Fundamentals: What is government?


The question of “What is government?” might seem pretty simple and I hope that it doesn’t cause you to pass over it.  In order to frame most any conversation we have on this blog, it’s very important to define key terms and ideas.

Government is something that we all deal with every day of our lives.  It’s virtually impossible to get away from it, yet I think that many of us take for granted what it actually is.  How do you define what a good government is versus a bad government?  Who gets a say in government and how does that work?  How should the leaders be chosen?

My basic definition of government is an organized structure designed to administer violence.  That sounds harsh, but it’s really not supposed to be.  If I see someone abusing a child, I’m pretty likely to use violence to stop the attack.  If an intruder breaks into my home, if I have to confront him, I’m going to use violence.  Or I’ll authorize someone else to use violence to protect myself or my property.  Violence is sometimes justified, so if a given government’s purpose is to protect the rights of its citizens, there needs to be a threat to people who violate the law.

If violence is the power that drives government, where does a government get power?  Where does one derive the authority to impose his or her will over others?  This is the point where government is classified into two categories: voluntary government and coercive government.

Voluntary government is where the government gets its authority from individuals who consent to be governed.  This means that individuals voluntarily and under their own free will associate with the government.  There is a conscious decision.  That’s the key.  It’s like, for example, subscribing to cable.  You don’t have to purchase it and you can cancel it as you please pending any terms of a contract you may have agreed to.  Furthermore, the government doesn’t necessarily depend on the geographic location of its members.

An example this could be membership to a church.  I’m a Catholic and I go to church and pay the tithes under my own free will.  I choose to live my personal life under the rules of the Church.  If for whatever reason I feel that the Church no longer serves the purpose that I feel it should, I could cut ties with it with no damage to myself.  A better example may be home owners associations.  Your purchase or lease of a property also entails that you follow the rules set by the association.  The act of purchasing the property is your consent since you understand what the purchase involves.

Coercive government, on the other hand, does not allow the individual to decide whether or not he wants to be a part of it.  That decision is made by someone else.  This is how national governments are set up today.  Borders are decided one way or another and those who live within those borders are to live under that nation’s government.  This government could take the form of a dictatorship or a constitutional republic or numerous other varieties.

In a coercive government, those who do not follow the rules of it will have violence acted out against them even if they are acting peacefully.  The authority to govern this way also gets a little hazy.  Where does the authority come to govern an individual who does not consent to be governed?

It’s important to reflect on things that are taken for granted once in awhile.  What do you consent to in your own life?  Does the use of force against peaceful people justify any good that a government might do?

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[…] of course rights can be taken away.  Coercive forms of government do a good job of taking rights away.  Compare the United States to North Korea.  Americans have […]


[…] a year ago, I wrote an article titled Fundamentals: What is government?  I gave a pretty technical definition of government (or the state), but over the last several […]