Government. That is a word that encompasses a whole lot. There are so many different kinds of government around the world. The United Kingdom has a constitutional monarchy. Iran has a Shia Islamic theocracy. The United States has a republic or constitutional republic, or democratic republic, or ….
Even within the United States there are different kinds of government. While the states have similar governments to each other there are large differences. Counties within the states have governments. Finally cities have their own level of government.
There have been brilliant writers discussing and debating the topic of government; Hobbes, Locke, Burke, Montesquieu, Adams, Hamilton, Madison, Lincoln, and hundreds more. There are almost as many ideas about what a government should be (or if there should be one at all) as there are people in the world.
The topic of government can really be confusing. It can also be divisive, especially when ideologies and politics are involved in the discussion. “Trump is better than Clinton.”” “Clinton or Sanders would have been better than Trump.” “I voted for Trump but I liked Ted Cruz better…” This can go on and on. It really solves nothing. Groups can talk in circles about this but nothing is really said to the “other side.”
While we may not agree on what government should do to us, for us, or agree upon who should run it, there is one thing that all sides can agree on. That is the definition of government.
My description of government is going to be a bit weird to you at first. It is not a “partisan” idea, but I admit that I took it from a libertarian (small “L” as in libertarian ideas, not the Libertarian Party.) It is quite brilliant. I have tried to think of another description but I can come up with nothing better. This description should be agreed upon by everyone, from the most ardent anarchist to the person who wants government to control every aspect of our lives.
Here it is….
“Government is an entity that has a monopoly on the legal use of violence.”
“Wow,” you say. “Violence? What do you mean?”
Government, all governments, have a monopoly on legalized violence, meaning that the government can and will coerce people to act within a certain set of laws that have been previously defined. This coercion, if taken to its ultimate conclusion, will result in physical violence. By “violence” the government controls the actions of the citizens of the defined boundaries of the government. For this article, the boundaries will be those set forth in the United States.
The obvious example of legal government violence is police action. If someone murders one you love you can’t legally go and kill them or use force to imprison them in your house or some prison you built. The government can use force to apprehend a murder suspect and if that person is convicted in a government court that person can be put in a government prison or killed by the government if the death penalty is legal in the area that the murder was committed in. The police, court system, and prison system must coerce the suspect / convict with force but these state actors are all acting within the bounds of the law. Simple enough?
Another obvious example is military force. The military is obviously controlled by the government. The military can be ordered to use violence to defend the United States, but more often than not, the violence projected by the military is used in a foreign land. The U.S. government used violence to change the government in Iraq. This military violence is not something that U.S. citizens could have done legally or at all.
A less obvious example is taxes – which partly pay for the people who can use legal violence like the police, military, FBI, and other government agencies. Nobody literally puts a gun to your head and physically takes money away from you in the form of taxes but see what happens when you don’t pay your taxes. You may be subject to penalties. If the penalties are high enough the government may use physical force to arrest you or to take away your property or your freedom.
What about government roads? That seems pretty non-violent. Well, if you own a house or land within a proposed route for a government road you will be offered money to pay for your inconvenience and for your property (whether the amount is fair is another topic.) If you refuse to move the government can take your property by force and possibly use force to charge you with crimes.
Any law, if really broken down, involves the threat of force by the government against the individual.
This is not a critique of government, per se. Understanding that government is the entity that has a monopoly on the legal use of force is vital to really understanding what government really is. When implementing a government or new laws under a government, people must be cognizant of the fact that there is an addition of the threat of force in their lives.
If you understand the basic idea of government you will be able to argue your points about government in a better and stronger manner.
I am not saying that the government is a violent entity. I am simply pointing out the now obvious fact that a government cannot exist without having the option to legally use violence when it is in the best interest of the government to do so. I would think that this is something that we can all agree on. I bet that your teacher didn’t teach this to you in your civics class.