The Fundamental Fallacy of Government

[Originally published at on July 30, 2001]

Why do we need government?

Government is a monopoly of force. Why is it that most people favor such a monopoly?

The Declaration of Independence says:

We hold these truths to be self – evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

Setting aside the question of a Creator, I agree in principle that first sentence. It says that there are values which are appropriate to men according to their nature and that rights are implicit in their relationship with those values.

The next sentence offers a reason why we are supposed to need government: We need government to secure rights. This quaint notion has gone a bit out of fashion with many advocates of government, today they typically want government to secure all kinds of things, many of which have nothing to do with rights, but they all want government to secure something. And they’re convinced that only government can do it.

Why can’t people secure their rights, or anything else they need, by voluntary means? Why can’t people freely contract to secure whatever they need to secure? Why is a government, a monopoly on force, necessary to secure anything essential?

The fundamental answer which advocates of government offer for these questions is that we need government to solve a public goods problem. We are told that there is something that we all need, but that we will not secure by voluntary means. Often the argument is used for defense. The argument is that we all need to be defended from foreign invaders but the necessary means to do so cannot be funded on a voluntary basis. If the funding of defense is to be voluntary, what incentive is there for the individual to fund it? After all, for the defense to be viable a large number of people must voluntarily contribute their resources to it, but the individual only controls the actions of one person. Thus the individual has substantial incentive to be a free rider, he’ll get the benefit of defense whether he contributes or not, and the defense will be funded or not regardless of whether the particular individual contributes or not.

I acknowledge this is a legitimate concern and I don’t offer any easy answers.

I just point out that the government as a cure is worse than the disease.

Government “solves” one public goods problem by creating another that cannot be solved. Let’s assume a government is instituted to solve the public goods problem of defense. A mandatory tax is imposed on everyone in the territory to fund defense. Of course force will be used to extract the taxes from any who would not pay voluntarily. But in the end we get the defense we all need by eliminating free riding.

So far so good?

Oops, there’s a catch.

You see, by instituting a monopoly of force you’ve created another threat that people need protection from – the government itself. How will people restrain that government? How can they prevent it from becoming a tyranny?

You have another public goods problem on your hands. And you can’t solve this one the way you “solved” the first. Everyone needs government restrained but that can only be achieved by the voluntary donation of efforts by a great many people. But government will be restrained or not regardless of what the individual does, so he has the very same incentive to be a free rider with respect to the restraint of government as he had with respect to defense. And while you can force people to fund defense you cannot even in principle force people to restrain government since the act of forcing them would be an act of governing.

So government can only be restrained by widespread voluntary donations of effort. But the argument for instituting this government in the first place was that individuals could not be relied on to make such voluntary donations of effort. If you can’t rely on people to voluntarily donate the effort required to repel a foreign invader, how can you rely upon them to voluntarily donate the effort to restrain government?

If voluntary effort can be relied upon to restrain government then you don’t need government because voluntary effort could then be relied upon to solve the problems that government is supposed to solve. In this case there is no justification for government since there is no public goods problem to be solved by a monopoly of force. There’s no way to justify forcing people to solve problems that they are perfectly capable of solving voluntarily.

And if voluntary effort cannot be relied upon to restrain government then there is no justification for government because you haven’t solved any public goods problem by instituting government, you’ve only made things worse by creating a public goods problem that cannot be solved.

In either case government makes things worse.

Sorry folks, there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch, and the argument that government is necessary to secure something that we all need has never been anything but an argument for a free lunch.

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