My Political Agnosticism: Part II: Monopoly on Violence

In Part I we discussed an interview when Obama told the Military Times editorial board that, “what essentially sets a nation-state apart (from the private sector), is a monopoly on violence.” The phrase originates from German sociologist Max Weber’s definition of government, “that entity which claims a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence in a given area.” Today we’ll examine the question, If we know that a monopoly is economically undesirable, and we know that violence is morally undesirable, why is a violent monopoly desirable at all?

First let’s talk about monopolies.

To have a monopoly means that one enjoys being the sole provider of a product or service in the marketplace. To be clear, a true market monopoly is virtually impossible to achieve in a diversified market. One must satisfy consumer demand so thoroughly that the available market share is worth less than the barriers to entry for competing providers. Consumer dissatisfaction immediately creates the opportunity for an entrepreneur to provide a competing product or service. Most monopolies are maintained when government either prohibits competition or enforces regulations which raise the barriers to entry so high as to be cost prohibitive for the entry level entrepreneur. These are known as coercive monopolies. You may be dissatisfied with your city trash collector, but if your city government has prohibited competing garbage companies they have a monopoly. There may be only one radio station in your area, and even though there is demand for a competing station, the FCC licensing regulations and processing fees may create a barrier to entry so high as to grant the existing station a de facto monopoly. Without this government intervention neither of these companies would have a monopoly on their service.

Monopolies are economically undesirable for the consumer for a number of reasons. First and foremost is that the consumer has no recourse if they are dissatisfied with the product or service. Because no alternative exists the monopoly lacks the incentives that competition provides. As a result they tend to offer inadequate customer service, lower quality goods, and higher prices than companies competing in a diverse market. The existence of an alternative forces a company to compete for their share of the market by either lowering prices, improving the product, providing superior service or in some way satisfying the customer in a way their competition does not.

Government, being a monopoly, suffers from all these problems. They have poor customer service. Anyone who’s ever been to the DMV knows this. The products and services they provide are always worse than similar providers in the private sector. For example, TSA screeners miss around 75% of explosive materials that pass through their checkpoints when tested by undercover agents, while private security companies only miss 20% in similar internal checks. And government services always cost more, dollar for dollar, than similar services in the private sector. In the state welfare system 70 cents of every dollar disappears into the administrative costs of its giant bureaucracy. Private charity, not having such enormous overhead, is able to put a larger percentage of its budget directly toward helping needy people. In fact, keeping this down is one area in which private charities compete.

In each of these examples, and in any other example of a government program, the bureaucrat knows he is not at risk of losing his business. Election is the only method by which government subjects itself to market signals from the consumers of its services, and even then all but the most divisive of issues are not being discussed. When was the last time you heard any candidate anywhere promising to improve customer services at the DMV? Lacking market signals, the government not only lacks the incentive, it lacks the necessary information to satisfy consumers.

Now let’s talk about violence.

The fact is that no government has a market monopoly. Governments are a coercive monopoly. They don’t maintain their market share through customer satisfaction. They maintain their market share through violence. This means they use violence to secure their use of violence. It’s circular, which means it inevitably escalates.

Far from being motivated by customer satisfaction, the interests of the government are merely to stay in power, to reward friends and punish enemies. Voter approval is only important in so much as it maintains their cloak of legitimacy. If it had anything to do with the desires of society coercive violence would be unnecessary.

Government is that entity which claims a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence in a given area. What is a legitimate use of violence? Aggressive violence is morally wrong because it violates a person’s natural right to life and property. Defensive violence is legitimate because everyone has a natural right to protect themselves from violations of their life and property. These rights cannot be abrogated by state institutions. They are true because they are self evident. Government can only honor them, or violate them.

In reality aggressive violence is the only tool at government’s disposal, and yet most people refuse to see it. Sometimes it is overt. War is clearly an example of state violence. But even in the most benign government programs it is present. I received a letter from the DMV informing me that it was time to renew my vehicle registration, which is costing me $72. I have no idea what service I am paying for. All I know is that the consequence of not complying is that eventually a man with a gun on his hip is going to stop me and threaten to take my vehicle, take my money or throw me in jail. And if I don’t cooperate when he does this he will point that gun at me. A law, by its nature, is nothing more than the threat of violence for disobedience.

The reality is that there are whole host of legitimate uses of violence which are not monopolized by government, and can’t be. Defending oneself from an attacker is a legitimate use of violence by any measure. A violent revolution against a tyrannical state, as was the American Revolution, is and will always be a legitimate use of violence that cannot be asserted by the government itself. But I can think of no legitimate use for the initiation of aggressive violence, which is what the government claims to use.

How is an agency which operates without competition and enforces it’s dictates through aggressive violence different from a mafia protection racket? From where does a violent monopoly derive its legitimacy? Many would answer democracy. But when was the last time non violence appeared on the ballot? If you scratch the surface of any ballot initiative you’ll find state aggression. Maybe you’re in favor of a city proposal to build a new library. Is taking someone’s home for inability to pay property taxes a legitimate use of violence? Maybe you’re in favor of marijuana prohibition. Is imprisoning a cancer patient who uses a natural pain reliever a legitimate use of violence? Maybe you believe that invading Yemen is vital to national security. Is forcing me to pay for it against my will a legitimate use of violence? How many of us, on the left or the right, seriously question the implications of the violence we de facto sanction and advocate in the voting booth

The Declaration of Independence states that, “Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” but Weber’s definition, which Obama is espousing, derives government power, just or not, from the threat of violence. This is either totalitarianism, or will inevitably result in it. I can think of no legitimate role for a monopoly, nor any legitimate use of aggressive violence. I want to know where I withdraw my consent.

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