In this late stage of America’s devolution from constitutional republic to social democracy, one is hard pressed to find meaningful debate about the role of government. Despite a 24/7 news cycle and endless political commentary on talk radio, most Americans have not once in their lives heard the question, “What is the purpose of government?” Certainly, we hear that “the government should do this” or “the government should not do that” in regard to particular issues, but nowhere will you hear a meaningful discussion about the overall mission of government. Indeed, answering this question might not be all that beneficial to our chattering classes, because once it is answered, there is little need for hours and hours of more talk. Clarifying the role of government makes the answers to most political questions rather simple and unambiguous. It is hard not to suspect that many of our politicians avoid this subject intentionally.
If America is truly the “land of the free,” then there can be only one answer to this question. The purpose of government is to defend its constituents against aggression. Period. Since “liberty” and “the non-aggression principle” are one and the same, it is impossible for government to have any other purpose, or any additional role.
As government is by definition the societal use of force, any action of government other than defense against aggression must itself be aggression. To induce human action through aggression is coercion. When coercion is practiced by government, it is called tyranny.
Freedom is the ability to exercise one’s will in the absence of coercion. Therefore, freedom is impossible once government is allowed to perform any function other than defense. If freedom is exercising one’s will in the absence of coercion, one cannot be free while being coerced. Two plus two cannot equal five.
That leaves a multitude of actions that government must be prohibited from engaging in. They generally fall into three categories, which I like to call “the Three P’s.” The Three P’s are to prevent, to promote, and to provide. There is no way for government to engage in any of these three activities without destroying the liberty that it supposedly exists to defend. Yet, this is 99 percent of what government in modern America does.
Most Americans look to government to prevent crime. Once a particularly heinous crime is reported in the media, there are universal outcries about the failure of government to prevent it. Almost no one stops to think about what it really means for government to “prevent crime.” By definition, to prevent something is to act before it happens. Since all government action represents the use of force, government can only prevent crime by initiating force against people who have committed no crime. Force must always be initiated by someone. The initiating party is the aggressor. There is no other possibility.
This is not merely a theoretical or academic argument. Think for a moment about the results of government’s various “crime prevention” efforts. Gun control disarms the victims of crimes while empowering violent criminals who don’t care about gun control laws. Economic regulations which attempt to prevent fraud insulate protected corporations from competition, emboldening them to commit more fraud. Worst of all, the War on Terror, the ultimate government crime prevention program, has harassed millions of American citizens while allowing terrorists to walk onto planes with explosives in their shoes, underwear (and who knows where else), and has laid waste to an entire nation in order to determine that the “weapons of mass destruction” it supposedly possessed did not in fact exist.
In addition to preventing crime (including terrorism), that war also claims to undertake another of the Three P’s: to “promote.” Once it became clear that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, a new rationalization was needed for our brutal invasion of that country. That new reason turned out to be our missionary desire to “promote democracy.” Without getting into the erroneous perception that “democracy” and “freedom” are synonymous, it should be quite clear after seven years of uninterrupted martial law in Iraq that our government has failed to achieve either democracy or freedom. Only government can be capable of missing the irony of ordering people at gunpoint to be free. While it might play for some good laughs in a Peter Sellers or Monty Python movie, it is really quite horrifying when one considers that our government takes this position in all seriousness.
It is not only in foreign policy that government reaps disastrous results when trying to “promote.” Consider its attempts to promote “clean energy.” One need look no farther than the ethanol fiasco or “Climategate” to see the results government gets in promoting respect for the environment.
The same underlying reason accounts for the similarity of results when government tries to “promote” or to “prevent.” In both cases, force is initiated against individuals who have committed no aggression themselves. In order for government to “promote” anything, it must act. When government acts in the absence of aggression, it commits aggression. By committing aggression against and therefore overriding the decisions of millions of individuals, government causes innumerable unintended consequences. All of them can be traced to the initiation of force.
The third of the Three P’s is by far the most destructive when undertaken by government: to provide. The illusion that government can “provide” anything springs from a loss of recognition of what government is. Government is the use of force, not by an individual, but by all of society. As it is a destructive force, rather than a creative one, it can produce nothing. Therefore, it can only provide something to one citizen that it has forcefully seized from another. This holds true whether it is attempting to provide healthcare, education, housing, or any other form of property.
The fact that human beings spend the majority of their time on earth laboring to fulfill their wants or needs makes this the most costly of the Three P’s. While warfare represents violent aggression against millions of people, government’s usurpation of human labor initiates violence against everyone. While the cost of warfare in human lives cannot be expressed in dollars and cents, there is at least a limit to the amount of lives it can affect and the length of time it will go on (despite government’s best efforts to make it universal and indefinite). However, once government has claimed a right to the labor of its constituents, no one is spared and the subjugation never ends.
While the active wars in Iraq and Afghanistan amount to less than $200 billion per year (as if those amounts were not staggering themselves), the U.S. government spends trillions of dollars each year attempting to provide its citizens with healthcare, retirement benefits, education, housing, and other necessities. Government’s results in all of these areas are the same: disastrous. The healthcare, education, and housing provided by government are more expensive, of lower quality, and in shorter supply than would be the case if government did not attempt to provide them. Aggression cannot create prosperity any more than it can create freedom.
Thomas Paine wrote that “government is at best a necessary evil.” He understood clearly what government is: an institution of violence. As individuals, we understand that the need may arise to commit violence against another human being, but only justifiably for one reason: to defend our lives against aggression. Should we be faced with that unfortunate choice, we may be justified in resorting to violence but afterwards regret that the need to do so arose. Most importantly, no sane person claims a right to initiate violence under any other circumstances. As we do not possess this power as individuals, we cannot delegate this power to government. Any legitimate power possessed by government must derive from the individuals who constitute it.
To put it most succinctly, government must always be limited to a negative power. It is the societal extension of the individual right of self defense. As individuals cannot use force to prevent, promote, or provide, government cannot either. Individuals have no right to force one another to do anything, even if they believe that it is in the victims’ best interests. So, whenever the question arises of whether government should involve itself in some new aspect of its citizens’ lives, remember the Three P’s. If the new program represents any of them, it is time for each individual to exercise his most basic right in respect to his government: the Fourth P, to prohibit.
Tom Mullen is the author of A Return to Common Sense: Reawakening Liberty in the Inhabitants of America.