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Free Life, February, 1898
On the Absurdity of Government
Since we have any record of human society, the trouble of government has afflicted it. The history of government is the history of monstrous crimes and stupidities. No one has so forcibly stated this fact as Edmund Burke in his youthful essay, "On a natural state of society," which, of course, he had to declare to be ironically intended when he went into politics as a profession, although no one can detect in this powerful indictment of government any exaggeration, much less any irony of tone. The only defect of this little essay is its incompleteness. It states the difficulty, but failed to find the way out of it.
Let us first define what government really is. It is the use of physical force; it is nothing more or less than this; it ultimately rests upon the constable's staff and the soldier's gun. To whom are we individually justified in using physical force? Clearly only to the man who assaults our person or lays his hands on our property. Defense of person or property are both in the verdict of human conscience and in the eye of the law, so long as it rests on a moral basis, the only justification of the use of physical force. Do we not call the man who strikes his peaceable neighbour a brute, and the man who puts his hand on his neighbour's goods a thief? Is not the beautiful word 'gentleman' the expression of the very opposite of these two, of the refined avoidance in speech and manner of anything that could even suggest the possibility of such conduct?
Now what no one man should do, no two men should do, and no number of men should do--majority or not majority: and it therefore follows that no government should do; and as government is the use of brute force it is clear that its only business is with the ruffian and the thief. but on no account can it be justified when employed against an honest and peaceable man. We can see this readily enough when we remember the true nature of government. Government is a machine for employing brute force; and what in any body's hands can brute force have to do with any peaceable and honest man? Just as personally I have no right to take any one by the collar and shake him, if he is doing anything I do not approve of or look upon as a nuisance, such as holding a Salvation Army revival if I dislike Salvation revivals...so neither two of us, nor three of us, nor any majority, nor the government itself have any such right.
We need not trouble ourselves about the unlimited right of people to annoy each other. It is very strictly limited. Society has very effective means of dealing with the rude and vulgar man, and the man who is not considerate of his neighbour's feelings and comfort. The danger is all the other way, namely, that of Mrs. Grundy's influence being too strong and her control of little eccentricities too strict. [Note: Mrs. Grundy was a contemporary literary figure who embodied prudish, intrusive moralism.]
Some people will say, "Would you not force a man to educate his child, and to provide it with a pair of clogs in the winter?" I can only answer--what I have not a right individually to force him to do, no other man or men like myself have a right to do. How can the adding up of so many no-rights amount to a right? If I have not the right to lock my neighbour in the cellar when he gets drunk and charge him half-a-crown and costs the next morning, and if I have not a right to go round with a big stick and force my neighbours to contribute to the clogs and education, I have no right to conspire with others for such a purpose.
In the same way, I have a right to combine with as many of my neighbours as may choose to supply light and water, but if any one chooses to go half-a-mile to the old well and not use our water, we must not put on a compulsory rate and oblige them to take either the one or the other. If a certain number agree to light the street, they who agree must pay, not those who do not. If what we do is of such a nature that we cannot prevent other people from getting some benefit from it, that does not give us the right to charge them for it without their consent. Thus, if I make a display of fireworks or have a band of music where other people can see and hear them, I cannot force them to contribute to the cost; nor if I cover the walls of my house with fresco paintings and ornament the gate-way with sculpture, can I charge those who pass along the road for the view.
The idea of making everyone pay 'their share' whether they personally consent or not is a governmental idea (brute force idea) quite contrary to that of contract. Freedom of trade rests upon the broad basis of the right of everyone to do as he likes with his own, not upon any narrow expediency as regards the supposed usefulness of measures. If a man is really a free trader, the employment of what belongs to him begins and ends with himself. Why not be logical and consistent and thorough-going, and acknowledge frankly that free trade means that each man is a self-ruler, with his body, mind, faculties and property belonging to himself entirely, and not partly to himself and party to other people?
The notion that we and our property belong to the association for keeping the peace (to a brute force machine that looks after the murderer and thief), that this association may do what it likes with us, and take what it likes--such a notion is, I say, a passing queer one. We might just as well imagine that we belonged to a fire or life insurance. It only requires to be plainly stated for us to see the absurdity of this.
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