The Rights of Government

Allow me to start out by asking a simple question. It has been asked time and time again through the centuries, and many have provided answers, but still it must be asked: What gives government the right of power over the governed?

The answer suggested by 17th century philosopher John Locke is that there exists a social contract between the government and the people, whereby rulers may only hold power through the consent of the governed. Locke felt that the only way this could be true is if the government worked towards the common good, protecting every individual’s rights to life, liberty, and his own material possessions.

The United States Constitution was framed around this principle, implementing a representative democracy to ensure that all laws are the result of choices by people elected by the majority. But is this enough to ensure that every representative holds office at the pleasure of their people? Is a simple majority vote enough to give someone the right to commit every person under their rule to any number of arbitrary contracts and obligations?

I say no.

The purpose of government is to protect the people from deprivation of their rights by others. That is its sole purpose. It does not exist to take money or to provide services. There is no legitimate justification for letting Peter and Paul decide that they are going to take Mary’s money or possessions at gunpoint simply because it benefits them. A majority vote does not legitimize that. An income differential does not legitimize that.

If Robin Hood were a real figure in the modern world, would we applaud him? Would he get a general pardon for his crimes? No, he would not, because if he’s stealing in today’s civilized world, he’s not stealing from Kings and Noblemen who have illegitimately enslaved the populace. He’s stealing from you and me. He’s stealing from hardworking individuals who have labored for every penny. And before the reader considers the topic of inheritance as a counterexample, stealing from heirs is depriving the deceased of their right to let their money go towards their own intended purposes. Certainly final requests have precedence over the will of graverobbers.

So what does government have a right to do? What law can government legitimately force me, at gunpoint, to abide? Well, if I try to force anyone else into anything at gunpoint, government has a right to intervene. If I try to take anything from anyone against their will, or harm them in some way, government has a right to intervene. Basically, any breach of contract can be legitimately dealt with by government. I am not allowed to deprive anyone else of their rights against their will, and government may use any means necessary (including collecting taxes and maintaining a police force) to enforce that.

The rights which should be guaranteed to everyone are the right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. But those are some very general words, which have been manipulated through the centuries to mean everything from a right to a proper slavemaster to a right to free money with every car purchase. Specifically, what those words mean is this:

I have a right to life which no other human being has a right to take away.
I have a right to make any contract I deem fit with any other human being, so long as all terms are made clear to and agreed upon by all affected parties.
I have a right to use my own life and my own possessions for any means that do not infringe on the rights of others.
I have a right to forfeit any one of my rights for any purpose and on any terms, so long as I am not forcing others to forfeit their own rights.

And how is the government to accomplish this? Well, the government is within its rights to do anything necessary to protect our rights. Thus, it may maintain a military and police force. It may support a judicial system to find ways to correct situations which ignore the equal rights of all, and ensures that offenses are not repeated. It may support a legislative system which defines laws to clarify rights in specific cases. It may even support an executive branch to provide checks and balances and act as the commander in chief. It may collect taxes sufficient to ensure efficient operation of these functions. However, no part of this government may produce or enforce any law which deprives any person of any right for any reason other than to protect the equal rights of all.

And where do the limits lay? What is the government not allowed to do under this system? Well, the government, no matter how democratically elected, cannot force you to give up your money or private possessions to fund its own pet projects. The congressmen from the east coast can’t vote to impose a 90% income tax on the people from the west coast, and have the proceeds go only to people on the east coast (something which is entirely possible in the current US system). There can be no government-imposed health care insurance system. The government can’t stop you from smoking, drinking, shooting heroine, eating fatty food, or doing anything else to yourself so long as you don’t harm others. And finally, the government cannot wage war for any reason other than to directly protect the rights of its people. To those who have debated with me, this may come as a surprise, but I do not believe tax dollars should have been spent on the Iraq War. It should have been conducted and funded entirely by private militias and nation-building groups, something which is impossible under the current US system, but would be possible under a system where the right to bear arms is truly and completely respected.

So then, everyone even the tiniest bit to the left on the political spectrum is going to ask “So what about the poor? Do you just let them die? Do they just get no services at all? Do we descend into a caste system where the rich rule over the poor?” My answer: private donations. Private donations, both for scholarly merit and as purely charitable financial aide, have paid for almost my entire education. The rest has been paid through loans which I will pay off eventually. I have not inherited (and will not inherit) a cent. And yet, without the help of the government, I could easily push my career towards a six-figure income. In a system where donations are not taken forcibly through taxation, donations will increase in number, grow in size, and have greater effect. This is how donations should occur, not at the point of a gun.

The goal of government is not to make everyone wealthy. It’s not even to keep every single citizen alive and healthy. The goal of government is to give people freedom from the oppression of others. It’s to maintain law and order so that no man may force another into a contract against his will. It’s to ensure that no person takes away the rights of any other. It is a contract with every other citizen guaranteeing that there is always a neutral higher power which seeks only to protect the rights of everyone equally, without favoring any man through means of race, religion, or class.

TLDR: I proposed a libertarian government, with a foundation in self-consistent basic moral rights, which will actually work. Also, read the article I referenced.

EDIT 10/26/09: Minor wording modifications to aid clarity. 11/26/09: Added a link to give one of my analogies basis in the real world. 3/16/10: After some thought, I removed the “right to a government that protects your rights,” simply because nobody should be forced to protect you from external threat if they have no agreement with you. Certainly, you should be able to choose whether or not you will accept a government’s terms of service, but in the absence of a government that protects your rights, it’s most correct to simply be your own government. 2/6/16: The source of rights and personhood:

Here’s how I view it:
At the heart of our rights is human equality. Suppose one human holds rights not held by another. Then that human has the right to exert their will upon the other in some way. One human is therefore a ruler and the other is a serf, and the ruler and can diminish the serf’s happiness to increase his own happiness. However, to the serf, the increase of their own happiness is more important than any arbitrary principle that might define such a hierarchy. So the serf necessarily seeks to change that hierarchy. Anarchy results, and the happiness of both is destroyed as they vie for power over each other. Hence, a lack of human equality necessarily leads to the general destruction of happiness. Only with an agreement of equal rights can both increase in happiness without tearing each other down.
As is explained in many libertarian texts, rights are only equal in the case where life, liberty, and private property rights are guaranteed.
Yet, all of this depends on the experience of happiness and the exertion of will by each individual involved. If one human has no cognition, and so experiences no happiness and exerts no will, then they are not equal. A human who has no cognition does not care what you do to them. This is why the dead do not have equal rights with the living. For the same reason, this is why a fetus that has not yet developed any cognition does not have equal rights with its mother.

9 Responses to “The Rights of Government”

  1. Joe Antognini Says:

    Just to nitpick a bit, certain actions by private actors in foreign countries are permissible under the US Constitution by the “letters of marque and reprisal clause.” This would make it permissible for the US Congress to grant private parties the power to legally arrest particular individuals even if they are non-citizens.

    Of course, letters of marque are inapplicable to foreign states, so the US Congress does not have the power to grant private parties the right to wage war against a foreign state, so the Iraq War could not constitutionally be privately funded and operated, as you stated. But in the case of the war in Afghanistan, the US did have the option of issuing letters of marque and reprisal to capture Osama bin Laden, as opposed to effectively declaring war against Afghanistan and engaging in wholesale nation-building.

  2. Shawn Says:

    Why would Robin Hood steal from poor college students? Or even their middle-class families? He would steal from the upper-class, from the top 1% who have 35% of the wealth, from the millionaires. And he would still be arrested today for theft. And most people still wouldn’t sympathize with the grotesquely wealthy for their loss.

    • Tristan Brown Says:

      I understand that most people today would cheer Robin Hood on, and I believe that is a failing of our society. It is classism.

  3. Shawn Says:

    So, you haven’t really explained how this will “actually work”. Your claim seems to be that all social services will be run based on private companies and they will be subsidized by private donation to cover the poor. Maybe.

    But I doubt it. In fact the poor donate more than the rich already by a pretty spectacular margin ( The richest group, who average over $150,000 income and so should have plenty donate if they were really so generous, only give 2.1%. Do you really think that if they stopped getting taxed they’d donate most of it? I’m extremely skeptical.

    As for the article you reference, it seems extremely subjective. I’d like to see what sources they have that say 30% of government funding is effective, while 98% of Salvation Army’s is. The article notes that during times of crisis people donated huge amounts of money (e.g. after 9/11), but that will never be the problem. The problem is: how are you going to fund schools in poor neighborhoods? Is there going to be a flood of donations coming in to support mundane needs like this? I don’t see why there would be.

    • Tristan Brown Says:

      The thing is, that story is discussing pre-tax income levels. Between income taxes, corporate taxes, and property taxes, someone in the highest tax bracket could be paying more than 60% of their income to the state and federal governments.

      So, in reality, if you adjust those percentages to consider after-tax income, the rich would be in the same >4% bracket as the poor. Regarding percentage of after-tax income, rich people are as generous, if not more so than the poor, and they don’t even need a religious reason to be that way.

      Now, imagine the psychological effect if suddenly, nobody had government services to rely on. Rather than hearing advertisements for universal health care and “vote NO on charter schools,” we’d instead be hearing advertisements for charitable private health care funds and educational endowments. I think it’s reasonable to assume that at the very least, most of the lobbying money for these causes would now be going towards donations rather than getting lost in the political machine. People who already care and put resources into these causes will continue to care. Additionally, I’d expect people who don’t donate because they feel powerless to help financially in our current system to feel more empowered knowing that they can provide real help with their own money, rather than just voting and protesting and hoping the government will do it right.

      That’s where your extra donations will come from. I think this would be plenty to support our current standard of living as a society.

      Here’s another way of thinking about it: moral gratification is as much a commodity as anything else. When people donate, that is what they are buying. Being a commodity, free-market principles apply. The more supply there is of it, the easier it is to acquire it. Moral gratification is a desirable thing, so the ease of access to the increased supply therefore creates demand. Hence, the greater the need in our society for some form of charity, the more people there will be willing to help fill that need. That is, unless they think it’s someone else’s job to fill that need, such as is the case with government programs. That causes the market to break down, as moral gratification is easier to achieve by trying to get the government to do its job than by directly helping people.

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  6. Barack Obama Says:

    Tristan, you are a dumbass.

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