“What essentially sets a nation-state apart,” declared candidate Barack Obama, is that it has a “monopoly on violence.” Clearly Obama was referring to aggressive, not defensive, force, for the use of defensive force is never limited to government. We all retain that right by nature. Only government routinely uses aggressive force or the threat of force. The threat of violence compels the payment of every tax, and ultimately, whatever behavior it desires of the people.
Bill & Joe
Under most circumstances, everyone agrees it would be wrong for Joe to take money from his neighbor Bill. Joe would not dream of stealing Bill’s money; he knows it is wrong, and he also knows he could get punished for stealing.
Would it make any difference if Joe can convince 20 other neighbors to gang up and take the money from Bill and give it to Joe? No? What if hundreds or thousands get together and demand the money? What if they call themselves a government? What if they make a law to take Bill’s money?
Obviously, if the government takes Bill’s money, it doesn’t call it theft—it calls it taxation. We have had millennia to become accustomed to the idea that if enough people agree to initiate force against others, that force becomes legitimate, We never stop to consider that the same act committed by an individual would be condemned and severely punished.
How does individual crime become acceptable when committed by the community?
If a thousand people each own one acre of land and they cooperatively combine their land, then together they have one thousand acres. Not two thousand acres, not even 1001 acres. No one would pretend otherwise.
If a thousand people each have the right to defend their own lives and property—with violence if necessary—then those same thousand have the right to cooperatively combine with each other to defend all their lives and property.
Here’s the rub: When a thousand people organize in the use of defensive force they become far more effective in protecting themselves, but further, they cannot fail to notice that in wielding a thousand-fold power, they can do a lot more than just defend themselves. They can make anyone do whatever they want. How can this happen? Can the group acquire a right not possessed by any one of its members?
Frédéric Bastiat was a 19th-century French political economist who argued that man is above government: “It is not because men have made laws, that personality, liberty, and property exist. On the contrary, it is because personality, liberty, and property exist beforehand that men make laws.” Frédéric Bastiat, The Law, (Ludwig von Mises Institute 2007) 2.
Bastiat wrote that while man is over the law, he cannot confer on the law more power than any individual possesses. One cannot give what he does not possess. If a thief gives you money he has stolen, you have no right to the money, for he cannot give you a right he does not possess. Likewise, government becomes illegitimate when it pretends to possess authority it has not been given. The use of force must be strictly limited: :
The law is the organization of the natural right of lawful defense; it is the substitution of collective for individual forces, for the purpose of acting in the sphere in which they have a right to act, of doing what they have a right to do, to secure persons, liberties, and properties, and to maintain each in its right, so as to cause justice to reign over all. . . . So long as personal safety was ensured, so long as labor was free, and the fruits of labor secured against all unjust attacks, no one would have any difficulties to contend with in the State.
When a government is given the power of a thousand people—or a billion—for their defense, the urge to use the power is irresistible. This sets the stage for government’s initiation of force whenever necessary to accomplish its ends, not because it is right, but simply because it can.
[adapted from Free is Beautiful]