Liberty Quotation of the Day: Murray Rothbard, “We Are Not the Government”

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[Editor’s note:  Most of our Liberty Quotations of the Day are short, but sometimes an important insight takes a little longer to develop in print.  We shouldn’t ignore sound thinking just because it’s too large for a Facebook meme-generator.  So consider this the first of our “Full-Length Friday” features.]

Murray Rothbard“[I]t is common to hear sentiments expressed which violate virtually every tenet of reason and common sense such as, ‘we are the government.’   The useful collective term ‘we’ has enabled an ideological camouflage to be thrown over the reality of political life.  If ‘we are the government,’ then anything a government does to an individual is not only just and untyrannical but also ‘voluntary’ on the part of the individual concerned.  If the government has incurred a huge public debt which must be paid by taxing one group for the benefit of another, this reality of burden is obscured by saying that ‘we owe it to ourselves’; if the government conscripts a man, or throws him into jail for dissident opinion, then he is ‘doing it to himself’ and, therefore, nothing untoward has occurred.  Under this reasoning, any Jews murdered by the Nazi government were not murdered; instead, they must have ‘committed suicide,’ since they were the government (which was democratically chosen), and, therefore, anything the government did to them was voluntary on their part.  One would not think it necessary to belabor this point, and yet the overwhelming bulk of the people hold this fallacy to a greater or lesser degree.

“We must, therefore, emphasize that ‘we’ are not the government; the government is not ‘us.’  The government does not in any accurate sense ‘represent’ the majority of the people.  But, even if it did, even if 70 percent of the people decided to murder the remaining 30 percent, this would still be murder and would not be voluntary suicide on the part of the slaughtered minority.  No organicist metaphor, no irrelevant bromide that ‘we are all part of one another,’ must be permitted to obscure this basic fact.

“If, then, the State is not ‘us,’ if it is not ‘the human family’ getting together to decide mutual problems, if it is not a lodge meeting or country club, what is it?  Briefly, the State is that organization in society which attempts to maintain a monopoly of the use of force and violence in a given territorial area; in particular, it is the only organization in society that obtains its revenue not by voluntary contribution or payment for services rendered but by coercion.  While other individuals or institutions obtain their income by production of goods and services and by the peaceful and voluntary sale of these goods and services to others, the State obtains its revenue by the use of compulsion; that is, by the use and the threat of the jailhouse and the bayonet.  Having used force and violence to obtain its revenue, the State generally goes on to regulate and dictate the other actions of its individual subjects.  One would think that simple observation of all States through history and over the globe would be proof enough of this assertion; but the miasma of myth has lain so long over State activity that elaboration is necessary.

Murray Rothbard, “Anatomy of the State”