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Justification of government

30 September, 2015 - 16:37

The dilemma faced by those seeking to justify existence of government can be summarized as follows: It is not unreasonable to assume that all involuntary associations are bad; and government is basically an involuntary association.

Some social contract theorists try to resolve the problem by asserting that government is, in fact, a voluntary association. If true, this would simply make the belief that all involuntary associations are bad irrelevant in evaluating government. But there is no historical evidence of an "original" contract, and even if there were an original contract it could not—by the logic of contracts—bind later generations.

Other social contract theorists, following Rousseau, argue that government ought to be a voluntary association. But this does not justify existing governments, which are not voluntary associations. Rousseau's ideas were highly revolutionary, for no government could meet his test and still remain a government. None of the four government functions discussed above could be performed by an organization that enters only into voluntary associations, that is to say by one which has no laws.

Another way out of the dilemma is to capitulate and say that governments being bad, none should exist. The anarchists take this position, sometimes in the strongest possible way: there should be no government, period, now or ever.

Says Benjamin Tucker:

Protection they look upon as a thing to be secured, as long as it is necessary, by voluntary association and cooperation for self-defense, or as a commodity to be purchased, like any other commodity, of those who offer the best article at the lowest price.1

Classical Marxists also conclude that government—“the state"—is unjustifiable. But they believe that it is neither desirable nor possible to get rid of it immediately. Rather, there must be a revolution in which the tables are turned and the previously exploited workers (proletariat) grab control of the state away from the capitalists (bourgeoisie). During a transition period, the "dictatorship of the proletariat", the bourgeoisie is gradually "liquidated", an ambiguous term which might mean anything from physical extermination of its members to their absorption into the ranks of the proletariat. Only when this process is finished is there no longer any need for the state, which can then "wither" away and disappear. The justification given by ruling Marxists for their government is therefore similar to defending a war on the grounds that it will end war: Their rule is said to be hastening the day when government will no longer be necessary. The more negative one's view of government, therefore, the more defensible is the government whose leaders claim they are seeking to destroy government.

Our analysis of associations suggests that governments are justifiable for reasons similar to whose used by ruling Marxists. Rather than denying that involuntary associations are always bad or that governments are involuntary associations, we need merely recognize that a world without any involuntary associations is impossible. And this fact is not just temporary, as the Marxists would have it, but permanent. One function of government is to minimize private-involuntary associations. Without government, these private-involuntary associations would proliferate. Even Tucker's proposed "voluntary association" for securing protection would have to impose sanctions in order to protect its clients. If the worst that could be done to a robber were to boycott him (withdrawn inducements) and denounce him (power of pen), the price of robbery would not be high enough to deter it. Tucker's proposed organization would therefore produce involuntary associations, violating the anarchists' own rule that there should be no such associations in a decent society.

Anarchists, of course, might reply that these involuntary associations—produced in protecting people from robbers—are not as bad as those that would otherwise be produced by the robbers. But this argument, which is true, lets the cat out of their philosophical bag. Once one admits that a society without any involuntary associations is impossible, and that all involuntary associations are not equally bad, then the premise that all involuntary associations are bad does not automatically lead to the conclusion that government is unjustifiable. Government may then be justified as a lesser evil than the private-involuntary associations that would otherwise multiply.

Government is justifiable only as a lesser evil! This conclusion may border on praising government with faint damnation, but we need not regard it as derogatory or unpatriotic. Lesser evils are rather standard political logic, for circumstances often exist where the best thing we can do is to do the least bad thing possible. When US President Truman had to choose between ordering the use of the A-bomb or invading Japan to end World War II, neither alternative had many positive attractions. Both would cause large numbers of fatalities. Winston Churchill once that said that "democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried from time to time"2. Or as James Madison, speaking of the "auxiliary precautions" built into the US Constitution, put it:

“It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary; to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature. If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” (Federalist, Number 51.)

For more than 2000 years, philosophers have tried to find a satisfying positive justification for government. To the last man, they have failed. We can now see the reason for this failure: no such justification is even conceivable. But it also, in our imperfect world, is not necessary.