanism or thing; it’s a continuing process. It continues to exist as long as people continue to exist. It’s however people act together. And if the rebels refuse to direct this process in one way or another, the deposed leaders of the former government will be happy to return.
Thus those good people would have no choice but to use the power of government to do good to you and me in whatever ways that appealed to their particular sense of justice. Probably the primary difference from what we now have is that the new leaders might well be more dedicated and sincere than their predecessors. I’m not totally convinced that would be an improvement. I keep remembering that the Ayatollah Khomeini is a sincere and dedicated person who truly wants to do good for mankind. If you doubt it, just ask him.
Perhaps we people who so clearly understand the evils committed in the name of government are ill-advised to try to gain control of it for any purpose. Perhaps we could more readily accomplish our purpose of maximizing peace and prosperity and self- government in this fashion: just learn how to better explain the merits of a readily available alternative for most of the activities now performed by government.
That alternative is, of course, the market economy of private ownership and freedom of choice. The market, too, is a process. And (except for the power-mad) it’s the process most likely to bring to every one of us whatever it is we most want. But if we ourselves devote our primary efforts to political attempts to gain control of that continuing process called government, then no one is likely to believe our promise to use it only for good purposes. That’s what all the politicians say.