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The Nature of Government and Liberty

The advantage of such a distressing election year is that it gives us the opportunity for serious reflection.  Realizing that our political system has reached a crisis point, we need to step back from the so-called debates over single issues and examine fundamental political questions.  In this essay I propose to define the nature of government and then demonstrate the necessary consequences of that nature to political liberty.

Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary (1996) defines government as “the political direction and control exercised over the actions of the members, citizens, or inhabitants of communities, societies, and states.”  Notice the words “direction and control.”  G. K. Chesterton is blunter.  “This is the first essential element in government: coercion.”[1]  On the other end of the political spectrum the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, describes the state’s power as “coercive.”[2]  When an Italian Marxist, an English Roman Catholic, and even America’s Webster agree that government is coercion, we can be pretty certain that we have an accurate definition of government.

In case it is not clear what is meant by coercion, a couple of examples will help.  First, in order to fund its programs, the government takes a portion of the worker’s salary.  This practice is called taxation.  If a worker refuses to pay taxes, he will be fined and/or jailed.  This is coercion.  If a male between the ages of 18 to 25 fails to register for the draft, he can be fined and jailed.  This too is coercion.  In other words, government as a coercive force has the power to force people to do what they do not want to do.

Some may complain, “Taxation and the military are legitimate functions of government.”  This may be true, but legitimate coercion is still coercion.  Unless we are anarchists who deny that any government is legitimate, we must admit that even a just government is coercive.

Another complaint might be, “But in a democracy we freely choose our government and its programs.”  Democracy, however, is also coercive.  It is a system of government in which the majority can force the minority to do its will.

If one argues that government is necessary in order to control human sin, I will not quibble.  The Apostle Paul himself writes, that God has instituted government and that a ruler “is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4).  Government controls us because we can’t control ourselves.  It is necessary, but it is still coercive.

How does the coercive nature of government relate to liberty, one of our fundamental political values?   Political liberty can be defined as the voluntary exercise of an individual’s will.  In other words, as a free act it is not coerced.  Therefore, the coercive nature of government is necessarily in tension with the non-coercive nature of political liberty.

Since humans often seek to harm others, government legitimately seeks to limit the exercise of their will.  Nevertheless, we must not forget that the coercive power of government is also exercised by sinful humans.  Because the overwhelming strength of the collective force of government is exercised by selfish humans government potentially represents the single greatest threat to individual liberty.  Given this reality, clear and firm limits must be placed on the powers of government in order to protect political liberty.

The necessary tension between government’s coercive power and the exercise of political liberty, while crucial in itself, should also be borne in mind when considering the steadily increasing role of government in providing goods and services.  The enormity of the transition from government that is limited to preventing individuals from harming others to government as the chief provider of health, education, and the insurer of an adequate living standard for all must not be underestimated.  The former has the goal of minimizing governmental coercive powers in order to maximize individual liberty.  Of necessity the latter greatly increases government’s coercive powers at the expense of individual liberty.  It does so in four ways.

  1. The entrance of government into what were formerly spheres of individual choice means that society is characterized more by coercion than liberty, since government is coercion.
  2. Closely related to the first is the fact that governments tend to seek to monopolize the areas in which they are involved. This tendency results in eliminating or severely regulating, for example, alternative sources for health, education and economic exchange.  The more it controls these areas the more coercive power it has.
  3. Government must tax its citizenry more heavily in order to fund these programs. With decreased income and less control over the fruit of his own labor the individual has fewer resources with which to exercise his individual will.
  4. If political liberty as the exercise of one’s individual will depends upon a certain independence of character, then increased dependence on government will result in a populace that is unable and unwilling to be free.

My point in this discussion is not to advocate for a limited government or a more expansive government but rather to demonstrate the importance of clear thinking on fundamental issues in the political realm.  If we don’t recognize that government is coercion, which by necessity limits individual political liberty, we cannot speak intelligently about the justice of any proposed government program and policy.  We might also find ourselves waking up one morning as slaves of the state, well fed slaves perhaps, but slaves nonetheless.

[1] What’s Wrong with the World (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1920), p. 201.

[2] The Antonio Gramsci Reader, ed. David Forgacs (New York: New York University Press, 2000), p. 307.

2 thoughts on “The Nature of Government and Liberty

  1. Excellent article, Bill.

    I wish more Americans could truly understand what you have written. Government is, indeed, force (coercion). And too many people in our country are willing to give up our liberties for the presumed safety and security that government has said it will provide in exchange. I believe that when we give up essential liberty for the safety and security we have wandered down the wrong path.

    1. Thanks, Ken. I apologize that I didn’t respond sooner. There was some glitch in my website, which has been fixed now. You are right about the danger of seeking safety and security. Understanding government as coercion or the exercise of force means that there is a sort of equation between it and individual liberty. More government=less liberty. Of course, this equation doesn’t mean that all government is bad. For example, social contract theory, which has significant limitations in my mind, argues that in order to preserve property, etc., we need to give up some liberties. Obviously, there is much more that needs to be said, but I wanted to start with this understanding of government because we live in an age of expanded governmental services and thus of its powers.

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