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Can Any Government Be Moral?


Please understand that I am not setting out to prove my pet doctrine in this column. Furthermore, I do not think that people who disagree with me are stupid. I’m taking this question seriously and I intend to examine it in an honest way.

The Morality Confusion

There must be dozens of definitions for “what is moral” and a sea of confusion surrounding the entire conversation. But it’s really not that hard.

I can trace what we call “the Golden Rule” back to about 580 BC, when the Greek philosopher Thales said this:

That for which we blame others, let us not do ourselves.

There are records of other Greek philosophers saying the same thing at almost the same time, Confucius saying it a century or two later, and a stream of people saying it ever since. I can furthermore guarantee that people whose names we don’t know said the same thing thousands of years prior.

The Golden Rule has been with us for a long, long time, and it has worked better than anything else throughout all those years. Sure, human life is complicated, and sometimes applying the Golden Rule takes some judgment, but the principle itself stands.

And yes, I know that a motivated philosopher can come up with an impossible test case, but that’s not a serious concern. Send the one-in-a-million scenario to a specialist and get busy with the other 999,999.

Statements like, “We can’t really know right from wrong,” or “You only see that as right or wrong because of your culture,” are silly at a minimum and are more commonly brain poison. I can promise you that if you act according to the Golden Rule, you’ll do the right thing 99.9% of the time. Do you think any academic system of ethics could touch that success rate?

Why should we complicate this? Integrity (which is what the Golden Rule boils down to) is a simple concept that can be understood by any functional adult. And this means that moral clarity is not only possible, but universally accessible.

Morality, in the end, is simple: What you don’t like, don’t do to others. This stands upon self-reference, something that is built into us and operates effortlessly within us.

Morality is a bit like a BIOS for human life (BIOS being a set of basic commands that control a computer). As such, it is of tremendous importance.

What passes for educated discourse in the modern world often passes off morality as silly old superstitions, but the same people who make these statements deny them by their actions every day. When any of us complain about the jerk who cuts into the Starbucks line, the cruel parent, or the lying colleague, we are accusing them of being immoral, and we are confirming that morality matters to us.

So, it is very important for us to ask questions about morality, but we should ask them sincerely, not as a tool for winning some kind of debate. Debating is a poor substitute for understanding, and word fights are primarily an exercise in entropy.

What Is Government?

If we are to ask whether governments are or can be moral, we must begin by answering this question: What really is government?

In plain terms, government is a group of humans that rules over other humans.

Formal definitions stay close to “an organization that maintains a monopoly on force in a fixed geographic area.” In actual practice, that’s all but identical to “a group of humans that rules over other humans.”

In simple terms, government is the organization that tells us what we can or cannot do. And if we disobey it, it claims the right to punish us, and quite often does punish us.

As the formal definition says, government is an organization built upon force. Without force, it ceases being “government.”

Government is not a productive organization like a commercial business or a family farm. The people who form a government live off the wealth of others, which the government system removes from those others. This is beyond dispute.

We’ll address the “Is this necessary?” question later. For now, we are merely trying to understand the nature of government. And the fact is that government survives by taking the wealth of others, by force.

We all know this, of course. Taxes are taken from us every day, under heavy and credible threats: If you don’t pay, bad things happen to you. That’s not a function of persuasion; it’s a function of force… of violence. Behind every process of taxation stand armed men.

This “money-gathering under violent threat” is the central function of government. Without it, the people who make up the government would starve. Before soldiers can be armed, before roads can be built, before anything can be done, government must take money from people by force.

Like government, businesses also take money from other people. Businesses, however, get other people’s money by persuasion: If you give me some of your money, I’ll give you these groceries. That’s a voluntary trade.

The use of force is what sets government apart from other human organizations.

Let me repeat: This is not a setup to win an argument. Nor is it an effort to sanctify my personal dogma. I’m trying to find real, honest answers here. I am certainly streamlining a bit, but not, I think, unfairly: I am using the largest factors here—things that we all experience on a continual basis.

Complication very often serves to prevent conclusions. There is a whole set of academic philosophies dedicated to the proposition that you can never know anything denominated in words. If you let those people dominate your discussions, you’ll never reach any conclusion at all.

Is It Moral?

The question here is a simple one: Is it moral for one group of men to take money by force from everyone else?

Obviously, no one likes having their money being taken by force, including tax-gatherers. Any of them would call the burglary of their home a bad thing.

So, the conclusion here has to be that taking money by force is immoral: The people who do it to others wouldn’t like it done to them. And since government can survive only by taking money forcibly, we have to conclude that government is not, and cannot be, moral.

This is not a political conclusion; it is a moral conclusion. And morality remains a primary factor in human existence.

Regardless of the fact that many people, Americans in particular, like to think that their government is an agent of good upon Earth, we cannot call any government moral. A particular government may be “less bad” than another government, even far less bad, but it can never be “good.”

Whether that conclusion troubles us is a secondary issue. The conclusion stands: If the Golden Rule has validity, then government is immoral.

For a government to be moral, it would have to stop taking money by force and start gathering it by persuasion alone.

“Are You Saying That…?”

No, I’m not saying anything beyond the fact that government cannot be moral.

If you feel like jumping to a political conclusion, let me warn you that going about to “get rid of government” is about the worst thing you could do. First of all, it would be immoral and cruel to take government away from people who desperately want it to run their lives. Secondly, that strategy doesn’t work.

If you’d still like a political conclusion, please print this quotation from Buckminster Fuller in large letters and hang it over your desk:

You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing obsolete.

“But It’s Necessary!”

Many people have a hard time thinking of government as anything less than “that which was, is, and ever shall be.” And I understand why; we are all trained in that thinking from cradle to grave. So, here’s a scenario that accepts the truth that government is immoral but still supports it as a necessity:

Government, even though immoral, is still necessary, if every other choice would be worse.

If all other choices lead to more than 260 million deaths per century (as government caused in the 20th century); if all other choices result in the loss of more than half of a productive person’s wages; if all other choices squash independent thought worse and submerge human thinking even further into rank obedience… then government is the best choice and should remain in control of the world.

But if not, government should be abandoned as a concept.

Some experiments would clearly be in order. Too bad they’re forbidden under threat of force.

Paul Rosenberg

This article was originally published by Casey Research.

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