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See also TheJustificationOfTheState; AnarchismAndNaturalLawTheory; SocialContractTheories; ConsequentialistJustificationsOfTheState; ThePurposeOfGovernment

In order to introduce what political philosophy is, I want to start by giving you a definition of the word "government":

A government is an institution, consisting of a group of people and some items at their disposal, which has a monopoly on the legitimate, or at least widely accepted, initiation of force within a given geographical area.

This is a fairly standard sort of definition of the term "government." You might find it a little bit surprising though. When you think of government, you may think of large white buildings, well-groomed people in business suits, and eloquent but vapid speechmaking. What does all that have to do with the initiation of force? Iíll tell you -- it has everything to do with the initiation of force. The whole point of having a government around at all, as we will see, is to make the power of individuals to act aggressively toward other individuals legitimate for government alone. The power to initiate force is allegedly, and indeed it can be, safer in the hands of a relatively powerful government, that can control its unruly citizens, than it would be in the hands of each individual person. All the other programs that you see governments enacting are ultimately based on their widely accepted, or legitimate, ability to compel individuals to do things like pay taxes, to appear in court when subpoenaed, to vacate an area when ordered, and so forth.

Consider this. Why donít we call a gang, that makes a certain neighborhood its turf, the government of that neighborhood? Donít just say, "Well, itís obvious that the gang isnít the government." Iím asking you to explain why itís not the government. I know itís obvious that the gang isnít the government; the question is why itís not. Hereís my answer: the gang doesnít have a monopoly on the legitimate, or at least widely accepted, initiation of force within the neighborhood. Itís the police, and the broader government that the police represent, that have the monopoly on the legitimate use of force. As long as the police have things relatively under control, the gang isnít top dog; itís the city, state, and federal government of that neighborhood.

Now to see this a little more clearly, change the example. Fast forward fifty years in the future. For some reason, maybe due to war, the police will absolutely not go into that neighborhood at all. Neither will government tax collectors, or dog catchers, or any other agent of the city, state, or federal government. Nope, within that neighborhood, the gang members have grown up, their numbers have multiplied, and they have set up walls all around the neighborhood; they control who comes in and who goes out; the leader of the gang is the ultimate judge of all the fights that break out in the neighborhood streets; they decide who gets guns and who doesnít; and so forth.

Now would you say that the gang members are members of a government? For all intents and purposes, they are. And according to the definition I gave you, they are. Maybe not a good government, but a government. The gangsters and their stuff -- weapons, cars, houses, drugs, and so forth -- are "a group of people and some items at their disposal, which has a monopoly on the legitimate, or at least widely accepted, initiation of force within a given geographical area," namely their neighborhood. That group has become the government of the neighborhood.

Now you might want to object and say, "Look, thatís not a government. Thatís just a gang of hoodlums." But if you say this, I think youíre forgetting your history. Most governments in the world began with gangs of hoodlums! Itís just that eventually, they became respectable. The United States is one of the few nations in the world that didnít begin that way; of course, I suppose that Washington and Jefferson might have looked like hoodlums to the English. And of course, there are even now what we call "rogue nations," that are run, as most of us think, by what amounts to a gang of hoodlums. The fact that they are a gang of hoodlums doesnít mean that theyíre not the government! Because unfortunately, plainly, they are the government in those localities! And they will be until someone with more sense and morality steps up and takes power away from them. Thatís the way of the world. Government is a really nasty business. Or at least it can be.

So, if thatís what government is, weíve got another sort of question to answer: When is a government legitimate? When is it a good government? How can we distinguish the upright and decent governments from the governments of mere "rogue nations"?

Those are a few of the central questions of political philosophy. This is another very complex area, difficult to define, but Iíll attempt a definition now anyway:

Political philosophy is the study of the fundamental questions about government: what it is, why it is needed, what makes a government legitimate, what rights and freedoms it should protect and why, what form it should take and why, what the law is, and what duties citizens owe to a legitimate government, if any, and when it may be legitimately overthrown, if ever.

As you can see, just from reading this definition, this area of philosophy is positively enormous. It is probably the area of philosophy that you knew most about already, on account of its being taught to some extent in civics classes. Next we are going to have to focus in on only one of the many questions that make up political philosophy. The question we will focus on is the one that is discussed in our reading: why is government needed at all, and what, if anything, makes any particular government legitimate.

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Last edited February 3, 2001 3:29 am by LarrySanger (diff)