The Nature of Government

by Ayn Rand
From Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal
Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal
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This essay was originally published in the December 1963 issue of The Objectivist Newsletter and later anthologized in The Virtue of Selfishness (1964) and Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (1966 and 1967).

A government is an institution that holds the exclusive power to enforce certain rules of social conduct in a given geographical area.

Do men need such an institution — and why?

Since man’s mind is his basic tool of survival, his means of gaining knowledge to guide his actions-the basic condition he requires is the freedom to think and to act according to his rational judgment. This does not mean that a man must live alone and that a desert island is the environment best suited to his needs. Men can derive enormous benefits from dealing with one another. A social environment is most conducive to their successful survival — but only on certain conditions.

“The two great values to be gained from social existence are: knowledge and trade. Man is the only species that can transmit and expand his store of knowledge from generation to generation; the knowledge potentially available to man is greater than any one man could begin to acquire in his own lifespan; every man gains an incalculable benefit from the knowledge discovered by others. The second great benefit is the division of labor: it enables a man to devote his effort to a particular field of work and to trade with others who specialize in other fields. This form of cooperation allows all men who take part in it to achieve a greater knowledge, skill and productive return on their effort than they could achieve if each had to produce everything he needs, on a desert island or on a self-sustaining farm.

“But these very benefits indicate, delimit and define what kind of men can be of value to one another and in what kind of society: only rational, productive, independent men in a rational, productive, free society.” (“The Objectivist Ethics,” The Virtue of Selfishness.)

A society that robs an individual of the product of his effort, or enslaves him, or attempts to limit the freedom of his mind, or compels him to act against his own rational judgment-a society that sets up a conflict between its edicts and the requirements of man’s nature — is not, strictly speaking, a society, but a mob held together by institutionalized gang-rule. Such a society destroys all the values of human coexistence, has no possible justification and represents, not a source of benefits, but the deadliest threat to man’s survival. Life on a desert island is safer than and incomparably preferable to existence in Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany.

If men are to live together in a peaceful, productive, rational society and deal with one another to mutual benefit, they must accept the basic social principle without which no moral or civilized society is possible: the principle of individual rightsA “right” is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man’s freedom of action in a social context...
Man’s Rights, 93View Full Lexicon Entry

To recognize individual rights means to recognize and accept the conditions required by man’s nature for his proper survival.

Man’s rights can be violated only by the use of physical force.

Man’s rights can be violated only by the use of physical force. It is only by means of physical force that one man can deprive another of his life, or enslave him, or rob him, or prevent him from pursuing his own goals, or compel him to act against his own rational judgment.

The precondition of a civilized society is the barring of physical forceWhatever may be open to disagreement, there is one act of evil that may not, the act that no man may commit against others and no man may sanction or forgive...
Galt’s Speech, 133View Full Lexicon Entry
from social relationships — thus establishing the principle that if men wish to deal with one another, they may do so only by means of reason: by discussion, persuasion and voluntary, uncoerced agreement.

The necessary consequence of man’s right to life is his right to self-defense. In a civilized society, force may be used only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use. All the reasons which make the initiation of physical force an evil, make the retaliatory use of physical force a moral imperative.

If some “pacifist” society renounced the retaliatory use of force, it would be left helplessly at the mercy of the first thug who decided to be immoral. Such a society would achieve the opposite of its intention: instead of abolishing evil, it would encourage and reward it.

If a society provided no organized protection against force, it would compel every citizen to go about armed, to turn his home into a fortress, to shoot any strangers approaching his door — or to join a protective gang of citizens who would fight other gangs, formed for the same purpose, and thus bring about the degeneration of that society into the chaos of gang-rule, i.e., rule by brute force, into perpetual tribal warfare of prehistoric savages.

The use of physical force — even its retaliatory use — cannot be left at the discretion of individual citizens. Peaceful coexistence is impossible if a man has to live under the constant threat of force to be unleashed against him by any of his neighbors at any moment. Whether his neighbors’ intentions are good or bad, whether their judgment is rational or irrational, whether they are motivated by a sense of justice or by ignorance or by prejudice or by malice-the use of force against one man cannot be left to the arbitrary decision of another.

Visualize, for example, what would happen if a man missed his wallet, concluded that he had been robbed, broke into every house in the neighborhood to search it, and shot the first man who gave him a dirty look, taking the look to be a proof of guilt.

The retaliatory use of force requires objective rules of evidence to establish that a crime has been committed and to prove who committed it, as well as objective rules to define punishments and enforcement procedures. Men who attempt to prosecute crimes, without such rules, are a lynch mob. If a society left the retaliatory use of force in the hands of individual citizens, it would degenerate into mob rule, lynch law and an endless series of bloody private feuds or vendettas.

If physical force is to be barred from social relationships, men need an institution charged with the task of protecting their rights under an objective code of rules.

This is the task of a government — of a proper government — its basic task, its only moral justification and the reason why men do need a government.

A government is the means of placing the retaliatory use of physical force under objective control — i.e., under objectively defined laws.

A government is the means of placing the retaliatory use of physical force under objective controli.e., under objectively defined laws.

The fundamental difference between private action and governmental action — a difference thoroughly ignored and evaded today — lies in the fact that a government holds a monopoly on the legal use of physical force. It has to hold such a monopoly, since it is the agent of restraining and combating the use of force; and for that very same reason, its actions have to be rigidly defined, delimited and circumscribed; no touch of whim or caprice should be permitted in its performance; it should be an impersonal robot, with the laws as its only motive power. If a society is to be free, its government has to be controlled.

Under a proper social system, a private individual is legally free to take any action he pleases (so long as he does not violate the rights of others), while a government official is bound by law in his every official act. A private individual may do anything except that which is legally forbidden; a government official may do nothing except that which is legally permitted.

This is the means of subordinating “might” to “right.” This is the American concept of “a government of laws and not of men.”

The nature of the laws proper to a free society and the source of its government’s authority are both to be derived from the nature and purpose of a proper government. The basic principle of both is indicated in the Declaration of Independence: “to secure these [individual] rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed . . .”

Since the protection of individual rights is the only proper purpose of a government, it is the only proper subject of legislation: all laws must be based on individual rights and aimed at their protection.

Since the protection of individual rights is the only proper purpose of a government, it is the only proper subject of legislation: all laws must be based on individual rights and aimed at their protection. All laws must be objective (and objectively justifiable): men must know clearly, and in advance of taking an action, what the law forbids them to do (and why), what constitutes a crime and what penalty they will incur if they commit it.

The source of the government’s authority is “the consent of the governed.” This means that the government is not the ruler, but the servant or agent of the citizens; it means that the government as such has no rights except the rights delegated to it by the citizens for a specific purpose.

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Ayn Rand
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