Monday, November 30, 2009

The Jail Cell and the Gun

Government has grown so much during the past 100 years in part because it is taking on more and more roles. Essentially, society is using government, instead of other means or institutions, to do more of the things that society wants to do.  There is a good reason for this, and that is that government is powerful and can get the job done, whatever the job is. However, as a Libertarian I am suspicious of this approach, and of the growth of the influence and power of government.

Society is using government to do more things because government is powerful. Why is government powerful? Because it has the legal use of force at its command. At the bottom of it, there is one major distinction between government and all other institutions: government has the force of a jail cell and a gun backing its policies. This power is what makes government able to perform many of the roles it is called upon to perform. This power makes it possible to apprehend criminals, to collect taxes, to settle disputes, and to conduct war. However, this power is also employed explicitly or implicitly in every governmental undertaking, no matter how liberally intentioned.

The purpose of democracy is to tame the power of government, precisely because government has the power of the jail cell and the gun. By making government accountable to at least a large percentage of the people (rather than a tiny group of elites), the odds are more favorable that individual people will be treated with fairness. This is a good system, but it may be due for an upgrade. Perhaps the next generation of democracy will limit government to functions those that need the power of the jail cell and the gun to back them up. Maybe our society can benefit from greater exploration of the use of nongovernmental institutions to accomplish many of society’s goals. What do you think?


  1. Well put. The majority of goals that society wants to accomplish SHOULD be achieved through non-governmental institutions. As it stands, the majority of programs run by the government were put in place by tiny groups of elites, not large percentages of people. And this does not even consider the lack of efficiency in government programs, which is staggering.

  2. I agree! I'd really like to hear more about how to use non-government means to provide many of the services we're used to getting from the government. My post about eminent domain was an exploration of one idea that accomplishes that.

  3. There is a small group of really hardcore libertarians who call themselves anarcho capitalists. They think we can (and should) get by with no government at all. They have some good arguments, but I am unconvinced that an efficient system of independent private law enforcement entities can exist. I fear things would devolve into tribal warring factions.

    But for smaller traditionally public services like roads, I think with modern technology roads can easily be privatized. Similarly, I think there is no reason for schools to be publicly run.

    I do not think there exists a decent private way to fund some public goods like the military, but maybe there is no private market for a military for good reason -- that is, maybe we do not need a military.

  4. Justin,

    I find the anarcho-capitalist movement to be uncompelling. I think that rule of law is preferable to rule by might. I also have a hard time conceiving of cooperation and coordination between large numbers of individuals that doesn't end up being essentially government in some form or another. And I have no desire to miss out on the benefits of large-scale cooperation and coordination. Thank goodness for comparative advantage and the extent of the market.

    I completely agree that many current government functions could be handled in other ways. I also think that this idea is much more sophisticated than just, 'let's throw it to the market and see what happens'. I would argue that the right institutions need to be established in order to marketize some government functions. For example, as I very briefly argued in my post on the subject, eminent domain exists because there were in fact problems with the market solution, as it had evolved. HOWEVER, it evolved within the context of a particular understanding of what it meant to own property. Maybe, by redefining the property ownership, a different outcome could be achieved with a market system. This is essentially what I'm proposing in most cases where government could be reduced - Don't just throw it to the market, but try to reformulate the rules and the institutions in order to get the desired outcome organically from the market.

    I'm really intrigued by your suggestion that a military may not be necessary. It's not something I've ever seriously considered before. What's your argument?

  5. A military is to countries what a police force is to citizens of a country -- a jail cell or the end of a gun. Although diplomacy is usually the first line of defense, behind arbitration and talk of sanctions lurks the threat of violence. Without a military, where does ultimate power reside? If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.

  6. I am not sure that going military-free would work, but I can envision two possible ways in which it *might* work:

    1. Your ordinary law enforcement people double as your military and/or by keeping guns legal you very much have a citizen militia like in the Paul Revere days. The former is kind of a cop-out because it is still a military just on a smaller scale. And I am skeptical the latter would be effective today because guns are now, relatively speaking, weak weapons.

    2. Have a large group of nations (not unlike the UN) come together and decide that intentional killing without self-defense is always wrong, and agree to use their combined resources to enforce this law globally. Basically it would be treating war on a global level the same as we treat murder on a national level. I think it could work, but maybe I am missing something.

  7. Thanielson,

    If I'm understanding you correctly, you are arguing that there is a need to wield military power, essentially for defense against global and regional 'outlaws'. I completely agree. Would that it were different.

  8. Justin,

    There is a lot of conservative suspicion of multi-state organizations like the UN. I think it relates to the essentially libertarian fear of governing bodies that are powerful, distant, and unelected.

    That notwithstanding, I agree very much with the concept of a governing body that imposes rule of law on a global level, and disallows war and other destructive enterprises. My question becomes, how should such a body be constituted, and by what means elected?