The State and Proper Role of Government

January 2019: I read this essay and added commentary for Episode 272 of the Everything Voluntary podcast.

Among those who promote liberty, it is a fundamental principle that the proper role of government is to "secure the rights and freedoms of individual citizens." Further, government can only perform those functions delegated to it by "the people". Since the people have the inherent authority to defend themselves and retaliate against wrong-doers, they are able to delegate that authority to others. The people do not have the authority to take the honestly acquired property of one person or group of people, without their consent, and give it to others. Thus, the people's government cannot possess such authority. This is the great fallacious foundation of socialism and communism, and every other form of statism and collectivism. Under this principle, it must be asked if the institution known as "the state" operates under the proper role of government. I seek to answer that question in this brief essay.

The State

We must first consider what exactly the state is. Murray Rothbard, in his definitive essay on the anatomy of the state, first explains, using Franz Oppenheimer, the two different ways that Man acquires property. These are the "economic means" and the "political means." The economic means involve production and exchange, whereas the political means involve using force and violence to seize the property of others. Understanding this, Oppenheimer defines the state as the "organization of the political means." Rothbard adds, "it is the systematization of the predatory process over a given territory."

There are two types of force Man can use against others, "initiatory" and "retaliatory". Initiatory force is Man initiating an aggressive act against another. Since Man has no inherent or legitimately delegated authority to do such, initiatory force is unjust. Retaliatory force is Man retaliating with an aggressive act against the initiatory, aggressive act of another. This is a just use of force since the one retaliating has been the receiver of unjust aggression. This type of force can be delegated to others, ie. a sheriff and his deputies.

Therefore, we can define the state as that institution "in society which attempts to maintain a monopoly of the use of force and violence in a given territorial area; in particular, it is the only organization in society that obtains its revenue not by voluntary contribution or payment for services rendered but by coercion." Even if a government did collect revenue voluntarily, holding a "monopoly of the use of force" would make it a state. Explains Ayn Rand, "The difference between private action and governmental action—a difference thoroughly ignored and evaded today—lies in the fact that the government holds a monopoly on the legal use of force."

The Proper Role of Government

As has been explained, the only proper roles the government can act under are those delegated to it by the people. The people have the authority to retaliate against initial aggressors (assault, theft, vandalism, etc.), so are able to delegate that authority to others. The state claims a monopoly on the use of force in a given territorial area. This means the state only allows itself to retaliate against initial aggressors in the form of arrests, convictions, and punishments. How can the state prevent others from doing this?

The only way the state can prevent others from engaging in retaliation against initial aggressors is to initiate aggression against all would be competitors. The state is then in stark contradiction with itself. Any government that acts in this regard is acting illegitimately. It is initiating aggression by enforcing its monopoly on the use of retaliatory force. This act is unjust, and contrary to the proper role of government.

Allowing Competition

If the state were to allow competition with itself, that is allow some other entity to arrest, try, convict, and punish wrong-doers, it would not only be operating under the proper role of government, but it would no longer be a state. It would be one among possibly many "defense agencies" in a given territory. It would be simply a non-coercive institution in the anarcho-capitalist tradition. Only then would such an organization be legitimate, moral, and just. And only then can it be honestly supported by those who believe in limiting government to its proper role.