All Commentary
Thursday, October 1, 1964

In Self Defense

However much one might wish it otherwise, a realistic view of man­kind reveals that violence against others is still in common use as a way of trying to satisfy human wants. and this is the reason for government.

Whether government is orga­nized for the purpose of attacking and plundering or for the purpose of protecting life and property, it may be concluded that the size and scope of government—relative to the total of human relationships within a society—will depend di­rectly or indirectly upon the ex­tent to which individuals rely upon violence against others to try to satisfy their wants.

Every act of trespass against the person or the property of an­other, against that other’s will, tends to provoke retaliation in kind; and such actions and reac­tions of violent nature continuous­ly work themselves out so as to constitute and justify the effective governmental force within any society.

It is well to recognize and re­member that the purpose and nature of violence is to overpower, and that the prevailing power bloc in a society is the effective gov­ernment at any given time. Vio­lence as such carries no built-in regulator or means of self-re­straint; the object ever is over­powering strength. The tendency of government is to grow in power. Old governments do not simply wither away, but invari­ably and inevitably die by violence at the hands of a superior force that may be either externally or internally initiated; a government is dead when it can no longer defend itself.

Observing this fatal tendency of governmental power to grow—and grow corrupt—has led some individuals to the conclusion that governments are the cause of violence among men and that peace would reign universal if only all existing governmental structures were dismantled. What these persons fail to see is that human nature is the source of violence among human beings and that to change human nature it­self is a bit more complicated than simply to change or abandon cer­tain institutional manifestations of the nature of man.

Until all men are agreed that all men are perfect, violence is apt to manifest itself as govern­mental control in one form or another. Thus, it would seem far more fruitful to try to learn to live with government than without it. Despite the discouraging record of the decline and fall of empires, there is no shred of evidence that the people involved might have done better without governmental structures.

Government Has No Automatic Limits

The modern rapid drift toward socialism, even in the United States of America under what is widely acknowledged to be one of the outstanding efforts of history to diffuse and limit governmental power, may not be taken as evi­dence that such efforts were fruit­less. One may properly conclude from the American experience that the Founding Fathers did not devise a government that would keep itself within the pre-scribed bounds of defending the lives and property of all peaceful citizens. There is overwhelming and irrefutable evidence that the government of the United States of America has been drawing unto itself through the years vast powers over the peaceful creative activities of the citizenry—powers greatly exceeding those defined and specified in the Constitution.

To draw the foregoing conclu­sion is not to say that the Found­ing Fathers were derelict in their duty to future generations. Quite possibly they were aware that a Constitution can do little, if any­thing, more for a people than they are able and willing to do for themselves. Perhaps they knew that the government they formed might tend to grow in power and grow corrupt. They might well have understood that there is nothing in the nature of any gov­ernment that would automatically serve to regulate and limit its scope and size. Conceivably, their major aim was to raise a standard to which the wise and honest might repair—if and when men sought freedom and were worthy of it.

In any event, there are no grounds for a conclusion that the people of the United States today are in worse condition than if there had been no effort to consti­tute a government of limited powers. That the limits are being violated and exceeded in our time is neither a discredit to the Founding Fathers nor is it neces­sarily a reflection on those now holding political office and exer­cising the power of government.

Our big government is simply and solely a measure of the ex­tent to which citizens of the United States have come to rely upon violence in their relation­ships. Government has no alter­native but to grow in proportion to such violence—or be displaced by a superior power. If there are those of us who want less govern­ment intervention, then it be­hooves us to find new ways and means to rid ourselves and our fellow citizens of our violent na­tures.

How to Reform the World?

Where does one begin? If he were to take his cue from the popular approach, he would likely join in the demonstrations to “ban the bomb” and to reform the rest of the world en masse. He would form an organization to show a superiority of numbers favoring his proposed reform. Then, with nothing but peace in their hearts, the assembled re­formers would sit in their neigh­bor’s path until he saw the error of his ways and joined their ranks to help save other lost souls.

Yet, there are among men those who would choose an open path in preference to being reformed, and sometimes they react to reform efforts in ways that lead to vio­lence. Implicit in the so-called right to picket is an unfounded presumption that the victim will not reply in kind. And the right to strike implies that none will strike back. But some men violently resent being picketed and struck against. That fine line between peaceful picketing and rioting is often blurred and scarcely dis­tinguishable, even to the seasoned law enforcement officers assigned to duty for such mass demonstra­tions of collective “passive resist­ance.” There can be little doubt that much of the inordinate growth of government power in the United States in our time results from the attempt to serve the interests of organized pres­sure groups and, at the same time, to restrain their propensity to violence.

The American prohibition ex­periment affords a clear example of the way in which violence erupts and government grows out of the efforts of some persons to reform others. Marching, chant­ing, sloganeering, hatchet-swing­ing demonstrators depict the evils of alcohol until a majority is aroused to pass a law to prohibit the manufacture and sale of intoxicants. Then, behind the law, arise gangs of bootleggers and their constant gang warfare. This, in turn, calls for armies of law enforcement officers, beset by bribery and corruption and vio­lence on the grand scale.

Consider for a moment a few of the jobs one pressure group or another among us has persuaded policemen to do for us, by violence if anyone resists:

     teach our children, not only the three R’s, but all the pertinent facts of life.

     build our homes, summer camps, ski resorts.

     perform our charities.

     purify our drinking water.

     dispose of our garbage.

     conserve our resources.

     carry our mail.

     provide our electricity.

     build and maintain subways, railways, highways, waterways, and airways.

     regulate interest, freight, and utility rates of all kinds.

     protect us from floods, droughts, hurricanes, earthquakes, fires, freezes, insects, poisons, and other hazards.

     build and staff our hospitals.

     insure us against illness, ac­cident, old age.

     supervise our gambling.

     judge our published communi­cations.

     broadcast political messages to foreigners as well as ourselves.

     enforce our agreements in re­straint of trade.

     intervene in foreign affairs.—suppress foreign competition.

     underwrite our unemployment and business failures.

     support farm prices.

     rebuild and renovate depressed areas.

     et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Though far from complete, this list is sufficient to signify a great deal of violence and a great deal of government in our lives. And it affords a major clue as to why policemen may sometimes fail to appear promptly at the scene of a crime. With so many more laws to enforce, there are that many more definitions of and opportunities for illegal action.

Careful scrutiny of the forego­ing list will reveal another star­tling fact: that many of the supposedly domestic interven­tions of the advanced welfare state have international consequences that lead to war. For instance, the postal service, subsidized ocean shipping and international air transport, foreign aid, farm price supports, international trade agreements, tariff policies, and similar governmental activities breed foreign antagonism and lead to armament races and defense tactics that bring nations to the brink, and then to war.

If violence is in the nature of man, as we have presumed, and not necessarily a consequence of government, it would seem logical to defend oneself against this evil tendency. Thus, reasonable men will try to codify their rules of conduct, “raise a standard to which the wise and honest can re­pair,” and organize their defensive forces to constitute the govern­ment of their society. Its sole, logi­cal purpose would be to suppress any outbreak of violence, fraud, or coercive threat against the life or property of any peaceful per­son, with general taxing power sufficient to sustain itself in this limited defensive role.

The Key to Peace

Beyond resort to force for such defense, peaceful persons would look to their own efforts, and to voluntary exchange through serv­ice to others, to satisfy their own wants. Their hope for a better world or a better society would be through self-improvement rather than the reform of other persons. Self-improvement is a do-it-your­self project without violence toward others; it affords an ex­ample others may follow without provoking their violent retalia­tion. It broadens the path to lib­erty, diminishes the need for gov­ernment.

It is the key to peace.



Frederic Bastiat

The principle or justification for the collective right of govern­ment is based on individual right. The common police force that protects this collective right cannot logically have any other purpose or mission than that for which it acts as a substitute. Thus, since no individual can logically or legitimately use force against the person, liberty, or property of another individual, then the common force—for the same reason—cannot logically be used to destroy the person, liberty, or property of individuals or groups. 

  • Paul L. Poirot was a long-time member of the staff of the Foundation for Economic Education and editor of its journal, The Freeman, from 1956 to 1987.