The G-Word

Column by tzo.

Exclusive to STR

Is it inaccurate and overly-dramatic to proclaim that government is synonymous with aggression? Sure, government can certainly be aggressive (in the sense of violating the non-aggression principle [NAP]), but that doesn’t necessarily mean that everything it does is aggressive, does it? Government may be an imperfect work still in progress, but perhaps we will eventually work out the bugs. Let’s not be hasty and throw out the baby with the bath water here.
Some voluntaryists, a.k.a. anarchists, (and I assign those terms to any person who believes in 100% voluntary social interaction/organization, whether they label themselves as such or not) say they look forward to the day when society finally creates a completely “voluntary government.”
I respectfully object to the use of this particular oxymoron.
The concept of voluntary government calls to my mind a particular Monty Python sketch wherein a customer wants to purchase a cat from a pet store, and the clerk offers up a dog instead. When the customer objects, the following solution is offered:
S: Listen, tell you what. I'll file its legs down a bit, take its snout out, stick a few wires through its cheeks. There you are, a lovely pussy cat.
M: It's not a proper cat.
S: What do you mean?
M: Well it wouldn't miaow.
S: Well it would howl a bit.
The point? You cannot make a cat out of a dog. They are two distinct types of objects, and no matter how cat-like a dog could be made, it would still be a dog.
Can a government ever be a purely voluntary organization? It seems to me that it cannot, and here is my argument:
Every government organization that has ever existed has funded itself through coercive taxation. Likewise, the word "taxation" is only associated with government. Taxation is mandatory by any definition you may discover, and no non-governmental organization calls its fees, or dues, or whatever word they may choose to describe how it funds itself, taxes (although government loves to expropriate the word “fees” to describe some of its taxes).
Once you posit a society filled with purely voluntary organizations that fund themselves through voluntary contributions, you are no longer describing a society that has a government. The word "taxes" no longer corresponds to any activity taking place in the real world. Why attempt to retrofit the word to make it mean something completely different (yes, another Monty Python reference)? When government disappears, taxes disappear. When taxes disappear, government disappears. They are a set that cannot be broken up and sold separately. We already have other words that describe voluntary organizations and their voluntary funding mechanisms.
If society were to rid itself of pedophiles, would we want to keep the word and apply it to people who lovingly care for their children?
The difference here is that government bills itself to be the wise, benevolent, well-meaning, and absolutely necessary organization that holds society together. This meme penetrates into our thinking, and when we envision a completely non-violent society, we want to hold on to the comforting word "government" to describe something about that society, because that is the propaganda that has been driven into us 24/7 (Propaganda? You’re soaking in it!) Government would have us believe that it is already a voluntary organization (you are free to love it or leave it), and so even though we know it currently is not, we believe that it could be.
But that particular dog cannot ever be fashioned into a cat.
When coercive organizations disappear, just let the word "government" retire right along with them.
Right into the luminiferous aether.


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tzo's picture
Columnist tzo
Columns on STR: 64

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Stratispho's picture

Tzo, as someone that proclaims to be a voluntaryist I don't want any government, and I don't know any anarchists or voluntaryists that do want a "voluntary government". The term is contradictory in concept as there is no such thing as a voluntary government.
Voluntaryists are looking to create a society free of force without a group of people having a monopoly on violence. Not sure how that would work by having a government.

Scott Lazarowitz's picture

Stephan Kinsella had this great post regarding the State, and compulsory vs. voluntary government.

Paul's picture

Agree. If it's voluntary, it is not government. It's the market. One could talk of "associations" handling functions that are routinely usurped by the state, but it would be too confusing and misleading to talk about a voluntary government. A dog is not a cat, and you can't make it into one.

tzo's picture


[If by “government” the minarchist means a (small) state, then it is criminal and unlibertarian. If by “government” they mean merely the non-state institutions of law and justice in a free society, then we are not opposed to it because such institutions are not inherently aggressive. In other words, when minarchists talk about government, the question is not how we classify it or what the best words are for state, government, etc., semantically: but rather: the question is: does the “government” that “minarchists” (?) favor engage in institutionalized aggression, or not? If not, it’s not a state, and it’s not unlibertarian. If it does, it’s merely a type of state.]

The above paragraph shows that Mr. Kinsella allows the concept of "voluntary government" to exist, with the "state" being the word that designates whether a system is voluntary or not. Look up any definition of a state, and you will see the word government. Now follow the logic: Wherever there is a state, there is a government. If a government can be voluntary, then a state based on such a government would be be voluntary. If one allows for voluntary government, then one allows for voluntary states, and all meaning is lost in the words being used. Then throw the word "anarchy" in the garbage, because if you allow voluntary governments, then anarchy can have no meaning whatsoever.

Mr. Kinsella hates the state. He should also hate government, because it is synonymous with the state in that it always denotes aggression. If a person believes in 100% voluntary organization and association, then he needs to acknowledge that the government and the state are unethical, and that he is in fact an anarchist. Say the words out loud and mean them because he understands exactly where he stands.


I agree with you 100%, but I have had many discussions where it has been difficult to determine just what a person truly believes because of the vagueness that has become inherent in many of the pertinent terms. To discuss this subject accurately, we need objective terms every bit as much as a physicist needs them. Anarchy, capitalism, democracy, government, and ethics do not carry the same precision as do the words atoms, quarks, momentum, and gravity.

"Language is emergent, and word meanings change depending upon how people use the words and how they are defined in the dictionary" is a common excuse for corrupting language. It may seem like I am quibbling over semantics, but I think it is very important that specific words actually correspond to specific concepts, or else effective communication becomes, like little Ralphie says, unpossible.

Scott Lazarowitz's picture

A neighborhood can set up an organization they want to call the neighborhood's "government," in which various aspects of the neighborhood are "governed," such as trash collection, policing etc, with the funding of such an organization being voluntary, and with any resident in the neighborhood having the ability to opt out. At least in theory.

I prefer to define the "State" as "compulsory government," because, regardless of what the dictionary says, a "government" isn't necessarily compulsory, but a State is usually an organization that assumes control over a territory, regardless of any individual's right of self-ownership and regardless of private property within that territory.

tzo's picture

Here is a Facebook response from a person who uses "Voluntaryist" as his middle name that highlights the confusion that comes out of fuzzy language:

"...I have no problem paying taxes for roads because I use them. Although I don't think I should have to pay for registration for my car or a license. We are a free country and it was never intended to make you pay to be able to "legaly" travel somewhere. Taxes should be voluntary if you ask me. If I want to contribute to the high paying salaries of the government it should be up to me to pay it if I want. Dear God I hope Ron Paul runs for president."

What does this guy really believe? Hard to tell. I honestly think he does not know himself.

Samarami's picture

It's so easy for us to get ourselves caught up in semantics and definition games. Here's John Hasnas:

"...112 Anarchism/Minarchism

Defining Terms and Limitations

I am presenting an argument for anarchy in the true sense of the term; that is, a society without government, not a society without governance. There is no such thing as a society without governance. A society with no mechanism for bringing order to human existence is oxymoronic; it is not “society” at all.

(from "The Obviousness of Anarchy")

Now, tzo, I define myself as a "sovereign state" (there's that S-word we all seem to hate). That means I am responsible for my own governance (and my own government I suppose you could say). Since I believe as you believe, I can openly state to you that it is against the law for me to attempt to take something that rightfully belongs to you or to somebody else. Theft, murder, violence -- these are all against the law. For me. I suspect you will agree those acts are also against the law for you, since you write many excellent essays here (as opposed to, say Huffington Post) -- but I can't speak for you.

It also means I am responsible for my own freedom. Nobody can grant me freedom. But I am free. I live in "occupied territory" (the state), but all free men and women that I know of live in states. Some free people reside in penitentiaries, since the US has now become a "prison state". Irwin Schiff comes to mind.

Be free.


tzo's picture

So you are nothing more than a Government-Loving, Statist, Individual-Monarchist?

I guess I am as well. :>

Suverans2's picture

"Government would have us believe that it is already a voluntary organization (you are free to love it or leave it), and so even though we know it currently is not, we believe that it could be." ~ tzo

I beg to differ, my friend, GOVERNMENT, (i.e. those men and women who wish to rule over us), would have us remain ignorant of the fact that it IS a "voluntary organization", that we have the natural right to leave IT, at any time, for any reason.

We have always had The Right to Ignore the State

"Submission to Authority is always and everywhere voluntary" ~ Rose Wilder Lane

But that is not to say that the bullies who wish to rule over us are going to make it easy for us, just like the bully in the schoolyard isn't going to make it easy for anyone to withhold their lunch money, which they have "just claim" to. The last thing that bully wants to see happen is just one little boy or girl say, "F**k you, I'm not giving you my lunch money any more!", because he knows others might just join him or her, and if and when enough do, EVERYONE will see that "the king really doesn't have any clothes", they will ALL see the bully for what he really is.

Their "love it or leave it" slogan is a "rope a dope" gesture, it only refers to expatriation, i.e. leaving the land of ones nativity, and is, IMO, meant to distract us from secession, i.e. The Right to Ignore the State.

Those who can, should; and those who can't (usually for health reasons) should give support to those who do.

LSDT's picture

Please forgive the link, Just needed to crowbar this in somehow, but ultimately, entwined with this very issue.

Suverans2's picture

"the word "taxation" is only associated with non-governmental organization calls its fees, or dues, or whatever word they may choose to describe how it funds itself, taxes..." ~ tzo

TAXA'TION, n. [L. taxatio.] A taxing; the act of laying a tax, or of imposing taxes on the subjects of a state by government, or on the members of a corporation or company by the proper authority. ~ Webster's 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language

Notwithstanding, it would be very difficult, perhaps, to find a "corporation or company" today that actually calls its dues, "taxes", other than so-called governments, which, of course, are, in truth, corporations[1].

″Despite all the flags fluttering on First Avenue there are no nations any more, only companies; International companies.″ ~ Kuman-Kuman (Character in the movie The Interpreter)

Regardless of what we call them, taxes are dues, because they are an "enforced contribution[2]" only upon "taxpayers", i.e. members of the corporation. Non-members cannot lawfully be "forced" to pay taxes or dues.

This is why the question was asked here:

"...if you don't wish to be a "taxpayer", why on Earth would you VOLUNTARILY use any of these [Taxpayer Identification Numbers] and identify yourself as a "taxpayer"?" Of course we all know the answer to that question; it is because those numbers are what identify those persons who are eligible for "member-only" benefits and privileges.

[1] CORPORATION, n. A body politic... ~ Webster's 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language
[2] "Essential characteristics of a tax are that it is not a voluntary payment or donation, but an enforced contribution..." Black's Law Dictionary, Sixth Edition (c.1991), page 1457 [Emphasis added]

playboy's picture

The article is simply a strawman argument.

Nobody is interested in a "voluntary government," as that is an oxymoron. What many people are interested in is a "voluntary society." BIG difference.

And by the way, it is not true that "government can be aggressive." What is true is this: government IS violence.

It is the removal of he INITIATION of violence -- and just as important, the ACCEPTANCE that some people can initiate violence against others as a matter of routine and have not adverse consequences in doing so -- that is the main thrust of the voluntary argument.

It has nothing to do with making a better government; it is about making a better society (by removing the primary evil within it).

Suverans2's picture

G'day playboy.

GOV'ERNMENT, n. Direction; regulation. These precepts will serve for the government of our conduct. 1. Control; restraint. Men are apt to neglect the government of their temper and passions. ~ Webster's 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language

What you seem to be saying is that it is impossible for a group of individuals to get together and create a "voluntary government" for the sole purpose of "restraint", i.e. to restrain anyone from abrogating the Natural Rights of its voluntary members.

"Government is not reason; it is not eloquence; it is force, like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master." ~ George Washington

"Force, like fire", can be used for bad (aggressive) purposes, or it can be used for good (defensive) purposes.

I will concede that it may not have ever been done before, but could there not be a first time? Could we not create a purely "voluntary government" which has as its cornerstone the Natural Law? Or, are you saying that, because it has never been so, that it can never be so?