The Powers That Be

Philosophical Reflections XVIII

Rights and Government

From my previous discussions, it is clear that rights and government are intimately connected. Having defined the nature of rights and the nature of government leads to a simple prescription for valid government: the proper role of government, philosophically and morally, is the protection of individual rights. Its proper definition is: an institution to which people within a defined geographical area delegate their right of retaliatory force, for the purpose of ensuring that such force is applied justly, by objective laws, in the defence of individual rights.

Rights are not a social convention, nor something that may properly be granted or withheld by governmental whim: they derive from the nature of man. They do not derive from the will of the government, whether that is expressed as the permission of a king, the edicts of a priesthood, or the votes of a proletariat. Rights derive from how it is right for men to live: they depend on and derive from your nature as an individual human being, no more and no less. Even in a total anarchy, your rights, philosophically defined, are the same as in the most civilised society. The problem, of course, is upholding those rights. The solution to that problem is the establishment of a government.

Thus, rights and government are interdependent. While government depends on and is derived from your rights as a human being, rights need government in order to be upheld practically. Any sundering of this interdependence is to attempt to impose a contradiction, and reality bears no contradictions. Attempting to champion rights in the absence of government, as anarchists do, is to leave people at the mercy of the first armed gang to come along – and come it will. Attempting to set up a government that is not based on the protection of individual rights, as statists of all persuasions do, is to set up a system based on the most despicable institutionalised injustice: on the initiation of force against disarmed citizens. To the extent that some degree of personal freedom is allowed, or the victims are persuaded to accept their lot, or the force is wielded expertly enough, it will survive: until it too eventually but inevitably falls apart.

Contradictions cannot last. Nations founded on them will fail sooner or later, to the extent that they violate rights, which is to violate justice, which is to fight reality. Witness the Soviet Union, which far from being a “noble experiment” was built from the ground up on the violation of individual rights, and paid and continues to pay the penalty.

The Politics of Compromise

Winston Churchill once said that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others. That view implies that there are inherent contradictions in living together, so that no form of government is truly good, and the most we can hope for is the best of a bad lot. It is brother to the view that the rights of one man contradict those of another, so the art of government consists of balancing the granting and violation of rights to achieve some kind of workable compromise.

I categorically reject those beliefs. There are no such contradictions.

So the question is, what kind of government (if any) satisfies the requirements of a rational philosophy? Which means, what kind of government is the kind needed for human life, as it should be lived, at its full potential? The answer is readily derived from the principles already discussed.

Good Government

Because of Duality – the existence of reality and consciousness – your own life is your highest value. Because of that, and what is required for humans to live in reality, rationality is the highest virtue. So when people live together with human life as the standard of the good, they need to live together as rational beings, as traders of value for value: able to live – and only able to live – by the unforced judgment of their own minds. Which means: the condition that is necessary and sufficient for us to live our lives and achieve our goals, is for all people to live by their own reason, judgment and mutual consent.

The purpose of government is to achieve that condition. And to do that, its role is to put physical force under the control of objective laws: with that force used only in retaliation against physical force and only for the protection of individual rights.

To accomplish that, it must provide military forces to protect against external aggression; a police force to protect against internal criminals; and law courts to uphold contracts and otherwise provide a final, enforceable court of appeal in disputes between people.

These are the only valid uses of force. Since they are uses of force (a court cannot function unless its rulings can be enforced), they must be government functions, as the life of a rational being in a society requires that all force be so delegated. Because they are the only uses of physical force that are not initiation of force, and the purpose of government is to defend againstinitiation of force, they are the only valid functions of government.

Thus, government cannot interfere with people’s pursuit of their values in any way, provided that pursuit is not via force: not with religion, nor economics, nor charity. This is so radically different from present world political beliefs and governmental institutions that some more discussion is in order.

People Power

It is sad commentary on modern political trends that the virtues that used to be ascribed to “the free world” are now increasingly ascribed to “democracy”. All the benefits that have accrued from Western culture – stunning technological progress, wonderful standard of living, basic freedoms – have been due to whatever protection has been afforded to individual rights: not to democracy.

Democracy, in the absence of protection for individual rights, is no better than any other form of coercive state power. The Serb who said he was fighting his former neighbours because he “didn’t want to have to become a Muslim” had a point. The majority – whoever that happens to be at the time, since all of us belong to some kind of minority – does all right, but pity the minorities whom the majority hates, fears, wants to rob or wants to enslave.

By the nature of man, no one has a right to violate the rights of another person. Which means, no one has a right to initiate force against another. The basic flaw of democracy is that its essence is majority rule, not individual rights. A democracy founded on the absolute of the collective vote, in which the majority is permitted to violate the rights of an individual, is a morally and philosophically invalid form of government. A democracy not limited by individual rights is simply a civilised form of gang warfare, in which the biggest gang takes what it wants from whomever it wishes. It breeds the type of politician whose idea of virtue is promising enough of someone else’s money, time or life to buy enough votes to get him into power.

The Altruist State

It is not surprising, then, that the path of evolution of a liberal democracy (one founded partially, but only partially, on the value of individual rights) is to a welfare state. When your absolute right to what you earn is not recognised, but the need of others is held as a valid claim over it; when politicians can buy power by promising to rob one hundred Peters to bribe ten thousand Pauls, a promise backed by the armed power of the State: then a welfare state is inevitable. An unholy ratchet results, in which more and more benefits have to be offered to win power, and once a benefit is granted, the loss of votes to anyone daring to take it away makes it exceedingly difficult to remove.

The moral justification behind all that is altruism, the claim that need is higher than justice. For that belief, no rational reason has ever been given. The preachers of altruism have stated it as a mystical absolute, based on nothing more than their feelings or the arbitrary claims and feelings of some long-dead prophet.

I have discussed altruism before (Philosophical Refections 13) and will do so again. For now suffice it to say that by the nature of reality it can only be your own life which is your highest value; and the fundamental virtue for dealing with other people, which is the only way that recognises their rights without violating your own, is justice. If you value a man’s person or struggle, then that is a valid reason for helping him, for you are helping him for the sake of your values. But if a man presents his naked need as a claim on you, saying that his need gives him a right to your life, by virtue of the fact that he has not earned what he wants but you have: then that is a claim you should never accept, let along make yourself. And if you do value a man’s person or struggle, then feel free to persuade others of the virtue of helping him out: but nothing can give you a right to force them to do so. And the most contemptible breed of politician is the one who claims the mantle of “generosity” for offering someone’s money to someone else, as if generosity can ever pertain to anything other than how you dispose of your own earnings.

Of the People, By the People, For the People

The kind of government which fulfils the nature of government demanded by the nature of man is a constitutional republic.

By that, I mean a democracy in which government officials are elected by the adult members of the population, but in which government power is strictly limited by a constitution. That constitution forbids the government from ever initiating force against any citizen for any reason, that is, it strictly limits government actions to running the armed forces, police and law courts.

It must be a democracy, because the government exists as the delegate of every person’s right to retaliatory force, and therefore every person must have a say in how that delegation is operated. Those people must be adult, in the sense of being mentally mature and competent enough to vote (at what age this occurs is another question). It must be limited by constitution, because the purpose of government is the protection of individual rights, therefore the violation of those rights is never valid no matter what 50.01% or 99.99% of the population wants, and must explicitly be forbidden.

Government is of the people, by its nature; should be by the people, from its basis in delegation; and must be for the people – for each individual person – and kept that way.

© 1996 Robin Craig: first published in TableAus.