Let us start with government – or, more properly put, the state.
Besides the obvious, such as a defined territory and a population, what defines
the state is said to be its “monopoly
of the legitimate use of force” within its borders. Indeed, this is the
political science definition of the state, the one taught in the early days
class. It implies that the state – and only the state – can use force to
compel or prohibit behaviour. In other words, the state is defined by its
exclusive right to use violence.
Of course, since the state is merely an abstract entity, in practice
this coercive monopoly belongs to whoever is “in charge.” This authority can be
determined in two ways: by law or by force. For example, in the United States,
the military will obey a president’s order to unleash nuclear Armageddon at any
time until 11:59 a.m. on his successor’s inauguration day. At the stroke of
noon, through the mere operation of law, those same troops will ignore him.
Conversely, political power in Syria has changed hands numerous times based on
who can most successfully use physical violence against his
opponents. A Syrian leader remains in office exactly as long as he can wield
that threat of violence.
Wait, didn’t we say something about “legitimate”? The Syrian regime
is facing a
massive uprising that has been met with brutal repression. Doesn’t that show
that it is clearly illegitimate? Certainly, but does anyone argue that the
regime of Bashar al-Assad is not a real government because it is too harsh?
Freedom House’s annual international survey has rated only a minority of
countries as “Free” every year since the first edition
in 1973. Do political scientists claim that most countries do not really
have governments, since they are too vicious to be legitimate? Of course not, no
more than they argue that countries rated “Partly Free” have “partial”
governments on the grounds that they are sort-of-but-not-quite legitimate.
To be blunt, the criterion of “legitimacy” means little. How
many governments have lost recognition solely on the grounds that they were
illegitimate? Take Libya’s Transitional National Council, which only started gaining
recognition as Libya’s true government after Muammar Qaddhafi’s forces had lost
control (i.e., their monopoly of the use of force) of vast swaths
country. The Syrian regime, however, with almost full control of its
territory, maintains universal acceptance internationally – and why not, since
even a massacre of
thousands in response to an earlier rebellion three decades ago did no harm
to its international status. Without their monopoly of force, their global
standing would be in peril. Without any semblance of the consent of the governed,
they are just one more dictatorship.
Once we set aside the meaningless criterion of “legitimacy,” we see
that government’s only real defining characteristic is its monopoly of force.
This is true regardless of whether those in power acquired it through law or
through brute strength. While Canada’s government is far more just than
Zimbabwe’s, both entities are defined by their ability to use violence against
people who behave illegally. Of course, the process for defining illegality is
immeasurably less arbitrary and more democratic and transparent in Canada, and
only a crazy person would argue that both governments use the monopoly of force
in the same way. But whatever the process for determining prohibited and
compulsory behaviours, every government ultimately punishes those who fail to
comply with its edicts by taking away their property, their freedom, or both.
What Is Private Business?
If the state is defined by its ability to use force to compel
behaviour, private business is defined by its inability to do the same.
Corporations can influence behaviour, and they certainly try: in 2010, the fast
food industry spent
$4.2 billion on advertising, while in 2008 tobacco companies spent
almost $10 billion to convince people to buy their products. And yet, no
matter how much they try, neither industry – indeed, no industry – can do
anything about a consumer who just isn’t interested. Almost no state has as much
wealth and economic influence as McDonald’s, Nike, Coca-Cola, Walmart, Exxon or
General Motors, and yet these companies lack a power that even the smallest
village administration possesses: the ability to threaten a person with force if
she refuses to behave in the way they want.
This quality is not limited to businesses; it is true of any
private entity of any kind. It applies to charities, non-profits, community
groups, churches, and all other types of organizations. And it applies to the
most basic building block of civilization, also a part of the private sector:
the individual. The only tool that the private sector has at its disposal to get
others to do or not to do something – to stop smoking, to recycle, to enter into
marriage, etc. – is persuasion. If a private sector actor does resort to
violence, we see the action as a transgression and the guilty party as an
aggressor who needs to be punished.
There is a partial exception to the rule against private-sector
coercion: sometimes a private entity gets the state to use force on its behalf,
for example by compelling a person to surrender her home to
a private developer, by requiring taxpayers to
businesses for their losses or by
competitors. Needless to say, these recipients of state assistance are
typically those with money, power and connections. This phenomenon, commonly
known as crony capitalism, is really just another example of the state using
force to compel or prohibit behaviour.