Force: Our Work, or Your Guns.
Many people do not understand why conservatives oppose most government programs, or broader collective systems such as Socialism. The issue comes down to the very philosophical basis of government itself, and how it operates: by force. All other systems and groups operate around the choices and trades made by individuals. (My labor, for your wage.) You may argue that corporations use unfair tactics to limit people’s choices, but there is no real argument that governments offer individuals more choice. In fact – in a purely democratic system (which America is not), the only real choice you have with regard to government is your vote, which of course is completely negated if it is not aligned with the majority of other votes.
For instance, I may choose not to drive a car, or purchase gasoline – but I may not choose not to pay my taxes, which are used to build and maintain our roads. (This is not an argument for privatizing roads, just an example of choice vs. force.). The principal is simple: If I am unable to simply say one word, “No” – then I am being forced to act, forced to work, forced to serve someone else with my mind.
A common criticism of this discussion is that it is too abstract or, for instance “doesn’t feature a single word about policy.” I would simply argue that a philosophical understanding of why government exists, how it functions, and what its role should be is far more essential than any policy discussion. In fact – it must pre-empt policy discussions. Policy is decided long after people have already made assumptions about what government can and should do.
Many people have written about the proper role of government in the past, but sadly, their ideas are substituted in favor of chatter about this or that policy. For the person who perhaps hasn’t taken a moment to think about the core issue, “What is the role of Government,” allow me to present two arguments about the proper, and improper use of force (Government being an institution of force).
The following is an excerpt from John Galt’s speech toward the end of Atlas Shrugged. It highlights some important points about the use of force that must be considered when talking about government functions, since (in America at least), Government is the only institution granted the monopoly use of force. This is a bit of a mild spoiler if you have not read the book – so if that is the case, you may wish to come back to this after reading the book. The video clip is just an excerpt, so be certain to skip to the text below. I have added emphasis.
“Whatever may be open to disagreement, there is one act of evil that may not, the act that no man may commit against others and no man may sanction or forgive. So long as men desire to live together, no man may initiate-do you hear me? no man may start-the use of physical force against others.
“To interpose the threat of physical destruction between a man and his perception of reality, is to negate and paralyze his means of survival; to force-him to act against his own judgment, is like forcing him to act against his own sight. Whoever, to whatever purpose or extent, initiates the use of force, is a killer acting on the premise of death in a manner wider than murder: the premise of destroying man’s capacity to live.
“Do not open your mouth to tell me that your mind has convinced you of your right to force my mind. Force and mind are opposites; morality ends where a gun begins. When you declare that men are irrational animals and propose to treat them as such, you define thereby your own character and can no longer claim the sanction of reason-as no advocate of contradictions can claim it. There can be no ‘right’ to destroy the source of rights, the only means of judging right and wrong: the mind.
“To force a man to drop his own mind and to accept your will as a substitute, with a gun in place of a syllogism, with terror in place of proof, and death as the final argument-is to attempt to exist in defiance of reality. Reality demands of man that he act for his own rational interest; your gun demands of him that he act against it. Reality threatens man with death if he does not act on his rational judgment: you threaten him with death if he does. You place him into a world where the price of his life is the surrender of all the virtues required by life-and death by a process of gradual destruction is all that you and your system will achieve, when death is made to be the ruling power, the winning argument in a society of men.
“Be it a highwayman who confronts a traveler with the ultimatum: ‘Your money or your life,’ or a politician who confronts a country with the ultimatum: ‘Your children’s education or your life,’ the meaning of that ultimatum is: ‘Your mind or your life’-and neither is possible to man without the other.
“If there are degrees of evil, it is hard to say who is the more contemptible: the brute who assumes the right to force the mind of others or the moral degenerate who grants to others the right to force his mind. That is the moral absolute one does not leave open to debate. I do not grant the terms of reason to men who propose to deprive me of reason. I do not enter discussions with neighbors who think they can forbid me to think. I do not place my moral sanction upon a murderer’s wish to kill me. When a man attempts to deal with me by force, I answer him-by force.
“It is only as retaliation that force may be used and only against the man who starts its use. No, I do not share his evil or sink to his concept of morality: I merely grant him his choice, destruction, the only destruction he had the right to choose: his own. He uses force to seize a value; I use it only to destroy destruction. A holdup man seeks to gain wealth by killing me; I do not grow richer by killing a holdup man. I seek no values by means of evil, nor do I surrender my values to evil.
“In the name of all the producers who had kept you alive and received your death ultimatums in payment, I now answer you with a single ultimatum of our own: Our work or your guns. You can choose either; you can’t have both. We do not initiate the use of force against others or submit to force at their hands. If you desire ever again to live in an industrial society, it Will be on our moral terms. Our terms and our motive power are the antithesis of yours. You have been using fear as your weapon and have been bringing death to man as his punishment for rejecting your morality. We offer him life as his reward for accepting ours.”
“This is John Galt speaking.” – Atlus Shrugged
Frederick Bastiat also illuminated this idea much earlier in The Law:
What, then, is law? It is the collective organization of the individual right to lawful defense.
Each of us has a natural right — from God — to defend his person, his liberty, and his property. These are the three basic requirements of life, and the preservation of any one of them is completely dependent upon the preservation of the other two. For what are our faculties but the extension of our individuality? And what is property but an extension of our faculties? If every person has the right to defend even by force — his person, his liberty, and his property, then it follows that a group of men have the right to organize and support a common force to protect these rights constantly. Thus the principle of collective right — its reason for existing, its lawfulness — is based on individual right. And the common force that protects this collective right cannot logically have any other purpose or any other mission than that for which it acts as a substitute. Thus, since an individual cannot lawfully use force against the person, liberty, or property of another individual, then the common force — for the same reason — cannot lawfully be used to destroy the person, liberty, or property of individuals or groups.
Such a perversion of force would be, in both cases, contrary to our premise. Force has been given to us to defend our own individual rights. Who will dare to say that force has been given to us to destroy the equal rights of our brothers? Since no individual acting separately can lawfully use force to destroy the rights of others, does it not logically follow that the same principle also applies to the common force that is nothing more than the organized combination of the individual forces?
If this is true, then nothing can be more evident than this: The law is the organization of the natural right of lawful defense. It is the substitution of a common force for individual forces. And this common force is to do only what the individual forces have a natural and lawful right to do: to protect persons, liberties, and properties; to maintain the right of each, and to cause justice to reign over us all.
Clearly, Force in itself, is not an evil thing, just as guns in themselves, are not evil. However – applying force against an individual’s will is a violation of that individual’s basic human right to liberty. As Rand’s fictional character John Galt put it, to force someone to substitute their own will for yours or another’s, is to deprive that person of choice, or the proper use of their mind.
This brings us back to the core question: What is the proper role of Government? Or in other words – how can the collective force be used, in a manner than does not violate the rights of individuals? This question can be applied to all manner of topics: From National Defense, to Education, to Universal Health-care – the first question, the question that is more fundamental to every situation is – does this policy fall within the bounds of the proper application of force. How are we to determine this? Bastiat again helps with this quandary:
See if the law takes from some persons what belongs to them, and gives it to other persons to whom it does not belong. See if the law benefits one citizen at the expense of another by doing what the citizen himself cannot do without committing a crime.
As soon as government breaks out of its proper boundaries (its limits, which I believe were the very purpose of our Constitution), each individual’s mind is in grave danger. No – this isn’t some “black helicopters and tin-foil hats” nonsense, but you simply have to apply what you know about human nature, and add in the power of coercive force without proper function or limit. The bigger and more centralized a government program becomes, the greater number of individual wills are overrun by the relatively tiny will of the elected body. This is exactly the reason that conservatives favor smaller, more local initiatives (if they favor them at all). Programs and policies that claim to represent everyone, more accurately represent no-one. The closer a representative is to the people whom they represent (and the fewer people they represent), the more likely that their choices will align with the wills of the represented.
This is also the reason conservatives reject socialism and other collectivist philosophies. Not only do these philosophies have a history of mass atrocity, at their very core, they fundamentally act against the individual. Given human nature’s fatal tendency to dominate (by force) other human beings – it is easy to see the dangers of setting up systems which encourage and enable this ability.
Self-preservation and self-development are common aspirations among all people. And if everyone enjoyed the unrestricted use of his faculties and the free disposition of the fruits of his labor, social progress would be ceaseless, uninterrupted, and unfailing.
But there is also another tendency that is common among people. When they can, they wish to live and prosper at the expense of others. This is no rash accusation. Nor does it come from a gloomy and uncharitable spirit. The annals of history bear witness to the truth of it: the incessant wars, mass migrations, religious persecutions, universal slavery, dishonesty in commerce, and monopolies. This fatal desire has its origin in the very nature of man — in that primitive, universal, and insuppressible instinct that impels him to satisfy his desires with the least possible pain.
-Frederick Bastiat, The Fatal Tendency of Mankind -The Law
Back to the concept that conservatives being “short on policy.” There are people who believe that if only the “right policy” (the right application of force) were implemented, then everyone would benefit. This sounds like a nobel idea (and is classic among collectivists), but the ends do not justify the means. You cannot confiscate work, to encourage work. You cannot enslave, to set free. This is contradictory. Historian and Communist Howard Zinn penned the popular “A people’s History of the United States” (though I take huge issue with his use of Presentism) which catalogs the suffering and horrors of underdogs and people trampled by force throughout history. And yet – all the while, he supported the idea that “the right government” could wield force, or if “the right people” controlled the levers of power, it would benefit “the people.” Zinn spent his life demonstrating the destruction that the use of force wreaked on people, and yet never arrived at the idea that force cannot be initiated against the unwilling, even if done with noble intentions.
And this truth is the core of my argument. Firstly, I reject the group classification of “the people.” There is no such thing. There exist only totally unique individual human persons. Therefore, there is no way for any policy to be “right” for each individual person. Economist Thomas Sowell put it this way: “The most basic question is not what is best, but who shall decide what is best.” To take this question away from a person, and hand it a third party, is to remove the choice from the person with the best knowledge to make it. I think each person needs to decide what is best for themselves, their family, their children, etc. Not some elected group of “experts” claiming to act in the individual’s best interest.
This is why true conservatives advocate ideas that increase liberty. We don’t believe that if we only had “the right government,” or the “right policy” every societal ill could be corrected. We believe that each human being is an individual person, and thus do not address nameless, faceless groups, and classes of people. We do not create political mascots out of groups, such as “the rich,” “the middle class,” or “the poor” so that we can pit them against one another. Nor do we have the audacity to proclaim ourselves so above society that we can fix their problems with our magical policies, if they would only surrender us the power.
By advocating more liberty, given the dismal history of the human condition, conservatives are the true progressives. Liberty is the only situation where each individual is truly a person, capable of making the maximum amount of choice about their own life. With Liberty, the individual has rights and is not demanded by threat of imprisonment or death to surrender his mind, his choices, or his work to the will of another. A free man offers the product of his choices (or his mind) in exchange for something else of value. He determines what he judges to be a fair trade – not a third party. He offers true charity out of his own desire to help another person, not by edict imposed from the desires of a politician. He is not forced to work for someone else, neither does he force another to work for his benefit. In doing so – his rights do not necessitate the destruction or sacrifice of anyone else’s. The choices in his mind, do not command the minds of others.
Thus, the proper and only role of government is to protect human rights, or men’s minds from being violated by force.
“…That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”
Let us stop proposing policies which are destructive to this end. Let us not regress into soft-despotism and servitude. Let us progress, as a nation, with ideas that free individual’s minds.