DUNN LORING, VA — Of all the apocryphal sayings ascribed to
our Founding Fathers, my favorite is one attributed to George Washington: "Government
is not reason. It is not persuasion. It is force." If he never
said it, he should have.
Everyone who believes in a moral order should ponder those eleven
words. Government is indeed force, force claiming justification, and
its exercise at least requires some serious reason.
This is a truth that Americans have almost entirely forgotten. I
often argue with a dear old liberal friend of mine, a man too personally
decent and modest to impose his will on any human being, but who assumes
implicitly that the government has the authority to enact, say, "civil
rights" legislation curtailing freedom of association and property
My friend is no fool. He is intelligent and eloquent, and I always
learn something from his side of our endless arguments. But one thought
— a self-evident truth that I'd hope would occur to every rational
person — has apparently never crossed his mind: that government is
force. Like so many people, he assumes, without reflection, that if
some imagined social condition seems desirable, government should try
to bring it about. He admits some practical difficulties, but for him
government seems to embody aspirations which he further assumes reasonable
people share and only unreasonable people resist, as in the case of "gay
This is why I shudder at the word "idealist" Ideals are
fantasies, most of which can never be brought into being. If government
tries to realize them, it can do so only by applying force and curtailing
freedom. And many people see this enterprise as noble, even if it fails;
the cost to freedom seldom enters their calculations.
In Michael Oakeshott's famous observation, to some people government
appears as "a vast reservoir of power" which inspires them
to dream of the uses that might be made of it, often in the service
of what they take to be benign purposes, for the good of "mankind." Yet
such people typically gloss over the element of power, which, after
all, is not a mere property of government but its
very essence. Their sense of power, like my friend's, is rather mystical,
as if the actual doings of government were nothing more than the expression
of (in his phrase) an "emerging consensus." But if the desired
goals were a matter of consensus, why should they have to be realized
by force, fiat, even war?
It isn't just liberals who think this way. Some conservatives do
too, as when they pine for government to enforce what they call "values." I
generally prefer conservative "values" to liberal "ideals," since
they are closer to what I really believe in: the proven norms of human
nature. A society with property rights, for example, is normal; we
know it can exist. A society in which wealth is equally distributed
by the state is merely fantastic; it can never exist, and the attempt
to give it existence entails violence to no purpose.
My friend hates violence. But he can't see, and nothing I say can
make him see, that when he calls for government he is calling for force,
which is violence or the threat of violence. His ideals depend on an
evil, and on obedience based on the degrading fear of that evil.
Idealism? I'd call it slavery.
A version of this column appeared in the September 2004 edition of
Sobran's: The Real News of the Month.
Copyright © 2010 by Joe Sobran and the
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