The morality of government

The right to bear arms

The morality of war


Who owns land?


The right to independence

American independence

Basque independence

Northern Ireland

Countries by population

The free market


Crime and punishment

The health industry


The morality of government

According to my own personal morality, using force on innocent people is wrong.

Any government relies on the use or threat of force in order to perform its basic function (implementing its own laws) and to obtain its income (taxes). In any many cases, it uses or threatens to use force against people who are innocent — at least by my definition.

Is government fundamentally immoral, then? Not necessarily.

In the words of the American Declaration of Independence, “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”.

Indeed. If people consent to be governed, then governing them must be moral, even if it involves the use of force. It seems paradoxical that people should agree to be forced to do anything, but my impression is that a large majority of people do consent to be governed — if only because they see no good alternative.

If we agree that the morality of government is entirely based on the consent of the governed, we have to consider what happens when a government loses the consent of the governed. Such situations fall into various different categories. Let's first assume that people accept government in general but not their current government in particular.

  • The discontented form a majority in the country as a whole. In this case, in a democratic country they can vote out the government — although they may have to wait several years for the chance to do so.
  • The discontented form a majority in a particular region, but not in the country as a whole. Thus, they can't vote out the government. If their discontent is strong and persistent, they may wish to secede from the country.
  • The discontented are outnumbered in every part of the country. They can't vote out the government, and they can't hope to secede. If they consent to the general principle of democracy, the government can still claim to govern them morally; but what if they don't? See below.

What about people who don't consent to government in general, or who don't consent to the majority-wins principle of democracy?

Such people are relatively few, and most believers in democratic government would be inclined to dismiss them as nutcases. However, in principle it is a moral problem. However few, there are undoubtedly people who genuinely don't consent to be governed. If they scrupulously avoid the use of force themselves, I don't see how any government can be morally entitled to threaten them with force in the process of attempting to govern them.

There is a possible alternative to government. Libertarians such as David Friedman have speculated that a society could work in which competing non-governmental organizations perform all the useful functions of government, without taxing anyone, and without using force except on violent criminals. You may not believe this — most people don't — but some people do believe it, and they're entitled to their opinion. Having read Friedman's book, The Machinery of Freedom, I'm inclined to believe it myself, though until it's demonstrated in practice I'd be a fool to place full confidence in it.