More on the Government Controversy


By Roger E. Bissell


Following the publication of my essay “Resolving the Government Issue” (Reason, November 1973), one particularly critical letter-to-the-editor was sent to me for my response. Ultimately, neither the letter nor my response were printed in the magazine, but they are sufficiently noteworthy that I am including them here as a kind of postscript to the essay itself.

To the Editor: Roger Bissell, in his hopelessly confused “Resolving the Government Issue” (Reason, November, 1973), shows an elementary lack of understanding of the rules of definition and of the nature of government. A proper definition points out a common characteristic running through all the members of a certain class, while demonstrating their differences from other members of the genus in which the class to be defined belongs. To state that, “An institution is thus classified as a government if it is the means of…protecting rights…” could not possibly be correct because: (1) it does not give a common characteristic of all governments, but only of moral governments; (2) it does not differentiate a moral government from a well-run detective agency which certainly could protect human rights.


To throw in the bone of “…to at least some extent” is truly infantile and thoroughly anti-conceptual. The question is: what is the distinguishing, essential characteristic of government, in general, not what is a non-essential, derivative characteristic that all governments happen to possess to some extent so as to simply remain in existence. To define “government” with the quibble that it enforces rules “at least some of which are for the protection of men’s rights” is equivalent to defining a “human being” as a creature “which engages in actions, at least some of which are moral.”


Perhaps some of these errors stem from his belief that “the issue is: what constitutes a moral political system? When defining “government,” this is assuredly NOT the issue. The issue is: what is the fundamental nature of government? After this issue has been resolved (with a definition), then one can go on to the issue of justifying the institution of government in general (meta-politics). Finally, as a tertiary issue, one arrives at the question which Bissell considers primary: what particular government would be right for man (politics, a subject to which Ayn Rand has brought many brilliant and original insights).


As far as I have been able to ascertain, Ayn Rand has never dealt satisfactorily with either the first or second issues mentioned above. The two definitions she has given for “government”—“The institution that holds the exclusive power to enforce certain rules of social conduct in a given geographical area,” and, “The sole agent of legalized force in a society”—are both deficient, the former being vague as to what “rules” one is referring to, and how that “exclusive” power is to be gained, and the latter being just plain incorrect, since there can be private agents of legal force in a society. A proper definition of “government” must include evil as well as good governments, must rationalize the “exclusive” power of governments, and must differentiate government from private uses of force (legal or otherwise). I have developed the following definition: “The institution of men and laws within a society which achieves the status of final arbiter on the use of force in that society by using (or threatening to use) physical force against those who disobey its decisions.”


It is true that “without government,” the organized protection of human rights (especially property rights) becomes impossible, but this doesn’t mean that with government, rights have to be protected. I would also like to add that the whole notion of a “governmentless society” becomes impossible with this definition, and that any attempt to approach it in practice would just lead to a random group of criminals stepping in to form a government, and violating rights en masse. For this reason, and many others, I maintain that each individual has the right to have a government, and to form a moral one if an impotent or evil one exists, so that he can fulfill his highest human potential in living a social existence, which only government can make possible. It is interesting to note that Ayn Rand has never sanctioned this right of man…..David Solan, Brooklyn NY, 2/28/74



To the Editor: In reply to Mr. Solan’s remarks, I must say that he has done a remarkable job of context-dropping, considering his apparent knowledge of the rules of definition and concept-formation. Several instances of this fallacy leap out of the text of his letter, once one looks beyond the dismaying barrage of insults which he uses to camouflage them.


First of all, Solan quotes me out of context so that it appears I believe that the primary issue in defining “government” is: “what constitutes a moral political system?” Even with Reason’s editorial rearrangement of my original wording, the intended meaning was clearly conveyed: a wide division among Libertarians and Objectivists over the issue of what constitutes a moral political system has been caused largely by the unresolved debate over the meaning of Rand’s definition-like statements about government.


Mr. Solan again quotes me out of context, so that it appears I hold the very interpretation of Rand’s italicized statement I explicitly argue against: “an institution is thus classified as a government if it is the means of…protecting rights…” Here his technique is the more blatant one of quilt-quotation. The remainder of that quote reads: “…at least to some extent,” which clearly is crucial to my claim that institutional protection of rights is the common characteristic—the capacity (no matter how seldom fully actualized) of all governments. Even Soviet Russia and Communist China protect rights to some extent (however infinitesimal, compared to their violations of rights).


Solan, with astonishing power of recall, then names those very words (“to some extent”), so that he can label them “truly infantile and thoroughly anti-conceptual” (while having omitted them in the previous sentence, in order to “refute” the common characteristic I offered). This hardly seems fair, let alone logical.


But what of those words? As readers of Rand’s Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology know, what I did in my definition was to make explicit the (usually implicit) principle that “the relevant measurements must exist in some quantity, but may exist in any quantity.” Normally, this would be redundant, since it would be tacitly understood; so why did I include it? In order to underscore the basic difference between how I treat the phrase “is the means of protecting rights” and how, e.g., the anarcho-capitalists treat it. The anarcho-capitalists (notably, L. A. Rollins and Ronn Neff) reject it in the same way that someone rejects “man is a rational animal,” since men do not always or for the most part act rationally; whereas I accept I in the same way that one accepts “man is a rational animal,” since men can (and do to some extent) act rationally.


Mr. Solan then drops context in order to deny the differentia I offered. He says I have not differentiated moral governments (translate: governments) from “a well-run detective agency.” But I clearly meant not to differentiate them, at least not on the genus level, as even a casual examination of the final section of my essay reveals. They both can perform governmental functions (institutional protection of rights), so they both are governments (insofar as they do protect rights, to some extent).


Solan drops context yet once more in his first paragraph, when he says that I “define ‘government’ with the quibble that it enforces rules…” In fact, I define it in terms of its power to enforce rules—which leads me to point out a further distortion of my views which Solan commits. My definition is not equivalent to defining “a ‘human being’ as a creation ‘which engages in actions, at least some of which are moral’.” Instead, it is equivalent to defining a “human being” as “a creature who has the power to engage in actions, at least some of which are rational.”


As for Mr. Solan’s own attempted definition of “government,” only one group of governments is included within its scope—namely, immoral ones—and it is thus as inadequate as he claimed (incorrectly)that mine was, although for just the opposite reason, of course. In closing, both limited governmentalists and anarcho-capitalists would do well to ponder the new interpretation of Rand’s italicized statement about government which I have set forth, before they go off half-cocked about my confusion, my elementary lack of understanding, my quibbling, my truly infantile and thoroughly anti-conceptual bones, and my errors. It is just possible that they might break free of the intellectual strait-jacket which the archy-anarchy debate has imposed on Libertarian thought….Roger E. Bissell, Nashville TN, 3/29/74