The question at first shocks, then amuses and then perplexes almost everyone because it is both so obvious and outrageous that no one ever thinks of asking it. Most people accept the institution of government because it has always been there; they have always assumed it was essential. People do not question its existence, much less its right to exist.
Government sponsors untold waste, criminality, and inequality in every sphere of life it touches, giving little of value in return. Its contributions to the commonweal are wars, pogroms, confiscations, persecutions, taxation, regulation, and inflation. And it’s not just some governments of which that’s true, although some are clearly much worse than others. It’s an inherent characteristic of all government.
The nature of the beast
The essence of something is what makes the thing what it is. But surprisingly little study of government has been done by ontologists (who study the first principles of things) or epistemologists (those who study the nature of human knowledge). The study of government almost never concerns itself with whether government should be, but only with how and what it should be. The existence of government is accepted without question.
What is the essence of government? After you cut through the rhetoric, the doublethink, and the smokescreen of altruism that surround the subject, you find that the essence of government is force…and the belief it has the right to initiate the use of force whenever expedient. Government is an organization with a monopoly, albeit with some fringe competition, on the use of force within a given territory. As Mao Zedong said, “The power of government comes out of the barrel of a gun.” There is no voluntarism about obeying laws. The consent of a majority of the governed may help a government put a nice face on things, but it is not essential and is, in fact, seldom given with any enthusiasm.
A person’s attitude about government offers an excellent insight into his character. Political beliefs reflect how a person thinks men should relate to one another; they offer a practical insight into how he views humanity at large and himself in particular.
There are only two ways people can relate in any given situation: voluntarily or coercively. Almost everyone, except overt sociopaths, pays at least lip service to the idea of voluntarism, but government is viewed as somehow exempt. It’s widely believed that a group has prerogatives and rights unavailable to individuals. But if that is true, then the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) – or, for that matter, any group from a lynch mob to a government – all have rights that individuals do not. In fact, all these groups believe they have a right to initiate the use of force when they find it expedient. To the extent that they can get away with it, they all act like governments.
Terrorists, mobs and governments
You might object that the important difference between the KKK, IRA, PLO, a simple mob and a government is that they aren’t “official” or “legal.”
Apart from common law concepts, legality is arbitrary. Once you leave the ken of common law, the only distinction between “laws” of governments and the “ad hoc” proceedings of an informal assemblage such as a mob, or of a more formal group like the KKK, boils down to the force the group can muster to impose its will on others. The laws of Nazi Germany and the U.S.S.R. are now widely recognized as criminal fantasies that gained reality on a grand scale. But at the time those regimes had power, they were treated with the respect granted to any legal system. Governments become legal or official by gaining power. The fact that every government was founded on gross illegalities – war or revolt – against its predecessor is rarely an issue.
Force is the essence of government. But the possession of a monopoly on force almost inevitably requires a territory, and maintaining control of territory is considered the test of a “successful” government. Would any “terrorist” organization be more “legitimate” if it had its own country? Absolutely. Would it be any less vicious or predatory by that fact? No, just as most governments today (the ex-communist countries and the kleptocracies of the Third World being the best examples) demonstrate. Governments can be much more dangerous than the mobs that give them birth. The Jacobin regime of the French Revolution is a prime example.