Dwight Writes


Do we need government?

Do we need government at all? Libertarians say no, that the market acting alone can handle all our needs. I have to disagree. I think we need government, but very limited government.

Government at its core is about coercion. So, why do we need an organization that is about coercion? Because there are people who are not good, that do not respect the rights of others. And it is against such people that the state should act.

Principle #1: State action should always be a well-regulated use of coercion in response to an act of power against the natural rights of an individual or group.

Let's break this down by an example. Mr. Smith finds that Mr. Jones has stolen his car. Mr. Smith goes to the local police to register a complaint. The police locate the car and Mr. Jones, and, using the well-regulated powers of coercion that they may legally exercise, they impound the car and take Mr. Jones into custody, thereby removing his freedom to act as an independent human being. The police determine that the car does, in fact, belong to Mr. Smith, and that Mr. Jones had taken it without permission. In the end, Mr. Jones is tried of a crime, and the judge hands down a fitting judgment against him, with an appropriate remedy.

Libertarians will tell you that all this can be accomplished by the market. Businesses can be established to handle police work, just as now there are private security firms. Businesses could be established to adjudicate private law and dispense justice. As a business, much of the overhead of trials, etc., would probably be done away with, when the crime is straightforward. Rather than a trial, the whole matter could be handled by an arbitration of some sort.

Yes, perhaps it could all be done with private businesses handling the various services required in the pursuit of justice. The basis of this must still be that the possibility of coercion is always in response to an act that abridges someone's natural rights, and that the response is well-regulated so as not to become an evil in itself.

Which brings up another question: what are these so-called "natural" rights? A very short list will be comprehensive. Life and property. And some would argue that these two could really be reduced to just "property", if life is considered a good that one possesses.

In the modern world today, we are constantly faced with the question, who has the right to life? Recent opinion has removed this right from some individuals. Take, for example, the unique human being represented by the zygote. To refresh your memory from high school biology, a zygote is the end result of a human egg merging with a human sperm, with the resulting commingling of DNA material. The result, the zygote, is a genetically distinct individual from either of its parents, and therefore, demonstrably a distinct human being. As a result, any individual human being from the moment that their unique genetic makeup is established, has their right to life abridged if their life is ended by fetal stem cell research or abortion. If there is another moment at which a human being acquires his right to life other than when he becomes a genetically unique individual, I haven't heard a convincing argument for it. What I have heard are arguments about one human's right being more important than another's, for various reasons, none of which appears to be anything but a crude use of power of the strong over the weak.

Could we get any sizeable number of people to agree on this in the current state of affairs? Probably not. If we were to attempt it, I have no doubt that we would find ourselves in the predicament which faced the framers of the U. S. Constitution, when they tried to have all human beings counted as full persons. Instead, they were forced to compromise. There is a lot in the U. S. Constitution to be proud of. It is a magnificent attempt to create a limited federal government, one that very clearly attempts to honor the principle of subsidiarity. But can anyone today be proud of these lines from that document: "Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons" [Article 1, Section 2]. Each slave was accounted only "three fifths" of a person, though this did not make him three fifths free. Here we have a legal fiction of what a person is, much as our current law does for those humans who exist but who are in the unfortunate position of not having been born yet.

If we cannot yet agree that life begins at the point indicated by biology, can we not at least agree that human society should have a way to protect people from those who deprive them of life, however we are able to define it? This would mean a number of things.

Society has an interest in prosecuting those who take the lives of those who are without others to defend them. In a pure market situation, if a man has a certain amount of wealth, and a family that stands to gain from it when he dies, and some person takes his life before it would have occurred naturally, those family members would certainly seek to have the murderer prosecuted. Unless, of course, they hired the murderer to get at the old man's money. I would imagine that the market itself would not have a problem with this arrangement. The only real victim here is the man who is murdered, and he no longer has any interest, since he is dead. But what if he didn't want to be dead? Do any of us want to be put in the situation where protection from someone killing us is only based on our ability to protect ourselves? Perhaps it is. What if we all had contracts with protection agencies, life insurance policies, if you will, that stipulated that anyone who took our life was fair game? But then, would it all come down to money? What if the murderer was able to give the insurer enough money to look the other way? Market forces at work, right? Breach of contract? Who would make the complaint?