While in attendance at a recent event for libertarian students (which, for reference, I do not consider myself to be), I found myself again differing with the current intellectual mainstream of that movement. In the latter half of the day’s presentations and discussions, there emerged an almost unanimous appraisal of the existence of government as a “necessary evil.” I take issue with this idea, popular among libertarians and small-government conservatives, as, by extension, it maintains the implicit notion of the ideal society as one based upon that bastardized anti-concept commonly referred to as “anarcho-capitalism”. It is an ideal whose contradictions are disastrous and deserving of infinite tracts written to pick apart their underlying immorality, but that is not the purpose of this writing. My intention here is, ironically, to refute two of the arguments often raised against “anarcho-capitalism” in hopes that by clearing the field of the bad arguments for the existence of government, we might make room for the right ones. The arguments are 1) that government qualifies as a “necessary evil” and 2) that such a thing as a “necessary evil” exists at all. Both are deeply flawed and very dangerous ideas that we desperately need to remove from our philosophical framework if we are to intellectually oppose the growing threat of statism in modern society. I will address the first argument here and the second in a later installment.
The term “necessary evil” is, unlike much of their jargon, not unique to libertarians or any other class of individuals. It pervades every practical field that deals with matters of morality and nearly every ideology which attempts to shape them, designating in all instances the concept of an action or entity of dubitable moral value which is performed or exists in order to attain some greater aim, implicitly backed by the classic utilitarian conviction that “the end justifies the means.” Much of modern statism depends on this premise, from traditionally bipartisan social welfare programs such as Medicare and Social Security to such divisive topics as censorship and ObamaCare. While most libertarians no doubt oppose any assertion that the forcible attainment of tax dollars by government in order to support such vast measures of social engineering is a “necessary evil”, those of them who apply that concept to the existence of government itself share in their opponents’ philosophical error.
Agreeing with the idea that government is indeed a necessity in any ordered, rights-respecting, productive capitalist society, I’ll set aside the word “necessary” for the time being and focus exclusively on refuting the idea of government being inherently an “evil” to be suffered. The “necessary evil” argument reads roughly as follows:
(a) Government is, by its very nature, a flawed and immoral system, the existence of which violates individuals’ rights. (b) However, in the absence of government, man would endure ever greater dangers and violations that would forbid to him the benefits of modern, social, industrialized living. (c) Therefore, in order to attain those benefits, government is a burden that man must oblige.
Naturally, there are more details to this argument that I won’t indulge here, but I believe this to be a fair summary of the idea. In agreement with the belief that the absence of proper government leaves man in a state of chaos without the insurances of life in a safe and objective society, I shall set aside the second premise and take issue with the first, in which the speaker asserts the inherent evil of government as such.
To properly pursue an answer as to whether government is an evil, one must begin by clarifying one’s concepts and establishing ones moral values– that is, defining the term government and deciding what one considers to be evil. Let us first agree upon a moral standard, a task guaranteed to be controversial. I will make it as simple and diplomatic as possible, however, and describe the evil as being,
That which is inimical to man’s life, whether against his physical state or his spirit.
We’re all sure to start disagreeing once we begin applying this with our own unique degrees of consistency, but as a definition I think it to be both adequate and amicable. Turning our attention to the definition of government, we will use Ayn Rand’s definition and describe it as being,
“An institution holding a monopoly on the use of physical force within a given geographical area.”
As this second definition entails no value judgment and fairly describes most any government that has ever been devised, I see it as uncontroversial. Now the question has become a bit clearer:
Is the existence of an institution holding a monopoly on the use of physical force within a given geographical area inimical to man’s life, whether against his physical state or his spirit?
It quickly becomes evident that we lack a great deal of information required to answer. As this is to be an institution organized and run by men, in order to approve of it we would have to know that their values and intentions are benevolent or, alternatively, that some safeguard inherent to the structure of the governing system would protect its citizens should the governing parties turn tyrannical and abusive. A further series of questions arises: would the institution use its monopoly on force to protect its citizens, or collude with foreign aggressors at their expense? Would it mediate disputes between citizens, or exacerbate and profit from them? The list continues. What is important to recognize is that the very existence of these questions and the fact that their answers are not inherent to the nature of government, but dependent upon that government’s form and nature, refutes the characterization made by “anarcho-capitalists” and conceded by many libertarians and conservatives of government as an evil.
This concession is not an insignificant one. To quote one of Ayn Rand’s maxims from her essay, “Anatomy of a Compromise”, “In any conflict between two men or two groups who hold the same basic premises, it is the more consistent one who wins.” How are conservatives and libertarians who believe in a small, properly defined, and objective government to intellectually oppose anarchism when they have accepted its basic premise of government as evil? If they are to actively and properly pursue the remedy of tyranny’s ills, they must be sure that they are not trading the crimes of the few for the mob rule of the masses. Furthermore, they must know with full conviction that their pursuit of a moral system of governance is not merely the best that can be done by impotent men in an imperfect world, but that it is the only framework that man has for free and gainful association with others as a society.
We have thus established that an institution holding a monopoly on the use of physical force within a given geographical area (government) is not, by necessity, inimical to man’s life. Any claim to that effect is built upon assumptions not inherent to the concepts in question. Can we similarly establish that it is necessary for that life to flourish (in a modern, developed society, excluding consideration of minuscule, primitive peasant cultures that no sane person would choose over the world in which we live)? Yes.
Where there exists a Constitution and Bill of Rights, government is the subjection of physical force to objective law. If that law is properly drawn and maintained, the force of government will be restricted to retaliatory uses against criminals. Anarchist daydreams aside, if government lacks the ability to use that force, the law becomes meaningless. If force is democratized and citizens are allowed to carry out their own punishments, the law ceases to exist. This could mean the sort of violence and chaos that the word ‘anarchy’ inspires in the minds of most. Just as likely, it means the slow death of an economic system in which contracts are not worth the ink in which they are written and the simplest purchase is a standoff between two parties mortified of being cheated by the other. Trade comes to a grinding halt and wealth disappears.
Capitalism is objectivity, the indifference of gold to its possessor or of a seller to a buyer’s reputation. It requires a system of law that punishes force and fraud in order to properly function. It is the absence of that objective system that has undermined every socialist nation in history, that has relegated them to poverty and collapse or, worse, an infinite process of slow decay propped up and prolonged by the contributions of their freer allies and enemies (see: the entire history of the Soviet Union). Thus, the contradiction embedded within the phrase “anarcho-capitalism” becomes apparent: how could one dream of achieving capitalism, “a system based on the recognition of individual rights, including property rights, in which all property is privately owned,” in the absence of a legal system that establishes and protects those rights? To think it possible is to indulge a fantasy, and a devious one at that. What lover of truth could so vehemently deride a system of law that punishes fraud, as anarchists so often do? Who can value life without upholding a system that would punish murder?
Certainly, the proponents of anarchy will resort, as they always do when cornered, to the cynical claim that it is not the objectivity of governance to which they object, but to its abuse; that like some Shakespearean fatal flaw, government always diverges into tyranny. I will be the first to grant that the record of human attempts at law and order have been grueling and littered with injustices. However, I hope that in this writing I have illustrated to some extent that the flaws of government are not ingrained in its nature, but accidental to it, and that when the proper moral theories are applied and adhered to, there is nothing to guarantee abuse any more than there is to guarantee a collision when driving a car. As evidence, I offer the United States of America. While its present condition is deplorable and its respect for individual rights vacillates by the day, the fact that a system of government based on a belief in the primacy of the individual and his right to life could have emerged after nearly 12,000 years of monarchy, tyranny, oppression, genocide, and poverty is profound. With a greater sense of history than has ever been had by civilizations before us and a greater knowledge of the struggles which others endured to secure basic freedoms that we take for granted every day, to surrender so close to the achievement of an ideal, call it hopeless, and resign to such a primitive political philosophy as anarchism is an unforgivable philosophical default.
To those who maintain or are acquiring a belief in the morality of a limited and objective system of governance– that is, laissez faire capitalism– I implore you: do not let it go. Resist, that it should not be stolen by the statists who would violate your freedoms by force, but just as vehemently guard it from those who would coax you to surrender it without a fight. It is tragic that in a time as politically crucial as this, while a large constituency of the United States appears for the first time in generations to be explicitly advocating a philosophy of small government and individual rights, those libertarians who have fought for such ideas for so many years against the mainstream have been swept down a misguided path of political anarchism and moral subjectivism. It is imperative that those who would defend their rights recognize the important role that a moral and Constitutionally-delimited government plays in a proper society. Yes, government is necessary; it can also be evil; but its evil is not necessary, nor its necessity evil.