Friday, February 3, 2012

An Objective Foundation for Government

Ayn Rand’s famous essay “The Nature of Government” in The Virtue of Selfishness seems to appeal to almost everyone, right and left.  Whether or not we want the government to do more, we all accept that it must at least provide an army, police forces, and courts of law.  To sociologists, any government that cannot achieve these is called a failed state.  The problem may be more complicated…

Ayn Rand did not invent this theory.  She took it almost literally from German sociologist Max Weber’s 1919 essay “Politics as a Vocation” (Politik als Beruf), originally an address to the Free Students at Munich University. 

“Sociologically, the state cannot be defined in terms of its ends. There is scarcely any task that some political association has not taken in hand … Ultimately, one can define the modern state sociologically only in terms of the specific means peculiar to it, as to every political association, namely, the use of physical force. 
Today, however, we have to say that a state is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory. Note that 'territory' is one of the characteristics of the state. Specifically, at the present time, the right to use physical force is ascribed to other institutions or to individuals only to the extent to which the state permits it. The state is considered the sole source of the 'right' to use violence.”  (C. Wright Mills translation)

This specific formulation did not come from John Stuart Mill or John Locke or even Aristotle.  For Aristotle, government was a natural consequence of the state as a union of families.  As such, it cannot have the form of rule limited to one family, to that of the master or head of household.  For Locke, we invoke a social contract in which the pursuit of those who violate our property is the work of the state by a division of labor.  Moreover, for Locke, the courts were not a branch of government.  In The Second Treatise, the three functions of government are given as diplomatic, legislative, and executive.  Courts of law derive from the community; and in England, they were a bulwark against the government: the king’s men had to come before a court and apply for a warrant.  For John Stuart Mill (On Liberty, 1869) government’s role was to prevent harm, which is not necessarily the same thing as preventing crime. 

Weber’s essay reflected the structural and functional methods of sociology, consonant with the positivist tradition of objective description, rather than subjective prescription.  However, modern Objectivists insist that fact and value are inseparable.  Therefore, the justification for government must proceed from observations that are abstracted into an explanatory theory which is then tested (and hopefully supported) by other facts.  

Ayn Rand asserted that capitalism requires objective law.  By “objective” she did not mean good, only consistent.  She pointed out – cogently – that dictatorship is not really iron rule, but caprice: the whim of the bureaucrat.  Capitalism requires property rights.  Hernando de Soto has shown how the trillions of dollars of value owned by the poor is lost for the want of such rights in the so-called “under-developed” nations.  

Beyond those observations, little has been achieved to develop a theory of government that is consistent with objective fact and value.  It may be that all that is required is a legislature, meeting infrequently of course, to review the statutes.  Courts and police can come from other sectors of the economy.  

Rand also asserted that only voluntary funding can be moral: taxation is theft.  It may be then that granted voluntary funding and market solutions for adjudication and protection, the primary purpose of government would be social welfare in the Rawlsian sense: a “floor” under every citizen to ensure against the involuntary want of basic needs.


1 comment:

  1. Everybody wants lots of stuff from the government but noboby likes to pay for any of the benefits that they receive from it.The situation is unsustainable the budget is in the hole by one and a half trillion dollars. Many of the states and local governments are in such bad shape that they are selling of vital parts of their infrastructure to private companies in many cases at rock bottom prices just to keep up with the guaranteed pensions and other benefits for their retired employees.


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