Governing Principles

Philosophical Reflections XXXIV

Part A: Constitution

The main branches of philosophy – metaphysics (the nature of reality), epistemology (how we know things), ethics (how we should live), politics (how we should live together) and aesthetics (the nature and purpose of art) – apply to the life of human beings as such.

These general principles then inform specific activities or more specialised philosophies. Thus in earlier Philosophical Reflections, we have seen how metaphysics, epistemology and ethics can be applied to various aspects of life to give us philosophies of education, parenting, love and sex, science and mathematics.

As important as those are, the application of the philosophy of politics may be even more important, as politics fundamentally is concerned with the control of physical force: and we have seen that the initiation of physical force is the opposite and negation of Man’s fundamental tool of survival, the mind. Yet the use of force is inescapable, not only for defence from criminals and invaders, but to empower legal means to resolve disagreements objectively and peacefully.

The philosophy of politics naturally applies to two main areas. The first is concerned with how the law should be constructed and applied, including topics such as rules of evidence, how trials are conducted, penalties for crimes, etc.: this is the philosophy of law. The second is concerned with the structure and operation of government in order to achieve the ends prescribed by the philosophy of politics: this is the philosophy of government, and is our topic here.

Clearly, the philosophy of government isn’t self-contained, but depends crucially on one’s philosophy of politics. Belief in the divine right of kings, unrestricted majority rule, the subservience of individuals to an absolute State, or the primacy of the individual will require radically different ideas on how to run the government. Thus there is no philosophy of government separate from the philosophy of politics; we need not be concerned with the best way to run a dictatorship, as that is not a valid form of government (as the essence of dictatorships is the initiation of force against the population in order to impose the will of the dictator, irrespective of the consent of the governed).

In Philosophical Reflections I have described an objective philosophy of politics founded on the recognition that the individual mind is our basic means of survival. Thus its basic principle is the defence of individual rights, meaning that the initiation of physical force, being inimical to the mind, is not tolerated. Hence the valid roles of government are limited to the police, the law courts and the army: anything else requires the initiation of physical force (to override voluntary contracts, to forcibly take the money to fund it, or both). But how can governments be set up to achieve and preserve this goal?

Powers & Principalities

As noted in Philosophical Reflections 16, a valid government is essentially the agent to whom the people of a country delegate their right of self defence. Such delegation is necessary to take the application of force away from individual whim and put it under objective, just control. As it is merely the guardian of everyone’s individual rights, its proper form is a constitutional republic: that is, the government is elected by the people (who are doing the delegating), but its power is strictly limited by a constitution protecting individual rights, which it cannot legally violate (as logically, you don’t give up your rights by delegating the protection of those rights).

Lord Acton famously wrote that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” And that is the rub. While it is not true of every individual person, certainly power attracts those of whom it is true. The purpose of the philosophy of government is to work out how to ensure that the government remains subservient to individual rights, and cannot expand its power into violating those rights.

And government will expand that way if any crack is left open. This sad fact can be seen in any modern government. For example, in the USA the smallest loopholes, such as “eminent domain” (the power to take private property for “national need”) or the power to regulate interstate commerce, have led to astounding expansions of government power no matter how fancifully related to the excuse (e.g., using eminent domain to seize houses to make way for shopping malls, on the grounds that higher tax revenue is “in the public good”).

And that is in a country whose constitution and form of government were designed specifically to protect the individual’s rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness: whose founders specifically forbade such abuses of power.

Why this is, is not hard to see. If those who want power can buy it by violating the rights of some individuals in order to bribe others (materially with stolen wealth, or spiritually by legislating morals), or can find any other way to impose their beliefs on others, they will. In addition, senior bureaucrats “succeed” by expanding their departments, and bureaucrats at all levels “succeed” only by ceaselessly inventing new rules to administer – or their career might stall and their jobs disappear.

So the primary problem for the philosophy of government is how to prevent a constant expansion of power by the government: when it is under pressure to expand both from within (the desire for power) and without (the desire to get something via political pull). And when it is the one body which by its nature requires and is granted an effective monopoly on physical force, the very tool that can enable such expansion.

Fertile Ground

Politics, including defining the role of government, derives from philosophy, so a good constitution and organisation of government can only arise in a society in which the right philosophy is prevalent. Hence the origin of the United States in the Age of Enlightenment, when reason and individual rights were ascendant. For similar reasons, the long term survival of such a system can only be assured by the survival of the philosophy which gave it birth.

Thus the first line of defence is philosophical: the government needs to explicitly understand and proudly state the principles upon which it is founded, and so do the people. People who explicitly understand the philosophy on which their country is founded, who understand the nature and meaning of their rights, and who see the proof all around them (a civilised, wealthy society) of why those rights are right, are the first and best defence against neighbours or rulers who wish to erode those rights. A major part of the erosion of rights in the USA and other Western countries is the erosion of such explicit understanding, and the consequent contamination of their philosophy with ideas and ideals antithetical to individual rights (such as the unquestioned views that it is right to impose morality and enforce charity).

A Strong Constitution

The second line of defence is the constitution itself. The constitution lays the ground rules, and is the final authority against which the validity of laws and the actions of government are judged. So how it is written, and the ground rules it lays down on how to interpret it, are of critical importance. As the proper role of the constitution is to limit the power of the government to its valid sphere, the constitution must say that; must name the areas the government can legislate in and forbid action elsewhere; and must be interpreted on the basis of its principles, not its concrete details.

The last two points require further elaboration.

First, as the power of the government is delegated from the people, whom it is effectively disarming in order to bring the force of arms under objective control, the purpose of the constitution is to limit what the government can do with those arms. Thus, the constitution does not exist to define the rights of the people, but to define and strictly limit the powers of the government, their agent. This requires that the basic rights of the people be identified, the valid functions of government be defined: and critically, the principle that omitting something from the former does not ban it, but omitting something from the latter, does.

Second, just as the purpose of epistemology is to discover general principles that can be applied to discover knowledge in any field; and just as the purpose of ethics is to discover general principles which can be applied, by reason, to any concrete circumstance that may arise: so the purpose of politics is to discover general principles that by reason can be applied to any circumstances, known or unknown. Consequently, that is how a constitution has to be framed. Its role is not to cover every angle or every circumstance, but every principle.

One can contrast this to the prevailing constitutional theories in the USA today. Some consider the constitution a “living document”, eschewing a fixed meaning in favour of current popular fashions – effectively “interpreting” the constitution out of existence by letting it mean whatever enough people want it to mean. Their opponents seek the “intention of the framers” by looking at their words and their circumstances to understand specific concrete prescriptions, while ignoring the wider principles behind them. The former recognises that a constitution written at a specific time cannot prescribe everything, but uses that as an excuse to let it allow anything. The latter recognises that the constitution exists to prescribe things, but limits its ambit to the specific concretes known by the framers. Both of these ignore the chief purpose of a constitution, which is to lay down universal principles by which to judge any and all concrete situations.

A Constitution is a document of axioms and principles, not a listing of concrete laws, and must be understood and used that way.

Part B: Divided We Stand

One of the major and most effective principles underpinning Western republics is the separation of powers.

As noted in Part A, the problem of government is that it has a monopoly on physical force. The separation of powers fractures the monopoly: dividing the government into multiple centres of power that act as checks and balances for each other. Primarily, these are the Executive (the President or Prime Minister and their cabinet, who set directions and policies), the Legislature (the house(s) of parliament, who enact laws) and the Judiciary (the judges, who apply, interpret and test the laws). Even in countries like Australia and the UK where the separation between Legislature and Executive is blurred (the Executive is part of the Legislature), the two remain functionally distinct (as illustrated on the one side by the much greater power held by the PM and his ministers compared to the average backbencher, and on the other by the potential for spills, backbench revolts and votes of no confidence).

The beauty of this separation of powers is that it sets up checks and balances that are maintained not only by the best officials (whose goal is the protection of liberty, and who therefore oppose encroachments on principle) but by the worst (whose goal is personal power, and who therefore jealously guard their patch, thus resisting increases in the power of the others).

While the separation of powers refers to the three main branches at the top of government, the underlying principle of stability through checks and balances has other important ramifications. Indeed, it starts at the bottom. James Madison, one of the US founding fathers, recognised that an important defence against particular interest groups gaining the power to violate the rights of others, was the very number and diversity of such groups in a large republic: making it hard to get a majority with sufficiently common interests to create a dangerous power bloc. One can see a similar principle at work today in the fledgling republic of Iraq, in which competing religious and ethnic groups are forced into protecting themselves from being crushed, by agreeing to systems that protect everyone else from being crushed too (whether this proves enough in Iraq remains to be seen. But that it has worked at all so far, in such unpromising circumstances, is itself a testimony to the principle’s strength).

And the principle works not only at the top and bottom, but in the middle.

The States of the Nation

Sitting in the middle are the state governments. Some people look at duplication and waste in government and propose that we don’t need state governments. All we need, they say, is local government and federal government.

There is some point to this. State governments made more geographic sense when people travelled by horse and communicated by mail. In a world where you can fly across a continent in a few hours, and speak instantly around the globe, the administrative need for State Governments is questionable.

But I have a different view.

I agree that one level of government can be eliminated, but that is local government. Most functions of local government are not part of the proper role of government in the first place, and would be better handled by private enterprise (such as water and waste handling), voluntary associations of interested parties (beautification etc.), or private agreements coupled with legal restrictions on land use damaging to other people (e.g. zoning). If there are any exceptions, they could be run by the State Government just as easily.

But unlike local governments, who are small, weak and dispersed, State Governments are large enough to provide a credible check to the power of the national government. We have noted how the government has a monopoly on force. But in a country like Australia, while the armed forces are under the control of the federal government, the police are mainly under the control of the states. This alone, in my view, justifies their existence (and justifies placing immediate control of the police in State hands, which of course is not inherently necessary). The states not only have armed police who in the worst case could resist the military, but if liberty is not fully enthroned (as in all countries today), different states tend to have different mixtures of individualism and statism. That provides people with not only a degree of choice that lets them “vote with their feet�, but over the long term, the better states will do better (by having stronger economies and better living conditions, etc.): providing an object lesson to the voters in the worse states.

Another midlevel balancing of power which works well is having two houses of parliament. Whatever competing interests triggered their establishment (e.g. the Commons vs. the Lords in England; majority rule vs. protecting small states” interests in Australia), they serve an important role in providing yet another internal check on governmental abuses or excesses. As laws have to pass in both houses, there are two chances for a bad law to be rejected rather than just one. Hence the happy demise, in the Senate, of the “Australia Card” national ID system.

An interesting proposal for yet another balancing force that I first saw raised by The Atlantis Project (a defunct Libertarian proposal for a free nation on the oceans) is an “Anti-Law Department.” Part of the government would be specifically chartered to challenge and overturn laws that might infringe on individual rights. This is similar in principle to what we have now, whereby individuals can challenge laws in the courts by reference to the Constitution. But by being a powerful arm of the government itself, and not requiring actual court cases against people with enough resources to fight it, it could be far more effective.

Oaths of Fealty

A further level of balancing power is in whom the arms of government, especially the armed ones, are loyal to. In dictatorships, for obvious reasons the military, militias etc. tend to be personally loyal to the dictator.

In contrast, while operational chains of command lie within the police and military themselves, whose top levels are in turn commanded by the Executive branch of government, the sworn loyalty of those forces in republics has to be to the people and the Constitution. That is, if there is a clear conflict between the Constitution and the orders of the executive, the military and the police are sworn to uphold the former. This is how it has to be, because their power morally derives from the delegation of the people’s rights, and legally and morally they are required to defend those rights even against the elected government (which has no rights separate from the rights of the people).

Lasting Liberty

The net result of these multiple levels of power-balancing is an interlocking system where not merely one, but many institutions must fall or be corrupted before liberty can be completely lost. It provides a system where if one arm of government fails to protect individual rights, another may step in and fill the breach. And as noted above, this strength is enhanced because it is aided rather than opposed by the goals of both the defenders of liberty and the seekers of power.

Especially where the philosophical basis for the government and constitution is mixed, this does not provide absolute protection. But the degree of protection it does confer is illustrated by the history of the USA. Its government is a contradictory mix of freedom and statism, yet despite over a century of philosophical deterioration – including the long-lasting love affair of its intellectual “elite” with communism and other anti-individual ideologies – it still remains one of the freest nations on Earth.

Philosophy is needed for both the establishment and continuation of a moral system of government – and is the root cause of its loss as well. But philosophy exerts its influence over a time span of decades and centuries. With the right institutions and processes of government, the good can outlast long periods of decay. And by the nature of the good – where what is moral is practical, and hence in the long term, is that which enhances human life – it is over the long term that the good has a huge advantage. For liberty to never perish from the Earth we don’t need to set up a perfect government: just one that protects individual rights well enough and long enoughfor their value to be obvious.

Part C: Majority Rule

One important question the philosophy of government must address is what kind of republic is required for the protection of individual rights. Any republic is “government of the people, by the people, for the people” – but what does that mean, in practice?

Government requires two things in order to protect individual rights. The first and fundamental is that this is what it is set up to do (as opposed, for example, to serving the whims of a dictator or a collective). The second is a corollary: if the purpose of the government is the protection of liberty, it must be set up in such a way as to be able to achieve that. That is, it must be run in a stable, efficient, objective manner.

We have already seen that a constitutional republic with numerous checks and balances is the fundamental requirement. But that leaves many possibilities. Should countries be large like the USA or small (imagine Indonesia split into island nations)? Should there be one house of parliament as in Queensland, or two as in Australia’s federal government? Should we have a direct democracy, where everyone can vote on every issue, or a system based on elected representatives? At what interval should elections be held? Should representatives be elected proportionally to total votes, or electorate by electorate?

In the context of a free republic, to an extent these are administrative details that can be tried, changed and fixed. But I think they are important enough, and close enough to the fundamental operations of government, that general principles can and should be considered.

The Mob

Direct democracy, though favoured by many people because it is “true” democracy, is a bad idea – because it is true democracy. It didn’t work well in ancient Athens, and it won’t work anywhere. It is an unfortunate misrepresentation of modern times that the virtue of the West is named as “democracy” – when in fact its virtue is individual rights. A republican system of government is a consequence of individual rights: the right to vote stems from that, not the other way round.

We have already seen that the fundamental principle of government is that it cannot violate individual rights, whether those who want to violate them are one King, a majority of 51%, or a majority of 99%. Thus the ideal government is not “majority rule”, where that means the majority may do as they please. It is one defending the rights of every citizen. Those citizens have to decide how best to do that, and the only way that can be done while upholding everyone’s rights is by debate and voting. But given that, could not a constitutional republic (in which what the people can vote to do is restricted as discussed) be run via direct democracy?

The practical flaw in direct democracy is easily seen when one considers every other aspect of human life. If you have car trouble, you go to a mechanic and if you have a toothache, you go to a dentist. Specialisation and trade are the cornerstones of efficiency and productivity. It is certainly true that every adult person has a right to have their say in how their government is run. But that does not imply that every decision should be up to a referendum. It is an inescapable fact that the majority of the population are of average intelligence or below, and are busy with their own jobs, families and lives to boot. Should the government, that wields the sole power of physical force and makes decisions on good laws versus bad and who to go to war with, be run directly by them – or are their own best interests served by electing people of higher intelligence, diligence, interest or specialist knowledge who can apply their full-time concentration to the job? Nobody questions that that is how we should choose our doctors – who are less fundamental to our life than how force is controlled in our society.

People’s individual rights are not served by supposing a “right” to take a direct part in every government decision when they may have neither the intelligence nor the knowledge nor the wisdom to know what they are deciding. They are served by the right of everybody and anybody (other than criminals) to decide who should represent them in the government, or to stand for election themselves.

A Time to Build Up

Similar reasons lead to the principle that the interval between elections should not be too short. The proper functioning of government requires long-range thinking and actions. The consequences of policies may not be apparent in the short term, and a good policy might bring only costs in the short term, while policies that lead to disaster in the long term might have initial benefits. And unfortunately, too much of the electorate sees only the short term, as one can see by the swings in public opinion that follow practically any event. This indicates that a significant (and election-deciding) percentage of voters do not think in principles, but in short range concretes: and that is no way to run a government. A government must be run on principles, and therefore elections should be fought on principles: and therefore the government needs enough time for its principles to have a fair test.

Again, everyone has a perfect right (within the context of a free country) to praise or complain loudly and to vote for whomever they like, on whatever grounds they please, according to their own judgement, good or bad. But that does not give some the right to hold the rest hostage to their ignorance or poor thinking: it is our government too, whose proper operation is critical to our own lives.

So the government must be given enough time for its policies to come at least partly to fruition, so people can vote in an informed way. That protects everyone’s rights – including those of the people who would have voted them out mid-term in a reflex response to mid-term costs.

The terms can’t be too long either, as the government exists for the people and they have the right to vote on its performance as frequently as practical without harming its proper functioning. Indeed, too long a term encourages unaccountability on the part of the government, and for the same reasons, a feeling of powerlessness to change things on the part of the people from whom their power actually derives.

Where the optimum point lies is a matter for debate, but 4-5 years seems to work reasonably well.

Winner Take All

In Australia’s national government, the House of Representatives is voted in electorate by electorate by majority vote. In contrast, Australia’s senate is elected proportionally in each State. In many European countries, the parliament itself is elected by proportional voting.

Are there any philosophical reasons for preferring one system over the other?

The disadvantage of an electorate-based system is that in principle, one party could win all the seats with a vote of 51% while the other wins none despite a vote of 49%. In practice, such extremes are statistically (and demographically) unlikely. However, related distortions such as larger majorities than the share of the vote, or winning power with a minority of the vote, have happened, due to how the votes were distributed among electorates.

In contrast, a proportional system results in a parliament closer in composition to how the people voted. But it also comes with disadvantages: the potential for numerous minor parties receiving seats, there being no clear winner, and the resulting government being a loose, unstable federation of warring parties. Historically this has been a problem in many European countries, for example. Even in Australia, where proportional representation is limited to the Senate and to get a seat requires a fairly high percentage of the vote, we have seen government policy held hostage to the idiosyncratic demands of fringe parties (or individuals) whose support the government has had to “buy” with concessions in order to govern at all.

In a properly constituted government, neither of these problems would be critical, as the government is not permitted to do anything beyond the protection of our rights. But because of that, I think the electoral system is superior. The government is not elected to impose one group’s ideology on the others nor, consequently, is it required to protect the rights of any groups. If it protects the individual, then it automatically protects their voluntary associations. So the validity of a government does not rest on representation of every ethnic, religious or opinion group in the country. On the contrary, while individuals have the right to argue their point and to vote for whom they like, they do not have the right to impose their views on others via government force: not even in the weak sense of holding the majority to ransom by making the function of the government impossible without “concessions” to their little pressure group. As with the virtues of elected representatives versus direct democracy and longer terms versus shorter ones, everyone’s interests, including those whose vote “didn’t count”, are best protected by encouraging stable, principle-based governments, rather than unstable, compromise-based ones.

In addition, an electorate system at least in principle involves people electing a personalrepresentative: “their” member of parliament who lives in their area and is directly responsible to them. This is a closer match to the government being our delegated agent of self-defence than a proportional system where the government is chosen by the people but the actual members of parliament that comprise it are effectively chosen by their parties.

Every Vote Counts

Some other questions that might arise are how the vote should be counted, and whether everyone should be forced to vote.

Of course compulsory voting has no part in a free society. Choosing not to vote is not initiating force against anybody, merely declining to exercise your right to choose your delegates. That should be entirely up to the individual.

In terms of how votes are counted, I favour the “optional preferential” system, because that most accurately reflects people’s actual opinions. In a field of several candidates, you will generally have an order of preference, along the lines of “I really want Smith, but failing that Jones will do: but I wouldn’t want any of that other lot.” So being able to vote for as few or as many candidates as one wishes in order of preference is the best system.

Birds of a Feather

The question arises of whether there should be political parties or just individual politicians voting according to the wishes of their electorate and their own consciences.

Political parties are a natural consequence of political philosophies. It is natural that people who share a philosophy – a view of what is important to accomplish and what should and should not be done to get there – will vote together to achieve their common ends.

The main disadvantage of political parties is the suppression of dissent within the party. However once again, where the role of government is restricted to how best to protect individual rights, that is not such a big issue. Furthermore, politicians can choose to leave their party and people can choose not to vote for parties. As nobody’s rights are violated by the existence of political parties, they are natural groupings, and membership of a party proclaims a basic political philosophy to the voters, I believe they are a valid and even desirable part of the political process.

Part D: Judges and Generals

The legislature and executive are elected by the people, but what about the third arm of government, the judiciary?

The judiciary needs to be independent from the rest of government to preserve the separation of powers. Dictatorships often control the judiciary by directly holding the pursestrings and punishing “recalcitrant” judges. That kind of attitude was even seen in the USA recently, where Congress tried to specifically command the judiciary in the Terri Schiavo case (where a husband wanted to allow his permanently comatose wife to die). The judiciary, rightly, slapped Congress’s wrist – resulting in howls of outrage for daring to maintain their constitutional independence! And in a pointed demonstration of the value of the separation of powers even in a mature republic, the Governor sent State police to prevent the Court’s decision from being carried out – and were stopped by a face-off with local police loyal to the law and the court.

Yet like the other arms of government, as our agent ultimately it must be under the control of the people. However, as discussed regarding direct democracy, that doesn’t mean the control has to be or even should be direct.

Consider the Public Service. For continuity and accumulation of expertise, it makes sense for them to be professionals hired by and responsible to their own superiors – but with the government having the power to decide who those superiors are (and direct them according to policy).

This provides a model for the Judiciary. Given the expertise in the law and fine judgement required for an effective judge, it would make little sense for the majority of the population to decide who would be best in a demanding and highly intellectual field they know little about. So that should be under the control of the experts, the judiciary itself. The judiciary can’t be completely independent however, as that would contradict the proper nature of government. So it makes sense for the senior levels to be appointed by the elected government.

On the other hand, the elected government mustn’t have the unfettered right to choose their own patsies. Nor is it good when their power to approve or veto leads to such sorry spectacles as the recent choices of High Court judges in the USA. Any judge with a consistent judicial philosophy (the kind of judge we need the most) had no chance of being accepted by one or other of the parties deciding, so the candidates practically went out of their way to affirm their lack of principles.

So I suggest that the best system is for judges themselves to elect a limited number of candidates they deem best, which the legislature then must choose between by vote. The legislature could refuse to appoint any of them – but as with a deadlock in Australia between parliament and the Senate, this should lead to an election in which both the parliament and judiciary make their suggestions, and people decide the fates of both the government and the candidates.

Similar considerations apply to the police and military, where what is required are professionals who are good at their job, yet are ultimately appointed by and responsible to the elected government.

Size Matters

We have noted before James Madison’s view that a large republic aids the defence of liberty via the diversity and number of interest groups within it, so that no one group can gain enough power to violate the rights of others. We have also noted the value of a system of state governments in counterbalancing the political and armed power of the federal government.

The conclusion naturally follows that large countries are better than small ones. Of course there are other reasons for this as well: the size of the country is an important part of its economic productivity, which is what pays for the army that defends it and the other institutions of government.

That is one of the problems of secessionist movements. Secession can be desirable if it is based on a genuine desire to actually advance the freedom of the people there. But unless it does achieve a significant improvement there, all it can achieve is an impoverishment of its people, by at least partially cutting them off from the economy of a larger country without any counterbalancing increase in freedom. Sadly, the motivation for many secessionist movements is simply the reverse of the Madison principle: to split off a small enough, uniform enough fiefdom that the local ethnic, religious or other majority can gain the power to impose its will within its borders.

Is there an upper limit? For example, would one world government be the ideal? Under present circumstances this would most definitely be undesirable – the most likely pretender to that throne, the United Nations, is largely a dictator’s club, which is hardly a good foundation for a world government.

The main problem with a world government is the potential for it to decay into a world dictatorship, or a world anything which violates individual rights without any possibility of opposition or escape. Nevertheless, I think in the long run such a system is desirable, provided it was set up in the same manner as a valid national government. That is, it would exist solely as the defender of individual rights, with national governments remaining but legally subservient to the global one: much like the relationship between state and national governments. In that way, a world government would add a layer to the defence of freedom, with the national governments providing a counterbalance of force to prevent its corruption.

Paying the Piper

The final question we need to address is how to pay for the government. Is involuntary taxation valid, or a violation of individual rights? What other methods might pay for the government?

The first point is that the role of the government does have to be restricted to defence against physical force. There is no moral justification for governments taking money from some for the unearned benefit of others. But what about taking money to pay for the proper role of government?

In an interview with Playboy magazine, Ayn Rand said:

In principle, I believe that taxation should be voluntary, like everything else. But how one would implement this is a very complex question. I can only suggest certain methods, but I would not attempt to insist on them as a definitive answer. A government lottery, for instance, used in many countries in Europe, is one good method of voluntary taxation. There are others. Taxes should be voluntary contributions for the proper governmental services which people do need and therefore would be and should be willing to pay for – as they pay for insurance. But, of course, this is a problem for a distant future, for the time when men will establish a fully free social system. It would be the last, not the first, reform to advocate.

Her last point is certainly true. Attempting detailed answers to that question from where we are now would be as wise as trying to work out the best method of interplanetary travel before we managed to get into space: some “difficulties” will vanish while others we can’t imagine may arise. Nevertheless, it is worth exploring the principles involved.

Methods such as lotteries may indeed have a place. But lotteries raise only about 0.5% of the country’s annual budget in the USA and 1.5% in Canada, an insignificant proportion of even their valid spending. And if such things were not a government monopoly, they would have to compete with private alternatives: and how could one justify an enforced monopoly?

Fines on criminals are another part of the answer, and we’ll look at that again in the philosophy of law. But again, it is hard to see how that could pay for much more than the legal system involved in their prosecution.

I think fees for government services are the basic answer – but perhaps in a surprising way. The police, for example, can’t simply refuse to investigate a crime if the victim can’t put up the costs pending a successful prosecution! The government can only justify its monopoly on force if it doesdefend its citizens, all of them, whatever their income. The poor would be better off arming themselves than assigning their right to self defence to a government that did not defend them – a disaster, for all the reasons that make governments a necessity.

In addition, the benefits of a good government are at once substantial, mainly indirect, and diffuse. Everyone gains from low crime rates, fraud-free commercial systems and keeping enemy nations out, whether or not they themselves are the victim of a crime or a war happens in their lifetime. Indeed, to the extent that they live out their lives in peace, the government is doing its job properly.

So I agree with the “user pays” principle: but when it comes to the proper role of government, everyone is a user. I therefore suggest that compulsory taxation is not the initiation of physical force (when it is to pay for governmental defence of individual rights only): any more than it is the initiation of physical force to insist on payment for any other service used voluntarily. Rand was right to say that what people are paying for are things they need and should be willing to pay for. But not only do they need them (objectively, for all the reasons that make governments necessary), but in choosing to live in a civilised society they are using them by choice, and not merely should be willing to pay for them, but in fact owe the money.

Note that an involuntary aspect of government is not limited to taxation, but is inherent in government itself. Because a government requires a legal monopoly on force within its jurisdiction (except in emergencies), all who live within its borders have to abide by that whether they think they should or not. That is what a monopoly means. People can always opt out by living in the wilderness and losing all the advantages of civilised society – but living outside of society (which includes, not preying on that society as a criminal) are the only terms on which they can consistently and justifiably live beyond its jurisdiction, taxation and protection.

How taxes should be raised is a question of efficiency, cost and fairness, but in principle could be income taxes, company taxes, financial taxes, consumption taxes, etc. (preferably, just one of those, and the one involving least imposition on the direct payers). Everybody who chooses to live by trade with other people still pays directly or indirectly (a tax in any area adds to prices, so the cost gets distributed). Tax proportional to income (or expenditure, etc.) is justifiable because the more you have, the more material benefit you gain from a proper government.

Bringing Balance to The Force

In summary, there are many aspects to the philosophy of government, but as government properly exists solely to defend individual rights, its primary goal and role is keeping the government on the “straight and narrow” of doing that and that alone, and its secondary role is helping it achieve its purpose by functioning effectively. Limiting government power to its proper sphere requires a multilayered defence with a sound, consistent philosophy as its necessary foundation, and interlocking balance of power as its primary tool. Then not only will “government of the people, by the people, for the people” not perish from the Earth, but it will truly be for the people – for each and every one of them as sovereign individuals from whom and for whom it exists.

© 2006 Robin Craig: first published in TableAus in four parts.