The Right Way to Do the Wrong Thing

The Autonomist, Objectivists, and Libertarians may disagree on some particulars, and we do not all regard Ayn Rand as an authority, but we would all agree this succinct description of the proper role of government is about the best one:

"The only proper functions of a government are: the police, to protect you from criminals; the army, to protect you from foreign invaders; and the courts, to protect your property and contracts from breach or fraud by others, to settle disputes by rational rules, according to objective law."
[Ayn Rand, from "Galt's Speech," For the New Intellectual (1961), p. 183.]

Or, as Tibor Machan puts it, "it is to secure our unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that government—the agency that administers the law— is established within human communities. It is not established to do anything else; not to manage the post office, build monuments, run AMTRAK, conduct AIDS prevention programs, maintain parks, forests, and beaches, or undertake the education of children, but to secure the basic rights of individuals."

We are well aware of how well the government has been at running AMTRAK, curing AIDS, and educating our children. Those failures, at least, we could attribute to the fact they are none of governments business in the first place. But how well has it performed those legitimate functions for which it is supposed to exists? At another time we will address the dismal failure the American court system has become and restrict our review here to the two other legitimate functions of our government, the police and the military.

So, How is the Government Doing?

In addition to the courts the only supposed legitimate functions of government is to protect you, the individual citizen, from crime and invasion by foreign powers. In practice the government is mostly in the business of protecting itself, but even if it were in the business of protecting the citizens, it does not do it.

If you think the government protects you from crime, check the statistics. The government has been around a long time, and growing bigger and more powerful all that time. If crime was prevented by government one would certainly expect some kind of statistical correlation between the growth of government and the reduction in crime. Oddly, it's just the opposite. The more government we get, the more crime we get, and the worst of that crime is frequently committed by the government itself.

From US Crime Statistics, is this compilation of all crimes, including: Violent, Property, Murder, Rape, Robbery, Assault, Burglary, Theft, and Auto Theft.

Year Crimes
1960 3,384,200
2000 11,605,751

In case you think the increase in crime is attributable to an increase in population, here are the figures for crimes per 1000.

Year Population Crimes per 1000
1960 179,323,175 1,887.2
2000 281,421,906 4,124.0

(Do we really need statistics for the ballooning municipal, state, and federal budgets for "fighting crime," over the same forty year period?)

So, what is the problem. Why has this burgeoning government not been able to reduce crime? The sorry truth is, it cannot. Government cannot really do anything, but particularly it cannot reduce crime.

The police make no pretense about providing the kind of protection from crime we associate with security guards that protect property or body guards that protect people. Any police chief will tell you they are not in the business of providing protection of individual persons or properties. If you are a particularly "important" member of the government, such protection might be provided, but if you are only a tax-paying citizen, you are on your own. It is physically impossible to provide that kind of protection, short of providing a policeman to accompany every individual and posting a policeman inside and outside every building.

Just how, then, is government supposed to protect us from crime and just what are the police supposed to do? Most people have a vague idea that somehow laws are the means to accomplishing this protection and that the purpose of the police is to enforce those laws.

The Laws

The purpose of laws is to define things people must or must not do. These laws are called criminal laws; breaking them is called a crime; and those that break them are called criminals. When the laws were first being written, there were precious few defining things people must do, since the purpose of the laws were to protect individuals and their property, most of the laws were prohibitions, such as laws against robbing banks, because that was a threat against people's property. For most people, such laws had no direct effect, because they had no interest in robbing banks, anyway, or doing any of the other things the law prohibited.

For our purposes we must ignore the fact most laws today are not for the protection of individuals and their interests, but for the protection of the state, that is, the government and its interests, which is the reason that most laws today define things people must do, like what numbers they must have, and what permits they must get, and what forms they must regularly fill out, how much of their money they must give to the government, and what permissions they must get to use their own property.

Lawmakers know that laws alone are not sufficient to make people behave the way one would like them to behave. They know what the naive Constitutionalists cannot seem to understand, no piece of paper, no matter what is written on it, has ever made anyone do, or not do, anything. If the law is to be of any use at all, there must be some method of inducing people to obey it.

There are two ways to influence people's behavior: 1. you can offer them something that is of value so it is in their own interest to conform, or, 2. you can threaten them or their property with some penalty if they fail to conform. The method used by the government is the second and is called, "penal law".

Penal law defines certain, "penalties," for those who break the criminal law. The presumed purpose of penal law is to persuade those who would otherwise break the criminal law to obey it to avoid the penalties. It is supposed, those who desire what the law forbids will, nevertheless, avoid breaking the law out of fear of the penalties.

In fact, we know this does not work. Those who desire to do things contrary to the law do them, some thinking they can get away with them, some in defiance. If this were not true, there would be fewer people in jail, while in reality, there are more people in jail today than any other time in history. While it is argued that penal law would work better if the penalties were more severe, making potential lawbreakers more afraid of the penalties, this is obviously untrue, since, those who have actually experienced the penalties are the most common lawbreakers.

But even if it did work, or could work, before the penalties can be applied, we have to catch the criminals.

To Serve and Protect

That is the purpose of the police. The purpose of the police is not as the popular slogan says, "to serve and protect." The police are not meant to serve. The police are not meant to direct or control traffic, provide youth drug training (or any other kind of youth programs), or provide any other "services."

They do not really protect, either. As we noted, they are not personal body guards or property security guards. Except on those rare occasions where there happens to be a police officer at the scene of a crime in progress, the police do not get involved with a crime at all until after the fact.

Since the main purpose of the police is to apprehend the perpetrators of crime, we take a brief look at how well they do that. Except for murder, there is a paucity of data on there effectiveness in solving crimes (catching the crooks), but we at least have some data on how well they solve the crime of murder.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice · Office of Justice Programs Bureau of Justice Statistics the Percent of Homicides Cleared by Arrest in 1976 was 79%, which declined steadily through the year 2000 to 63%. Despite the declining effectiveness, it seems like an impressive figure, probably the highest figure for any crime (and the reason why it is so difficult to find the figures for the others). What does this mean in terms of crime prevention?

Since there were 15,517 murders in the year 2000, and 37% were not solved, that leaves 5741 of the 15 thousand running loose. Since the figures are roughly the same for the previous ten years, we may conservatively estimate we have at least 50 thousand murderers for neighbors.


Even if the police were successful in apprehending every perpetrator of a crime, it would not prevent crime.

The power of the police is retaliatory. Objectivists view retaliatory force as, "defensive." It means, you must not use force against anyone else to harm or threaten their person or property, but, if they use force first, then it is perfectly alright to retaliate by using force against them and their property.

Objectivists believe that is your right, but, being a good citizen, you allocate that right to the government to "retaliate," for you. That, in fact, is exactly how the "penal" part of the criminal "justice" system works. If someone breaks into your home; steals your money and damages your property, and the police manage to catch the perpetrator (which they sometimes do, since most thieves are also phenomenally stupid), here is how you get "justice:"

The perpetrator is tried, at your expense, and if by some strange quirk is found guilty, will be incarcerated (the retaliation) for some time, at your expense. You might get some of your property back, if it is found, but that is highly unlikely. The damage that was done to your home? Tough! Unless the perpetrator has been caught several times before, however, there will probably be no jail-time. So, back on the street he goes to strike a few more times before he's finally incarcerated for a while, at your expense. This is how the criminal justice system works and how you are "protected." It is called justice, but whatever it is called, one thing is certain, it will never prevent crime.

Intervention not Prevention

When Objectivists and Libertarians solemnly and sincerely declare the only legitimate purpose of government is preventing the initiation of the use of force by others, individuals, groups of individuals, or even foreign powers, they forget that, until recently, it was never a function of government to prevent anything, only to intervene.

It was a universally accepted principle one is presumed innocent until proven guilty, and furthermore, one could not be treated as a criminal until one actually committed a crime. In foreign affairs, a country was not treated as an aggressor unless that country actually attacked, or was actually in the process of attacking, or making unambiguous plans and preparations to attack. Now, of course, you can be put in jail for expressing "hate," because it means you might actually commit a "hate crime," and we invade foreign countries, because they might be planning to attack us some day.

(On that basis all countries are in danger, because, who knows, they might attack us. Canada and Mexico, watch out!)

It is because, in any practical sense, government cannot prevent and only intervene in crimes that crime cannot be prevented. It is for this same reason that government cannot prevent foreign attack, even when it attempts to head off such attacks before it is certain they are going to happen.

What Government Protection?

Does our government protect us from foreign invasion? Does no one ever attack the United States? Have you never heard of 9/11? Were we attacked by a superior military power?

No, we were attacked by a gang of scruffy religious fanatics with no military resources whatsoever. If the government cannot protect us from 19 Muslim nuts, what do you think it is going to do against a real military invasion?

But hasn't the government protected us from further terrorist attacks?

That's a fair question, one that Charles Krauthammer also asks in his recent column,

"The single most puzzling—and arguably most important—question of the day is the one no one raises in public: Why have we not been attacked again? We are coming up on two and a half years since Sept. 11."

Is it really the actions and policies put in place immediately after 9/11 and since that have prevented any further terrorist attacks? Well, it is only two and half years, and the time between the first WTC attack in January, 1993, and 9/11 was eight years. People are not giving the Clinton policies of those intervening years credit for preventing an attack. In fact, many are blaming his policies for 9/11. We also notice no one in the administration is proclaiming success for their current actions and policies, because, as Mr. Krauthammer observes, "no one dares say it. It could prove catastrophically wrong tomorrow."

It could only prove wrong, however, if there is another terrorist attack, which Mr. Krauthammer, you, I, and the administration all know is a distinct possibility, because it is impossible to prevent terrorist attacks. If it were possible to prevent them, Israel would have done it long ago.

When I recently quoted HL Mencken, "the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace in a continual state of alarm (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing them with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary," to describe our current administrations policies, I was told "9/11 was no hobgoblin."

Of course it was not, but the hobgoblins Mencken referred to always have some basis in fact, or they could not be put over. I asked then, and I ask now, does all the "homeland security" and new oppressive regulations and huge expensive "war on terror," do one thing to alleviate the last 9/11? Will it prevent another 9/11? Was the government not already supposed to do that? What makes anyone think, just because they passed a lot of oppressive new laws and spent a lot of money they are going to be any more effective stopping the next one?

One definition of insanity is repeating the same disastrous mistake, each time expecting a different result. When the next terrorist attack occurs, will people finally wake up and say, "this is not working. We've got to do something different?" Or, will there be the usual clamor for the government to do more, to expand the war on terror, to pass new and more oppressive laws, to interfere more in the private lives of the citizen, as the way of making us "safe?"

Less, Not More

Neither crime nor terrorism are going to be eliminated from the world or this country by any measure taken by this government or any other. The current insane path of accelerating incremental increases in government power and intrusiveness does not make one citizen one bit safer, but it surely makes them less free, and poorer, to boot. Some governments, like the UK, have gone further than we have down this path. It is instructive to examine the results.

In her recent article eloquently filleting, roasting, chewing-up, and spitting-out Britain's Tony Blair, No right of self-defense in Blair's barbaric Britain Ilana Mercer wrote:

"According to a recent U.N. study, writes Historian Joyce L. Malcolm, author of 'Guns and Violence: The English Experience,' 'England and Wales have the highest crime rate and worst record for 'very serious' offences of the 18 industrial countries surveyed.' While violent crime in America has been plummeting for 10 consecutive years, British violence has been rising.

"Since Blair's 1997 total ban on armed self-defense, things have gone from bad to worse. 'You are now six times more likely to be mugged in London than New York,' avers Malcolm. ... The most dangerous burglaries—the kind that occur when people are at home—are much rarer in the U.S. ... only 13 percent, in contrast to 53 percent in England."

Did you notice this: "violent crime in America has been plummeting for 10 consecutive years?" It is true. Have we been wrong? Is our criminal justice system finally working? Is all the expansion of power finally putting a dent in crime? Or is there another explanation?

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) report, "Crime Rates Decline, Violent crime rate per 1,000 persons age 12+," The number of violent crimes in 1973 were 48.5 per thousand and steadily declined to 23.1 per thousand in 2002.

Even more significant is this BJS report, "Firearm-related crime has plummeted since 1993," which reveals the number of firearms incidents in 1993 was 1,054,820, and the number of victims was 1,248,250, accounting for 11% of violent crimes that year, while the firearms incidents in 2002 had plummeted to 353,880, and the number of victims to 442,880, accounting for only 7% of violent crimes.

Do these results reflect a more effective control of firearms by the BATF? Hardly. What they reflect is the results of the exact opposite of the policy of gun prohibition in the UK. For the last 18 years, the number of states issuing permits for concealed carry of firearms has increased more than four times. According to the Kentucky Coalition to Carry Concealed, in 1986, there were only 8, "shall issue," states. "Shall issue," means, by law, a permit to carry a concealed weapon must be issued to anyone requesting one if they are not a felon or insane. Today, in 2004, there are 35 shall issue states, and two of those states (Vermont, and Alaska) have no restrictions at all, meaning, not even a permit is required to carry a concealed firearm.

How significant is this? While in the UK, violent crime statistic soar in direct proportion the degree of government suppression of firearms, the statistics for victims of violent crimes involving firearms in the US has been reduced by two thirds as the repressive restrictions on gun ownership and right to carry are rolled back. At least where guns are concerned, less government means better protection.

What About Terrorism

The entire question of national defense and the war on terrorism is too large for this column, but we can address the principle that less government is the solution, and more government is the problem, by means of September 11, 2001, itself.

While gun restrictions have be loosening and the benefits of the restoration of these freedoms are being enjoyed as greater safety and security by all citizens, there is one restriction on guns that has, if anything, been tightened. After all the discussion about the causes of 9/11 which attribute the attack to everything from American foreign policy to Bill Clinton' policies, the one factor that made 9/11 possible is conveniently ignored, the disarming of American air passengers and pilots by the government.

A hijacking attempt is possible under any conditions, of course, because there is no limit to insanity, but the kind of hijacking that occurred on 9/11 would not have been possible if the hijackers did not feel assured all they needed for weapons were box cutters. The one sure contributor to 9/11, the only one that can certainly be remedied, and the only one that government does not even consider is the government's own restriction on firearms on airplanes.

The Wrong Solution

More government is always the wrong solution, and always the one that is automatically presumed to be the only one. There is a reason for this.

Ayn Rand identified the logical fallacy called a frozen abstraction. It is one of the most useful of all fallacies, an essential tool of all politicians and all governments.

A frozen abstraction substitutes some one particular concrete for a wider abstract class to which that particular belongs.

An example would be, "The 'No Child Left Behind,' program will ensure no American child fails get an education." Since that "program," only applies to government schools, it equates "education by the state" with education itself. Fortunately for those not "educated," (since they go to private schools or are home schooled), while they will be "left behind," they will, nevertheless, be much better equipped to live successfully.

The particular frozen abstraction that substitutes, "government," for, "means," as though it were the only one, is so thoroughly ingrained that almost no issue or problem, social or private, is discussed outside the context of government. To every question such as, "what should be done about?" or "how should we handle?," or "what is the solution to?", it is tacitly assumed government is what is being talked about.

"What should we do about educating our children, providing Americans jobs, ensuring workers are treated fairly, providing everyone health care, ensuring everyone has shelter?" means, "what should the government do about education, jobs, fairness, health care, and housing." "What should we do about crime, abortion, pornography, and drugs?" means, "what should the government do about crime, abortion, pornography, and drugs?"

None of these is a legitimate function of government. None of these can be accomplished by government, or, if any could, it would only be at the cost of individual freedom and impoverishment. However good or noble the objectives, if government is the method to be used, it is the wrong thing to do, and all discussion about how "we ought to do," any of these things, if it means, "how the government ought to do," them is a discussion about the right way to do the wrong thing.