Good and Bad Government

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Aggression is the act of attacking, invading, or injuring a peaceful or innocent person. Peaceful or innocent behavior is non-aggressive behavior. (Peaceful behavior does not exclude defensive behavior, which may include actions to repel aggression.)

Human government is the means of coordinating interpersonal human action.

There is good government and there is bad government. To begin with they are defined next according to the libertarian view, which is then expounded. Later, I look at good and bad government in greater generality.

The defining feature of bad government is coordination by aggression, that is, either compulsion (power, violence) or imposition (deception, fraud, trickery, cheating) against the wills of peaceful people who are not using either compulsion or imposition.

Good government is government that is not bad government.

A (political) State is an organization that employs bad government.

(General) political freedom is the (general) social condition of human action in which there is not bad government.

A particular political freedom is a variety of human action undertaken in a condition in which bad government does not coordinate that human action. For example, freedom of assembly occurs when bad government does not affect the wills of people in the act of assembling, or when neither compulsion nor imposition affect the wills of people in the act of assembling.

Since the set of human action is indefinitely large, the set of all particular political freedoms is indefinitely large. Any list of political freedoms is bound to be incomplete.

Since a State employs bad government, a State does not protect political freedom. A State destroys political freedom.

Any supposed freedom, such as freedom from starvation, that is obtained by use of the State, and thus by use of bad government, cannot be and is not a freedom, since the very use of bad government affects the wills of some peaceful persons. So-called positive freedoms, compliments of the State, are merely instances of bad government in action.

A political right is the same as a political freedom, except that it is couched in different terms. Everything that is called a right is not a right, anymore than everything that is called a freedom is a freedom, as the case of positive "freedoms" demonstrates. For example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that "The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State." Since such an entitlement requires bad government, there is no such right and no such freedom. (This does not mean that good government cannot bring about protection of the family.)

Since rights are the same as freedoms, no complete list of rights can be made.

All of the preceding that begins with the definition of good and bad government is libertarian political philosophy, and it all follows from the definition of bad government.

While this clarifies the libertarian case, it does not solve the problem of philosophical conflicts.

Suppose that political opponents, libertarian and non-libertarian, agree on what compulsion and imposition in government mean. Then they may still disagree about what is good and bad. The libertarian argues that any compulsion and imposition is bad under most or even all circumstances, while the non-libertarian argues that some compulsion and imposition is good under some or even many circumstances.

What the libertarian thinks is bad government, the non-libertarian may think of as good government.

This argument cannot be settled because different people have different ideas of what is good and bad. In order to choose among the alternative forms of government, a person has to decide what is good and bad.

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Suppose the non-libertarian succeeds in imposing his form of government on the libertarian. Then the libertarian is unhappy because he experiences what for him is compulsion and/or imposition. Now suppose the opposite. Suppose that the libertarian succeeds in imposing his form of government on the non-libertarian. Then the non-libertarian is unhappy because he thinks that the good is going unachieved and/or that things are bad without the presence of compulsion (or what the libertarian thinks of as bad government).

A solution to this conflict is available. If each man chooses his own government and allows the other man the equal freedom to choose his own government, then each can live in peace with the government of his choice. As there is freedom of worship, which is non-compulsion in the choice of religion, there can be freedom of government, which is non-compulsion in the choice of government. Each may think that the government of the other is bad, but each also thinks that his own government is good. What is required for a solution between them is abiding the other man’s government.

I believe this is a good solution. For one thing, it establishes an open competition. Each person can observe the outcomes of his own choice and learn about the outcomes of alternative choices made by others. He can switch governments, in the same way that he switches cars, churches, and pizzas. The governments that supply their clients then have to change their ways of operating toward satisfying them or else losing membership. The incentive works in the direction of greater client satisfaction.

Two things, at least, stand in the way of this outcome. One is intolerance and the other is the attempt to dominate others and gain from it. Utopia is not going to break out suddenly.

The perfect should not, however, be the enemy of the good. It is the idea of a variety of consensual governments operating on what is now the territory of a single government that matters here. It is the concept that government, which is the coordination of interpersonal human action, need not necessarily be a single government over all persons in a given region. A very great amount of interpersonal action can be coordinated in different ways for different people who are living near one another. For example, a good many people wish to sleep when it is dark, and they do not want to be disturbed by loud music and other people mowing their lawns at 3 a.m. Government coordinates this by various laws, but people also do this themselves by choices of location; and property developers who owned and leased property could do this by creating rules that satisfied lessors.

The U.S. government says that every citizen must participate in a variety of social programs. These are a major part of government today. This is like saying that there is one church in America and everybody is a member, whether they like it or not, and every person must contribute a certain amount of their income which will then be distributed according to certain rules decided by an official church body. Let those who want such rules and programs have them, and those who do not want them not have them. Open these programs to membership only upon subscription and not by compulsion. Let neither side force its views on the other. Let each side mind its own business and keep its hands off the business of others.

Some people want lots of government, others want little or none. Both cannot have their way if there is a single government. Both can have their way by choice of government. To get this, both have to give up the goal of making others conform to their own choice.

One of the main principles that Americans hold dear and have in common is freedom. Freedom involves acting without being compelled to act against one’s will. There cannot be freedom without tolerance of what other people do with their freedom. There is freedom of movement to the extent that we tolerate where other people travel; we do not interfere with their movements. There is freedom of work to the extent that we ignore what others do when they choose their work; we do not interfere with their work. There is freedom of worship because we ignore the religions of others and how they worship.

In the case of work, the U.S. has developed rules that govern every aspect of hiring and firing, hours worked, overtime, safety, liability, unionization, and so on. Freedom has been drastically reduced. In order to opt out, many businesses have moved to overseas jurisdictions. A single government backed up by a single judiciary coordinates the personal interactions of millions of employers and employees, whether they like it or not. Why can’t those who want to opt out of these arrangements be able to opt out? The only thing keeping many of them within this system is government force that is designed to favor certain interests at the expense of others. In this arena of human interaction as in many others, it is easy to conceive of multiple governments on the same territory. If one business and its employees want a government that meticulously sets the work rules, let them have it. And let those who do not want such a government coordinate their interactions in other ways. One can easily have one business operating with one set of rules in the same county or region or state as another business operating with a different set of rules. That is what goes on in the world today among countries.

The American Dream is a dream of general freedom. It has become a nightmare of compulsion and imposition in the eyes of those Americans who have different ideas of good and bad government from the government that they are forced to live under and that routinely violates their freedom.

Let Americans through their government stop being busybodies, busily interfering with each other’s lives constantly and in minute detail. This is the opposite of freedom, done in the false name of freedom.

There is only one way out: choice of government. This does not mean a vote for one of two parties that runs a single monopoly government. It means consent over the very form and content of one’s government. This consent will lead to multiple non-territorial governments.

Michael S. Rozeff [send him mail] is a retired Professor of Finance living in East Amherst, New York.

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