Not the chess piece, but a king in real life. This thought-provoking video presents a thought experiment that challenges you to come up with just one good thing that you could do with your power if you were King–or President or Prime Minister or Senator, etc.
At first the task seems easy. Yes we are all aware that there are many examples of government officials who abuse their power, but this does not mean that all exercises of power are bad. It just means that some people are corrupted by power. But certainly good politicians–good Kings and Presidents and others–can use government power for good, right?
Upon more closely examining various possible uses of power we realize that many of our plans to do good with government power fail. We realize that every time we use government power we are using brute physical force against others. While it is true that there are times when using physical force is justified, such as in self-defense or defense of others, we find that government never only uses force defensively.
For example, while a police officer may justly use force against someone with a gun who is threatening another person in order to defend that person, we find that that police officer’s salary is obtained from taxpayers using threats of force. Rather than ask people if they wish to voluntarily purchase the police’s protection and justice services, the government forces everyone in a particular geographic region to pay for their services regardless of whether they want the services or not.
Maybe some people wish to purchase similar protection and justice services from other a different organization rather than from the particular government that employs the aforementioned police officer. When a government uses its power to force everyone in a particular geographic region to pay it for its own security and justice services, however, the people who would prefer to purchase the services of an alternative provider instead find themselves the victims of government power.
We see the same problem with our plans to use government power to help feed the poor or provide them with housing. While charities accomplish these noble goals by asking people to make voluntary contributions to the causes, we find that governments always end up threatening people with physical force who do not not wish to help out–or wish to help out by donating to another organization instead.
As Ludwig von Mises writes:
It is important to remember that government interference always means either violent action or the threat of such action. The funds that a government spends for whatever purposes are levied by taxation. And taxes are paid because the taxpayers are afraid of offering resistance to the tax gatherers. They know that any disobedience or resistance is hopeless. As long as this is the state of affairs, the government is able to collect the money that it wants to spend. Government is in the last resort the employment of armed men, of policemen, gendarmes, soldiers, prison guards, and hangmen. The essential feature of government is the enforcement of its decrees by beating, killing, and imprisoning. Those who are asking for more government interference are asking ultimately for more compulsion and less freedom.
If this is your first time considering this point of view it is likely that you will reject it. Government exists in so many aspects of society and is filled with so many kind, well-intentioned individuals, that the thought that all government action may be unjust and harmful may seem absurd. We are all tempted to believe that surely some government action must be good or, at the very least, a necessary evil to prevent civilization from degenerating into a chaotic Hobbesian war of all-against-all.
But if you are honest with yourself and put in the effort to examine your reasons for believing that the government action that you support is just, as well as put in the effort to learn what a society without a coercive monopolistic government might look like, then perhaps you will not dismiss this view as absurd. You may surprise yourself and conclude that there is nothing good you could do with your power If You Were King.
As Roderick T. Long says it so simply in An Open Letter to the Peace Movement, “A consistent peace activist must be an anarchist.”
I recommend reading Gustave de Molinari’s “The Production of Security” for an introduction to what a society might look like without a monopoly on security, i.e. a government.
As always, if you have any questions or comments please feel free to mention them below. Thank you.