Uniforms and Guns

By Muni Savyon muni@close.net

What is government?

Before we can start thinking about this month's topic, "What is government for?", let's see if we can think about a different question: "What is government?". The answer usually contains one or more of the following phrases: "Society", "Law and order", "Constitution", "Democracy", "Rights", "Defense", "Welfare", "Prevent chaos", "Infrastructure" and "Independence". Yet the most important word, the one which is an essential part of every government, is missing. We don't learn it in school, it is not reported in the news and only very few among us can give the simple and correct answer to that question. So, what is government?


Government is force. The only difference between government and any other agency or organization in existence is that government claims monopoly on the use of force. Unlike actions taken by private agencies or individuals, every government action has force behind it, and without force, there is no need for government to be involved in the things it does.

Are government actions desirable or not? Can government activities be done by other agencies? Are most people better off or worse off with government actions? These questions have little to do with the issue in front of us, which is the definition of government.

Government is force, and when I say force, I mean physical force, carried out by men in uniforms with guns.

Peaceful, caring people

Most of us have serious concerns beyond our daily life. It can be the economy, the environment, the growing number of poor people, the decline in the quality of education, how to prevent road accidents, the danger in which our cultural and moral values are, war between rival nations abroad - you name it, people care about it. They care and they want to do something about it. They can't do anything by themselves, so they turn to the government for a solution.

What is the public image of those people? We hear them in lectures, we read their books and we see them on TV. They are caring people, who put their narrow interests in second place so all of us could live in a better world. In their personal life they are peaceful and tolerant, they don't fight with their neighbors, they don't break into stores and they are not the people who fill prisons.

We rarely think of them as violent people who want to use force - yet they are:

Every time they turn to the government for a solution to our problems, they want the government to pass a new law or regulation which will:

1. Force someone to do something they want,
2. Forcibly prevent someone from doing something they don't want, or
3. Force someone to pay for something they want.

Every time they turn to the government for a solution to their problems, they want the government to use force or the threat of force, and when I say force, I mean physical force, carried out by men in uniforms with guns.

The cause and the means

All the good causes in the world can not justify the use of force and its inevitable results - or can they? In the media and in this issue of the Ethical Spectacle we can find a variety of opinions about "What is government for". Every one of us has an idea about what government should do, and we usually ignore the other side of the same coin: how government does it.

We should always remember that behind every call for government action there is a hidden call for the use of force. And just in case I did not make it clear, when I say force, I mean physical force, carried out by men in uniforms with guns.

The Mission

Reading the mission of the Ethical Spectacle, I was pleased to see that I was in line with most of it. Defining government certainly adds to the Spectacle's goal "... to shine a lantern on the intersection at which ethics, law and politics meet (or collide) ..." as Jonathan Wallace, the editor, writes. Among the desirable ways to achieve it that he specifies, we can find:

"Stating the obvious if no-one else has, or if the obvious is not getting enough attention."

Indeed, very few are aware of the obvious (to me :) definition of government.

"Examining what commonly used words and phrases really mean, as contrasted to what they appear to mean."

I could not have said it better myself.

"Promoting freedom of speech, compassion, fairness and humility as the fundamental building blocks of private and public life."

Although Jonathan Wallace did not state it specifically, I believe that he does not intend to use force to promote freedom of speech, compassion, fairness and humility. I hope that I contributed something to promote these goals, at least by making it clear what avenue should not be taken.

"Never forgetting that law is no substitute for morality, that a major part of moral standards cannot be enforced by laws..."

Of course morality can not be enforced by law - a choice made under duress is no choice, therefore it can not be a moral choice. No moral values can be instilled by force, and when I say force, I mean, of course, men in uniforms with guns.

So, what _is_ government for ?

Unlike the definition of government, which is widely recognized among scholars, there is a variety of opinions about its role. I think that the only legitimate function of government is to prevent the use of force upon its citizens. In other words, the only role of government is to protect us against foreign enemies and criminals. But these are my views, and I understand that are other, equally acceptable opinions. All I ask you is to consider if your views on the legitimate role of government justify the use of force.

For further reading I can suggest the article: "The Breakdown of Government" by Harry Browne.