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Thursday, November 1, 1990

The Nature of Government

Mr. Dekkers, who lives in Belgium, is the founder of the European Libertarian Center. This article is excerpted from his foreword to the forthcoming Hungarian-language edition of Planned Chaos by Ludwig von Mises.

In the fable “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” the magic words “Open Sesame!” give access to fabulous wealth. Many former Communist countries seem to assign the same magical power to the word “democracy.” Democracy, of course, is a fair-sized step in the right direction, but some very important considerations must be taken into account.

No democratic majority can create wealth just by making laws because none of the things that form wealth are found freely in nature. Nature offers only potentials: raw materials that have to be mined, transported, transformed, packed, distributed, and so on. Wealth is created by individuals-by their ambition, motivation, labor, thrift, investments, organizational talents, and, most of all, by their thinking and ideas. As Ludwig von Mises wrote: “Production is not something physical, material, and external; it is a spiritual and intellectual phenomenon. Its essential requisites are not human labor and external forces and things, but the decision of the mind to use these factors as means for the attainment of ends. What produces the product are not toil and trouble in themselves, but the fact that the toiling is guided by reason.” (Human Action [Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, third edition, 1966], pp. 141-42)

Politicians can’t create wealth, but they can destroy it because that is the nature of political power. As Mises wrote: “State or government is the social apparatus of compulsion and coercion. It has the monopoly of violent action. No individual is free to use violence or the threat of violence if the government has not accorded this right to him. The state is essentially an institution for the preservation of peaceful interhuman relations. However, for the preservation of peace it must be prepared to crush the onslaughts of peace-breakers.” (Human Action, p. 149)

Government reserves for itself the legal faculty to use physical force. All laws are backed by that legal monopoly, the threat to impose fines and/or imprisonment on those who don’t comply or obey.

Power can be misused or abused. I may have a gun to defend myself and my property against thieves, but if I use it to steal someone else’s property, I am misusing the gun and abusing the power it confers on me. In the same way politicians can misuse or abuse the power of the state.

The more the power of the state is concentrated in fewer hands, the greater the danger of abuse. A one-man dictatorship will be more dangerous than a triumvirate, which will be more dangerous than rule by a party leadership. The majority rule of democracy is a further improvement, and it has the advantage that it can be changed or revoked by elections. Nevertheless no majority, be it democratically elected or not, offers in itself the guarantee that it won’t abuse the power at its disposal.

It is clear that the use of governmental power must somehow be limited. One way to restrict government power is by a “super-law”—a law that can’t be changed by a political majority vote, a law to which government itself must comply. In most countries such a “super-law” is called the constitution. The function of the constitution is, or should be, to protect the individual against the abuse of government power by politicians.

But can we determine objectively the function of government? Can we state precisely the limits to which government should go in exercising its power?

This comes down to the question: “Can we delimit properly and objectively the legitimate, the just, the appropriate use of governmental violence?” Mises addressed this question in a speech before The Foundation for Economic Education in 1969: “The main problem of the market, the main problem of human cooperation, is the fact that there are people who resort to violent action, who do not comply with the rules that are necessary for the preservation and operation of the market. In order to prevent this violent action, in order to make possible the workings of the market, of human cooperation, of human society, it is necessary to have an institution that protects the market against violence, against people who lack the knowledge or the will to comply with the rules of peaceful exchange of commodities and services. This is the function of government.”

Violence is the opposite of voluntary cooperation. Violence means coercion, oppression, injustice, and ultimately war. The only way, however, to oppose violence is with violence. Violence thus has two aspects. It can be used aggressively: an aggressor initiates violence and uses it against otherwise peaceful fellowmen. Or violence can be used defensively: it is then used only in reaction against aggressors.

The conclusion is that government, the embodiment of all legal violence, can act in a positive way for the inhabitants of a country only if it uses its power to protect them against foreign invaders and domestic predators.

Government can create the most appropriate conditions for voluntary and creative cooperation between individuals by protecting them against violence. In that way, government can be the individual’s best ally. But when government abuses its entrusted power, it can become the most dangerous of enemies. The legally disarmed individual is powerless against the exclusive legal wielder of physical force. History is filled with examples of both. []

Ideas On Liberty

The Necessity of Private Property

If history could prove and teach us anything, it would be that private ownership of the means of production is a necessary requisite of civilization and material well-being. All civilizations have up to now been based on private property. Only nations committed to the principle of private property have risen above penury and produced science, art and literature. There is no experience to show that any other social system could provide mankind with any of the achievements of civilization. Nevertheless, only a few people consider this as a sufficient and incontestable refutation of the socialist program.

—Ludwig von Mises,

Planned Chaos