The Three P’s: Things Government Cannot and Should Not Do

declarationIn 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.

21 thoughts on “The Three P’s: Things Government Cannot and Should Not Do

  1. Bryan

    >Very good stuff, Tom. Thank you. I can't remember off the top of my head, but it was either Eric Schansberg or John Cobin who wrote that government should always be reactive and never proactive.

    The only legitimate function of government is the reactive defense of each individual's negative RIGHTS of life, liberty and property. It loses its legitimacy when it instead becomes the violator.

  2. Jim Getten

    >Excellent article. America has become the opposite of what the founders wanted. We The People are going to have to make a major effort to change couse in November. I fear the will to do it is lacking. When you rob Peter to pay Paul, you have a lot of support from Paul.

  3. L. E.

    >Kudos, Tom!

    The current maladministration in Malfunction Junction, D.C. -along with its Repugnican predecessor- represents the very antithesis of legitimate government.

    One of its key members Is the personification of advocacy for all THREE (should be prohibited) "P's."

    Her name, which in many patriotic quarters has already supplanted the traditional pronunciation of Abert J. Nock's "excrementitious expletive" also begins with a "P"…

  4. Anthony

    >This is the best article I have read in a long time. Perhaps anarchy is not the answer, lol. Thank you Tom.

  5. Claire M

    >What about the 4th P, "protect"? If defense against aggression is a legitimate purpose of government, then there will be times when people are stopped from murdering or stealing before they actually commit the aggressive act, before they pull the trigger or detonate the bomb. If someone points a gun at you and you want to protect yourself, you shoot him first, right? If a group of terrorists is conspiring to blow up a subway station, and we know about it, do we stand by and allow them to carry out the attack because we have no right to interfere with then until after they have committed the aggression? And if a nation is threatening us with a nuclear attack, do we allow it to happen first, before attacking them?

    You will say that announcing your intention to attack someone is equivalent to initiating aggression. Agreed, but what if the intention is equally determined, but covert rather than openly announced?

    I think it is right that according to our laws conspiracy to commit murder or theft should be considered a crime, and that if it is proven in court that a terrorist cell fully intended to carry out an attack, the members of that cell should be punished commensurately with the degree of their involvement in the conspiracy.

    I am all for undercover agents observing people in public places and on public internet forums where there is no reasonable expectation of privacy, and profiling and following suspected terrorists that way. I am also in favor of undercover agents infiltrating suspected terrorist or other criminal organizations by posing as potential members. And I think it is perfectly legitimate to arrest and try suspects when a conspiracy to commit aggression is uncovered, but before the act is committed. Of course the prosecution's the burden of proof has to be very large, and before anyone gets convicted there must be no reasonable doubt that the attack would have been carried out had the authorities not intervened.

    The same goes for war against other nations. Certain actions, such as deliberate violations of past treaties, especially those violations which threaten our security (a country with a history of overt hostility toward the US building a nuclear arsenal with long range missiles for example), may be considered acts of war, even if a formal declaration of war hasn't been made against us and no attack has been carried out on our soil.

  6. Tom Mullen

    >Hello Claire,

    Nice to hear from you! My response to your argument is that using your logic, Iran has every right to attack the United States right now. We have publicly threatened them, our politicians have publicly stated that a "preemptive nuclear strike" is "not off the table," and we have a long history of invading other countries, especially those without nuclear weapons. Iran has NO HISTORY of invading anyone.

    In addition, the old USSR, China, Cuba, and a host of other nations have all had justification to attack the United States based upon your reasoning.

    As a technicial point, I believe that "prohibit" and "protect" would be roughly synonymous if the preemptive aspect of "protect" was removed.

    I do not believe the my position forces us to wait until there is a mushroom cloud over NYC before we act to defend ourselves. That is exactly the kind of unrealistic, fear-mongering approach that the government uses to grab power in all situations, not just in terms of national defense against foreign nations. The underlying principle is the same: we must have this arbitrary power or terrible things are going to happen to you.

    At this moment, the United States has nuclear missiles armed and programmed to hit targets in the USSR, China, Cuba, Venezuela, and a host of other possible "targets." Is every country justified in attacking us at this moment? I hope not.

  7. Claire M

    >Hi Tom,

    To answer your question, no those countries are not justified in attacking us. I don't know where you get the idea that we would ever attack or invade an innocent country, or more precisely try to unseat or annihilate an innocent government of a foreign country. Generally, we find ourselves in the position of having to fight governments that are not in the least accountable to the people of their countries, who violate basic natural law all the time (far more egregiously than we ever have), who are aggressive both toward their own people as well as toward their neighbors (again, orders of magnitude more than we ever are.)

    If I follow the logic of your comment, then mass murderers in the US have a right to attack the police, because the police have stated that these murderers must be arrested, and are therefore threatening the murderers' lives and property. This is not to say that we should be the world's policemen, only that we are about as innocent and trustworthy as our law enforcement officers (not perfect, admittedly, but good enough), whereas the governments of the former USSR, Iran, etc… like our hypothetical mass murderer, are so guilty of so many crimes that they cannot be accorded the same rights.

    Of course these governments may well believe that they are justified in attacking us, but they would be wrong, and if they come near to trying anything like that, we should annihilate them, while of course doing our best not to take innocent lives.

    You deliberately ignore that there are good guys and bad guys in the world, and that although the good guys have every right to defend themselves against the bad guys, the bad guys must change their ways in order to merit that right. If the Iranian government ceases to sponsor terrorist attacks by Hezbollah and Hamas, when it becomes accountable to its own people, then we can allow them to have nuclear weapons.

    Remember that we only went into Iraq to unseat Saddam Hussein, an illegitimate tyrant who was in contravention of over 30 UN directives, and that the resulting war and occupation is mainly the fault of terrorists sponsored by hostile neighboring countries (as well as a much smaller number of discontented Iraqui Sunnis, emboldened by these foreign terrorists and their large foreign support network), that we are trying to protect innocent Iraquis from. Don't you remember the jubilation in Iraq when Saddam was captured by US troops? If Syria, Egypt, Iran and others had only minded their own business, Iraq would be a peaceful, free country by now.

    You didn't answer my questions about infiltrating terror networks in the US, and the legitimacy of laws that punish conspiracy to commit murder, rather than the act itself. Do you agree with me that these things are justified?

  8. Tom Mullen

    >"Generally, we find ourselves in the position of having to fight governments that are not in the least accountable to the people of their countries, who violate basic natural law all the time (far more egregiously than we ever have), who are aggressive both toward their own people as well as toward their neighbors (again, orders of magnitude more than we ever are.)"

    Name Iran's acts of aggression against its neighbors. I think you have to come up with something more than alleged sponsoring of Hamas and Hezbollah, or at least acknowledge the CIA's deposing of their government in 1953 and present activities inside Iran. YOur claim that they are more aggressive "by orders of magnitude" than the US is impossible to square with historical fact.

    "You deliberately ignore that there are good guys and bad guys in the world,"

    Good guys = all nations that obey U.S. government orders

    Bad guys = all nations that do not

    "Remember that we only went into Iraq to unseat Saddam Hussein, an illegitimate tyrant who was in contravention of over 30 UN directives, and that the resulting war and occupation is mainly the fault of terrorists sponsored by hostile neighboring countries (as well as a much smaller number of discontented Iraqui Sunnis, emboldened by these foreign terrorists and their large foreign support network), that we are trying to protect innocent Iraquis from."

    Who is "we?" I never consented to pay for the defense of Iraqi citizens. If you wish to help them, you are free to send money for their defense, to join up with any other people who agree with you, and go over and fight if you wish. The only legitimate tax that can be levied upon me is for my own defense.

    "Don't you remember the jubilation in Iraq when Saddam was captured by US troops?"

    Come on, Claire, even you don't believe this. IF you are talking about the footage of a few dozen people, taken from ground level to make the crowd look bigger, out of a city of almost 8 million, then yes, I remember the jubilation. What about the other 7,999,950 people who weren't in those staged shots? They were either hiding in fear, dead, or rendered homeless by our "liberation" of their country (by the way, the same word Napoleon used to use after one of his "public service visits").

    Regarding conspiracy charges, they should be made openly, the people arrested when there is evidence to support a warrant, and the burden of proof put upon the government to prove the charges.

    As usual, Claire, you apply the non-aggression principle of liberty consistently when it comes to any type of welfare program, but it seems that you will go to any lengths, and believe any claim made by the regime, no matter how outrageous, to justify the warfare state, which is every bit as dangerous to our liberty as the welfare state.

    You have to ask yourself this: why is not other country in the world threatening to invade Iran or placing troops in 145 countries? Why are we the only country that must do this in order "to be safe?" It's government propaganda, put out to scare you into giving up your money to fund well-connected defense contractors and nothing more. Give us your money and as much power as we need or the boogeyman will get you. If you are willing to believe this part of their story, you should be all for Cap and Trade, because we know that the polar ice caps will melt and the earth will be destroyed if we don't give the government what it wants, right?

  9. Claire M

    >Iran's sponsorship of Hamas and Hezbollah is well documented. It is also a proven fact that the Iranian government oppresses it's own people.

    You don't believe the majority of Shiites were glad to be rid of Saddam Hussein? What about all the people who turned out to vote in the subsequent election? That represents some kind of enthusiasm, does it not? It was only afterward that things went bad, and that was because of the terrorist attacks by Baathists and militias sent in from neighboring countries.

    We do not invade countries in order to occupy them for power or for money.

    I'm glad you agree with me about conspiracy, at least 🙂

  10. Randy

    >Great article, Tom !!! I'm also enjoying your dialogue with Claire. Your views on this country's foreign policy are spot on. I think i remember you mentioning a new book in the works. How's it coming along?

  11. Stephen

    >"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."

    That is a remarkable statement that should be pondered by every American who thinks government should be used to provide healthcare, etc.

    Thank you Tom for once again communicating this philosophy in such a coherent and enlightening fashion.

  12. Andrew Roberts


    I enjoyed this article as I usually enjoy your articles.
    One question (far less serious than the great commentary between you and Claire):

    Do you go by Tom because there is already an author named Thomas Mullen and you are hoping to avoid confusion? When I searched you in Google it came up with the other author of the same name and for a minute I thought you had a side-career writing works of fiction.

    Kidding aside, your articles have greatly helped expand and solidify my world views and they are much appreciated. Thanks!

  13. Tom Mullen

    >@ Andrew,

    Thanks for reading the articles and for the kind words!

    I am not the same Thomas Mullen as the guy from the Last Town on Earth. I go by Tom because being referred to as "Thomas Mullen" makes me feel like I am being yelled at by my parents. 😀

    I published my book under the name "Thomas Mullen" because of the link with Thomas Paine.

    Claire is a good friend and brilliant woman, although as you can see we disagree on a few things. She is also the editor of my book, and don't think this subject didn't come up during that process! 🙂

  14. Anonymous

    >Great article Tom. I posted it at here:

    Someone left the following comment (at Gather) and I wonder if you'd like to reply to it:

    "Purpose" is in the eye of the beholder. Each person has a different and changing purpose for government. But that's just being nit picky over word selection. The real thrust of this reading / essay is what government ought to do. But government has never done what the essayist thinks it should. The author might as well say that cows ought to fly south for the winter.

    Government is about force and always has been. Government has always been an instrument for giving an unfair advantage to the special few at the expense of everyone else. That is the only way it is able to function because that is its very essence.

    The author will find, by a broad reading of history, that government functions in the same way in every nation in all historical periods. The language used to describe those who operate the government changes and the gods and ideals and uplifting speeches vary. But the results are always the same.

    The author, by still more insightful reading might note the role money plays in all governments without exception. Government always taxes. Government always hires people to work its will. Government always uses its power to gain still more money for the wealthy. Without money government could work none of its adverse consequences. It would neither be motivated to do so nor would it have the means to do so.

    Picture a government that cannot spend money. That cannot possess money. That cannot tell others how their money is to be spent. You can't do it, can you. Yet such a system is possible if we change the nature of our money. But that requires that at least some people entertain the thought that money does not have to have the nature of the money we have always used. That is "thinking outside the box" and terrifies many.

    Care to risk being terrified?

  15. Anonymous

    >Very good article, Government should never be in control of the public will.

    Government is formed to serve not be served.

  16. Claire M

    >The guy from lumps all governments together, as if no form of government were better than any other. I guess it has never crossed his mind that he is fortunate to live in a country where he can express opinions like this without fearing that knock in the middle of the night.

    America was, and still is for the most part, one of the freest places in the world, and that is thanks to the type of government that our founders set up over 200 years ago. Sure, there has been corruption, but I think it is intellectually lazy to conclude that since our government is not perfect there must therefore be nothing good about it. To sort out the good from the bad requires some work, and many people just don't want to make that effort.

    As for money, again, I think this guy has not thought things through. Money is one of the greatest inventions of mankind. First of all, it allows people to trade goods and services in an optimal way, and thereby increases prosperity overall. Secondly, money quantifies property, and whatever makes property easier to measure and to define will also increase peace and harmony between people, as disputed over who owns exactly what are reduced.
    I do agree, though, that our government has too much control over the US dollar, and I would love to have the option to use some other form of currency that they can't control…

  17. Anonymous

    >The knock in the middle of the night is coming Claire…. Read up on the newest supreme court nominee.

  18. efgd

    I am trying to understand concepts of politics and consider myself a middle of the road Libertarian – no don't laugh, I do 🙂
    Just one question. Are there any countries that 'live' by your premise Tom – past or contemporary?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *