Individual Rights Must Be Preserved Without Interference From The Government

Feb 1, 2016

What is the role of government in society? This has been and remains the most fundamental question in all political discussions and debates. Its answer determines the nature of the social order and how people are expected and allowed to interact with one another – on the basis of either force or freedom.

The alternatives are really rather simple. Government may be narrowly limited to perform the essential task of protecting each individual's right to his life, liberty, and honestly acquired property. Or it may be used to try to modify, influence, or dictate the conduct of the citizenry.

In the first case, the government is assigned the duty of impartial umpire, enforcing the societal rules against assault, murder, robbery, and fraud. All human relationships are to be based on mutual consent and voluntary association and exchange.

In the second case, government is an active player in people's affairs, using its legitimized power of coercion to determine how the members of the society may live, work, and associate with each other. The government tries to assure certain outcomes or forms of behavior considered desirable by those who wield political authority.

More Government Means Increased Government Force

We need to remember what government ultimately is all about. The Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises concisely explained this:

"Government is in the last resort the employment of armed men, of policemen, of gendarmes, soldiers, prison guards, and hangmen. The essential feature of government is the enforcement of its decrees by beating, killing, and imprisoning. Those who are asking for more government interference are asking ultimately for more compulsion and less freedom."

Under a political regime of liberty, each individual gives purpose and moral compass to his own life. He is treated as independent and self-governing; as long as he does not violate the rights of others he is sovereign over his own affairs. He may choose and act wisely or absurdly, but it is his life to live as he pleases.

If any of us – family members, friends, or just concerned fellow human beings – believe someone has chosen a path to perdition, we may try to persuade him to mend his ways. But we are expected to respect his freedom; we may not threaten or use force to make him change course.

Nor are we allowed to use political power to manipulate his options so that he does what we want him to do. Using taxation and regulation to induce conduct more to our liking is no less a political imposition than the sterner and more explicit police power.

The totalitarian systems of the twentieth century used the direct means of command and prohibition to get people to do what a Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, or Mao wanted done. In the interventionist-welfare state such brute means are normally shunned for the more indirect and subtle method of influencing people's behavior through manipulation of incentives.

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Richard Ebeling

Dr. Richard Ebeling is currently the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina. He is the author of several best-selling books on politics, finance and government, and received the “Franz Cuhel Award for Excellence in Free Market Education”, as well as the “Liberty in Theory: Lifetime Award” for contributions advancing the case for classical Liberalism.

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