On Power and Trust


By Carl Watner

I have been reading some very old back issues of THE FREEMAN and have already shared at least one gem with you.

Here is another interesting commentary.

In an October 1977 book review, Henry Hazlitt observed that the problem with ever-expanding democratic government is not a problem limited to the democratic form of government. “Is it not rather that of all government?” In other words, all forms of government tend to break beyond their limits.

And isn’t this the problem that has so far proved intractable? Writers from time immemorial have tried to solve it with facile and question-begging phrases. Aristocracy must be the best form of government, because it means government by the wisest and the best. Ah yes; but how do you get the people to recognize and choose and put into power the wisest and the best? Well then, in any case, the government, however chosen, should be only given very limited powers, so it cannot abuse them. Ah yes, again. But what powers? Can we draw a precise line around them? Can we get enough people to agree on that line? And even if we can once draw such a line, giving neither too little nor too much, how can we prevent whoever the government is from using whatever powers it already has, to extend its powers still further?

We come back to the fundamental dilemma: To prevent chaos, violence, rapine, or rule by the gangsters, somebody must be trusted with some power; but nobody can be completely trusted with much power. [From Henry Hazlitt’s book review of POPULAR GOVERNMENT, THE FREEMAN, October 1977, p, 640]

How is a voluntaryist to respond?

“Yes,” we will always have people with us who act in a criminal manner. “Yes,” peaceful individuals will always need protection from criminals.

The question thus becomes: how do we best protect ourselves from the criminal element? The usual answer to this question is: Some form of government is necessary to establish peace and maintain law and order in society. Otherwise violence and chaos will ensue. The voluntaryist rejects this answer as a false alternative.

As we know, the government way is to monopolize protection by placing the most serious means of protection (police, courts, and army) in the hands of those who work for the government. The government way is to outlaw any competition in the production of security and to collect its revenues by way of taxation. In practice and theory, this means that any one not wanting protection, or choosing to reject the government service, or choosing to protect themselves is imprisoned for failure to pay for a government service which they do not desire. These arrangements place very dangerous powers in the hands of government agents. They are only limited by how much uproar, clamor, and ultimately, evasion and resistance, their subjects will exercise. Paraphrasing the ancient Romans: Who is to protect us from our protectors?

The voluntaryist way does not rely on trust in the production of security any more than it does in the production of food, shelter, clothing, or other necessities of life. Yes, a grocer may turn venal or criminal or even be negligent. But the grocer cannot force you to trade with him; nor place you in jail, nor confiscate your property if you refuse. Competition and the general societal respect for private property is what keep people honest and trustworthy. When the grocer knows you can turn elsewhere to buy your food, he is forced by that knowledge to satisfy your wants (if he wants to trade with you). He knows that he can no more command you to trade with him at terms he chooses, than you can force him to sell you his goods at prices you set.

The government operates within a totally different environment. Legislators know they can have other government employees use violence to enforce their statutes. Internal Revenue agents will eventually turn up at your door if you do not pay your federal taxes. If you do not pay the IRS, armed federal marshals will show up next – to haul you off to court. If you refuse to go, you will be attacked and possibly murdered like the recalcitrant people at Waco, TX and at Randy Weaver’s house in Idaho. The crimes of the lawmakers are legion. Who wouldn’t act this way if there were no serious consequences? History has proven, time and time again, that governments expand their powers and break whatever constitutional limits are designed to constrain them. As Lord Acton noted, government power corrupts because government agents are not held to the same standards of accountability that we apply to private individuals. The commandment says thou shall not steal and kill, though government agents act as though it says, “Unless you are the government.”

The voluntaryist way relies on competition in the production of security. Different people may choose different levels of defensive protection, depending on their ability to pay and their demand for protective services. They will hire protective agencies just as they hire purveyors of food, shelter, and clothing. What will the poor do? They will do just as they did in the days before government assistance. They will look for charitable relief to protect them.

Is it possible that private protection agencies may turn criminal? “Yes,” but the institutional structures of a free society minimize the chance, whereas in a government society the government already acts in a criminal manner (though only a minority of people recognize it to be so). The voluntaryist way, as F. A. Hayek once pointed out, “is a system under which bad men can do least harm” because some people are not compelled to follow the legislative mandates of others.* Given that people in private service are no more angelic than men and women in government service – what are we to do if some protection agency tries to act like a government and ‘force’ people to buy its services, and then locks them up if they refuse? First, we are not to sanction and legitimate their crimes (by calling their stealing ‘taxation’ or their murders ‘resistance to court orders’). Second, we are to totally boycott and ostracize those who disrespect and violate our lives and property. Third, we are to keep in mind that it is always our primary duty to ourselves and our family to be able to protect ourselves, in the event that our protectors turn on us. (This may mean training in nonviolent resistance or violent forms of self-defense.) Fourth, we are to keep our wits about us. Just as it requires vigilance and diligence to buy the right product at the right price, it requires these same two traits to see that those we hire to protect us do not do not turn on us. We have to be aware that our night watchman may become a thief and try to rob us.

There are no guarantees in life. We have to be careful, but if we rely on the right set of institutional incentives we will get the best possible – though not perfect – results. Paraphrasing Murray Rothbard, a free society discourages the criminal tendencies of human nature and encourages the peaceful and removes the only legitimated channel for crime and aggression .* “Yes,” there will still be criminals in a voluntaryist society, but they will be fewer and less powerful than those in a statist society. Voluntaryists will always choose to rely on voluntary methods of protection, knowing “if one takes care of the means, the end will take care of itself.”

*cited in Murray Rothbard, “Myth and Truth About Libertarianism,” MODERN AGE, Winter 1980, in Myth 5, and reprinted in THE VOLUNTARYIST, Whole No. 95, December 1998, pp. 5-6.

Scroll to Top