There is a question that should be posed and answered whenever we contemplate an action to be undertaken by our representative government. That question must recognize what government is, and then ask what government properly has the right to do. As for the first, George Washington gave us a searing declaration, to wit: “Government is not reason, it is not eloquence; it is force, and like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.” So government is force, and in practice it must, of necessity, bring to bear any force that is required for the job at hand.
The question is no easy one to answer. Our founding Fathers understood that a just government derives its authority from the governed. We, the people, delegate to our own government the powers necessary to govern. With this insight we realize we must ask ourselves, what rights do I have, individually, to exercise power over my fellow citizens? What intrinsic rights do I have that I might delegate them to my government? To sort out the thorny possibilities inherent in this question, we must imagine a state without government for, once created, we are required to act within our law. What force may I properly and morally bring to bear against my neighbor in protection of my own rights and property? If the only disagreements we had with our neighbors were over private property rights, this would be a much easier question to answer. When we must also deal with public properties and institutions we are bound for trouble. A few examples will bring this to light.
I have a moral right to protect my own property, even to the extent of shooting a burglar in my house. I can, therefore, delegate the right to shoot a burglar to my local constabulary. If my village votes to build a public road, we might want to create laws governing behavior on that road. We might feel we have a right to enforce civil behavior for our own protection while traveling the road. Thus we extend rights of private property to the public sphere and agree to live within common rule. The right to stop threatening behavior on our own property is transferred to the public road. We then may choose to hire law enforcement officers and delegate authority to them to insure more consistent compliance with written law, to which we are party. Few will find fault with this approach but we see that things have gotten much more complicated. I may have the right to control my neighbor’s speed on my own property and on my public road. Do I have the right to force him to limit his own personal risk while on that road? Can I delegate to my government the power to force him to use a seat belt solely for his own protection? If so, where did I get that right?
A much more poignant question involves the forceful redistribution of private wealth. Can I require one of my neighbors to help another neighbor? Do I have the moral right? If not, how can I delegate that right to my government? What happens if a law is passed requiring some of the villagers to help other villagers who are seen as having greater need? If the law is not enforced it is useless and the effect is deleterious to all law. The law must be backed with potential threat of all necessary force, including lethal force, in order to uphold the fabric of lawful order. Let me restate the question. Do I have the intrinsic moral right to force my neighbor to give part of his substance to another neighbor? Do I have the right to take from him against his will if he votes with the minority? Am I willing to threaten him with imprisonment or death if he resists? Can we shrink from these questions when this very dynamic plays itself out all around us every day?
As a mental exercise, I like to imagine an unusual scenario in which I am not able to hire away some of my public duties. In my village, the responsibility to collect taxes is rotated around to all members of the village as a civic responsibility, much like jury duty. When my time comes to serve, I am required to visit my neighbors and collect all taxes due on the public services I have supported. In order to ensure compliance, I wear an official badge and strap on a pistol. The chance of real resistance from my neighbors is remote because they know I am authorized to use all necessary force in the collection of taxes. I usually have to listen to the complaints of those who did not support the government programs and policies for which I collect. Some of these people are vehemently opposed and resent having to pay for something they do not want. As I listen to their arguments, I am face-to-face with the rather ugly reality my vote has perpetuated. Now, as I consider imposing my will upon my neighbors with my next vote, I ask myself: What is proper? What is necessary? What are my rights to control others? What wonderful government program am I willing to impose upon my neighbors against their will? How much am I willing to take from them, merely because I am willing to contribute myself?