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Refined definition of "government"

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I have always been a bit unsatisfied with the standard Objectivist definition of "government" as the institution that has a legal monopoly on the use of force. The use of force part is a given. There is no argument there. Everything that a government does is backed by force, and that is the one thing that distinguishes government from all other institutions.

My problem has always been with the words "legal" and "monopoly". Since the government defines what is legal, including that word tends to put a circular aspect into the definition. Also, government does not have a monopoly on the use of force because we have the right, supported by government in the form of such things as the "castle doctrine", to use force in self-defense.

The definition I propose is that government is the institution that is the ultimate authority on the use of force.

You might use force to defend yourself, but if you do, there is usually at least a police investigation, maybe even a hearing, to determine if what you did was truly self-defense. In this way, you are free to use force, but the government has the authority to decide if you have used it responsibly.

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I think the problem you are having is coming from a simple misunderstanding.

When you exercise force in self defence, it must be proven that you did in fact act in self defence, in the very instant of the danger, whatever it may be. It must also be commensurate with a realistic perception of the danger at the time. You can not act as a vigilante when the option for you to have the state use its legal and proper mandate in your stead exists.

For example, you could not legally hunt down a paedophile that abused your child months earlier and kill the animal, however fitting that end might be and however much you may want to do it. That is not your legal right or responsibility within a law abiding society.

On the other hand the state's legal monopoly on the retaliatory use of force exists as the events happen and post facto. Therefore, it can use force as a crime is being committed and it can hunt down that paedophile and in the course of bringing him to justice may exercise force up to and including deadly force. You can do the former, you can not do the latter.

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My problem has always been with the words "legal" and "monopoly". Since the government defines what is legal, including that word tends to put a circular aspect into the definition. Also, government does not have a monopoly on the use of force because we have the right, supported by government in the form of such things as the "castle doctrine", to use force in self-defense.

I agree that the choice of words (as you present it, I'm too tired to look up how Ayn Rand worded it) is somewhat unfortunate. What O'ists actually mean is "a legitimate monopoly on the retaliatory use of force."

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My problem has always been with the words "legal" and "monopoly". Since the government defines what is legal, including that word tends to put a circular aspect into the definition.

Objectivism defines "legal", as that which doesn't violate individual rights, for regular people, and that which acts to protect individual rights, and punish crimes according to an objective standard, for the government. So, no, the government, if it were to go by Objectivism, does not define what's legal. It does define what's legal now (unless in the few cases when it is still somewhat slowed down by the Constitution), but it would not do that in an Objectivist country. That is why the definition is not circular. (it would decide specific laws, but in accordance with the Objectivist definition of the term "legal")

The definition is only circular (and meaningless) if the government were allowed to freely decide what's legal, irrespective of its actual purpose. Then, "legal" would be a meaningless word, and with it, everything that's been built on it would also be meaningless. (the government is just another un-defined entity that does what it wishes and can get away with).

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I have always been a bit unsatisfied with the standard Objectivist definition of "government" as the institution that has a legal monopoly on the use of force. The use of force part is a given. There is no argument there. Everything that a government does is backed by force, and that is the one thing that distinguishes government from all other institutions.

My problem has always been with the words "legal" and "monopoly". Since the government defines what is legal, including that word tends to put a circular aspect into the definition. Also, government does not have a monopoly on the use of force because we have the right, supported by government in the form of such things as the "castle doctrine", to use force in self-defense.

The definition I propose is that government is the institution that is the ultimate authority on the use of force.

You might use force to defend yourself, but if you do, there is usually at least a police investigation, maybe even a hearing, to determine if what you did was truly self-defense. In this way, you are free to use force, but the government has the authority to decide if you have used it responsibly.

Can you cite where you get your definition from in the Objectivist literature? The definition that I have found is "A government is an institution that holds the exclusive power to enforce certain rules of social conduct in a given geographical area." Or "A government is the means of placing the retaliatory use of physical force under objective control—i.e., under objectively defined laws." When describing the difference between political power and other types of social power, the literature states "a government holds a legal monopoly on the use of physical force." Thus, it is not circular because it is not in the definition.

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I have always been a bit unsatisfied with the standard Objectivist definition of "government" as the institution that has a legal monopoly on the use of force.
Objectivism does not define government, because it's obvious what government is. What Objectivism does do is say what the nature of government is, which is entirely different from stipulating a definition of government. Objectivism does not construct special definitions of words.

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Objectivism does not define government, because it's obvious what government is. What Objectivism does do is say what the nature of government is, which is entirely different from stipulating a definition of government. Objectivism does not construct special definitions of words.

I don't comprehend what you are saying here. "A definition is a statement that identifies the nature of the units subsumed under a concept." So if Objectivism is saying what the nature of government is, that is its definition. There are two definitions given in The Nature of Government article. How can it possibly be obvious what a government is, given today's epistemological chaos?

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Zip: I don't know what you mean, since evrything you just said is implied in my last paragraph, except for your insistence that you only act in IMMEDIATE self-defense. That is also a given. How wuld that change my definition?

Jake_Ellison: Objectivism does define what SHOULD be legal that way, but governments do have laws that violate those standards. My definition covers the broader category, including governments that protect rights, and those that violate them.

A=A: I think you are right. I'm not sure exactly where I got that specific definition. I think from the libertarian literature.

But Ayn Rand does describe (not define, sorry, my bad) government as a monopoly on the use of force:

From the Ayn Rand Lexicon:

The difference between political power and any other kind of social “power,” between a government and any private organization, is the fact that a government holds a legal monopoly on the use of physical force. This distinction is so important and so seldom recognized today that I must urge you to keep it in mind. Let me repeat it: a government holds a legal monopoly on the use of physical force.

And this is originally from Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal.

But my criticism still stands for this particular statement. Individuals do have the right to self defense in a situation where immediate action is needed to protect themselves at the time they are attacked when no other help is there. Ayn Rand does seem to acknowledge that, as she explains, also in Capitalism: "The individual does possess the right of self-defense and that is the right which he delegates to the government, for the purpose of an orderly, legally defined enforcement." But I still think calling it a legal monopoly is a bit awkward, given what I said earlier.

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Jake_Ellison: Objectivism does define what SHOULD be legal that way, but governments do have laws that violate those standards. My definition covers the broader category, including governments that protect rights, and those that violate them.

In that case you're wrong in using your definition to correct Ayn Rand since, as David Odden pointed out, she didn't write the dictionary. She just described what government ought to do, in a way that makes perfect sense, as I explained above. Her description of laissez faire capitalism is obviously not an attempt to define the term "government" in general.

But my criticism still stands for this particular statement.....But I still think calling it a legal monopoly is a bit awkward, given what I said earlier.

Your criticism earlier was that it's a circular definition, since the government decides what's legal, and that "the government doesn't have a monopoly on the use of force", not that it's "awkward". I addressed the first part of your criticism, someone also pointed out that your premise for the second one is wrong, since Ayn Rand actually said "monopoly on the legal use of force". I can't make you not find something awkward, but I can explain why I don't find it awkward, I find it very clear: properly, the Law prescribes only government action to deter and punish crimes, thus giving a monopoly on the use of force according to said Law (the legal use of force), to the government.

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I have always been a bit unsatisfied with the standard Objectivist definition of "government" as the institution that has a legal monopoly on the use of force. The use of force part is a given. There is no argument there. Everything that a government does is backed by force, and that is the one thing that distinguishes government from all other institutions.

My problem has always been with the words "legal" and "monopoly". Since the government defines what is legal, including that word tends to put a circular aspect into the definition. Also, government does not have a monopoly on the use of force because we have the right, supported by government in the form of such things as the "castle doctrine", to use force in self-defense.

The definition I propose is that government is the institution that is the ultimate authority on the use of force.

You might use force to defend yourself, but if you do, there is usually at least a police investigation, maybe even a hearing, to determine if what you did was truly self-defense. In this way, you are free to use force, but the government has the authority to decide if you have used it responsibly.

Zip: I don't know what you mean, since evrything you just said is implied in my last paragraph, except for your insistence that you only act in IMMEDIATE self-defense. That is also a given. How wuld that change my definition?

Jake_Ellison: Objectivism does define what SHOULD be legal that way, but governments do have laws that violate those standards. My definition covers the broader category, including governments that protect rights, and those that violate them.

A=A: I think you are right. I'm not sure exactly where I got that specific definition. I think from the libertarian literature.

But Ayn Rand does describe (not define, sorry, my bad) government as a monopoly on the use of force:

From the Ayn Rand Lexicon:

And this is originally from Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal.

But my criticism still stands for this particular statement. Individuals do have the right to self defense in a situation where immediate action is needed to protect themselves at the time they are attacked when no other help is there. Ayn Rand does seem to acknowledge that, as she explains, also in Capitalism: "The individual does possess the right of self-defense and that is the right which he delegates to the government, for the purpose of an orderly, legally defined enforcement." But I still think calling it a legal monopoly is a bit awkward, given what I said earlier.

Finding something "a bit awkward" and calling something "circular" are too different things. I do not find any problem with saying "a government holds a legal monopoly on the use of physical force." That is what we, as individuals, delegate to government as a means of protecting our individual rights. However, there is no implication that we lose or give up our rights to use force when it is appropriate, such as in self-defense. And that is true whether the issue involves "immediate" action or not. The principle of a "legal monopoly" identifies that the government is the only legal organization that may use force. The context for the formulation in "The Nature of Government" was distinguishing between government action and organized private action in the context of initiating the use of force.

What is the difference between a street gang beating up a suspected rapist and the government arresting and trying a suspected rapist? It is that the government has a legal monopoly on the use of force. It is illegal for the gang to use physical force against another individual, even if it is justified. No private action involving the use of force, in the rape example, is legal (except when the crime is actually occurring and immediate self-defense is appropriate). And even when the immediate use of force is used for self-defense, the government still has the right to investigate the situation to determine that retaliation was used appropriately.

What is the difference between working for a statist government and a private business? After all, a paycheck is a paycheck.

Recognizing that the government holds a legal monopoly on the use of force is important if one intends to distinguish between private action and government action, between freedom and statism. It is the recognition that the initiation of physical force is the only way that rights can be violated, and that governments must be bound by objective law. Holding that the "government is the institution that is the ultimate authority on the use of force" does not contain the issue of legality, which is important to determine why it would be the "ultimate authority." Nor does your definition include whether it is the only organization or authority that may appropriately use force. There seems to be some implication in your definition that the government is just a "supreme court" with some kind of ultimate decision making involving the use of force, allowing for other organizations to arise and properly (legally) use force. If you are attempting to reconcile Objectivism's concept of government with the "libertarian literature" I'd suggest you be very wary, for it will lead to mental confusion.

Edited by A is A

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