Is government, then, useful and necessary? So is a doctor. But suppose the dear fellow claimed the right, every time he was called in to prescribe for a bellyache or a ringing in the ears, to raid the family silver, use the family toothbrushes, and execute the droit de seigneur upon the housemaid?H. L. MENCKEN
Anarchism: 1. the theory that all forms of government are undesirable.WEBSTER’S NEW WORLD DICTIONARY OF THE AMERICAN LANGUAGE
I described myself in Part I as an anarchist and asserted that government has no legitimate functions. In this part I shall attempt to justify that statement. Conceivably I could do so by listing all the things the government does and explaining why each either should not be done or could be done better by private individuals cooperating voluntarily. Unfortunately, paper and ink are scarce resources; the list alone might fill this book. Instead I will discuss in the next few chapters how private arrangements could take over the most fundamental government functions: police, courts, and national defense. When I finish, some readers will object that the institutions that provide these functions are by definition governments, that I am therefore not an anarchist at all. I merely want a different kind of government.
They will be wrong. An anarchist is not, except in the propaganda of his enemies, one who desires chaos. Anarchists, like other people, wish to be protected from thieves and murderers. They wish to have some peaceful way of settling disagreements. They wish, perhaps even more than other people, to be able to protect themselves from foreign invasion. What, after all, is the point of abolishing your own government if it is immediately replaced by someone else’s? What anarchists do not want is to have these useful services—the services now provided by police, courts, and national defense—provided by the kind of institution that now provides them: government. So before I proceed with my argument, I should first define ‘government’.
A government is an agency of legitimized coercion. Coercion, for the purposes of this definition, is the violation of whatever people in a particular society believe to be the rights of individuals with respect to other individuals. For instance, people in this society believe that an individual has the right to turn down a job offer; the denial of that right is a form of coercion called enslavement. They believe that an individual has the right to turn down a request for money or an offered trade. The denial of that right is called robbery or extortion.
Government is an agency of legitimized coercion. The special characteristic that distinguishes governments from other agencies of coercion, such as ordinary criminal gangs, is that most people treat government coercion as normal and proper. The same act that is regarded as coercive when done by a private individual is treated as legitimate if done by an agent of the government.
If I yell “Stop, thief!” at a stickup man escaping with my wallet, the bystanders may or may not help but they will at least recognize the reasonableness of my act. If I yell “Stop, thief!” at an employee of the Internal Revenue Service leaving my house after informing me that he has just frozen my bank account, my neighbors will think I am crazy. Objectively, the IRS is engaged in the same act as the thief. It seizes my resources without my permission. True, it claims to provide me with services in exchange for my taxes, but it insists on collecting the taxes whether or not I want the services. It is, perhaps, a fine point whether that is robbery or extortion. In either case, if it were the act of a private party, everyone would agree that it was a crime.
Suppose that a private employer, offering low wages for long hours of unpleasant work, failed to find enough workers and solved the problem by picking men at random and threatening to imprison them if they refused to work for him. He would be indicted on charges of kidnapping and extortion and acquitted on grounds of insanity. That is how governments hire people to fight wars or sit on juries.
It is often argued that government, or at least some particular government, is not merely legitimized but legitimate, that its actions only appear to be coercive. Such arguments often involve social contract theories—claims that the citizen is somehow contractually bound to obey the government. To those interested in that argument and its refutation I recommend No Treason: The Constitution of No Authority by Lysander Spooner.
Government is distinguished from other criminal gangs by being legitimized. It is distinguished from legitimate nongovernmental groups which may serve some of the same functions by the fact that it is coercive. Governments build roads. So, occasionally, do private individuals. But the private individuals must first buy the land at a price satisfactory to the seller. The government can and does set a price at which the owner is forced to sell.
Government is an agency of legitimized coercion. If the institutions which replace government perform their functions without coercion, they are not governments. If they occasionally act coercively but, when they do so, their actions are not treated as legitimate, they are still not governments.
[Chapter 52 explores the view of rights, seen not as a moral or legal category but as a description of human behavior, that underlies my concept of legitimized coercion.]