The Jeffersonian Perspective

Commentary on Today's Social and Political Issues
Based on the Writings of Thomas Jefferson


Objectivism and Thomas Jefferson


6. The Non-Initiation of Force

As a corollary to an individualist society, it is necessary that a nation not have the right or power to compel actions, even for its own survival. Were that right allowed, a nation of people would be permitted collectively to identify duties and responsibilities that individuals owed to the common good and then could compel with force if necessary unwilling citizens. To permit that would be inconsistent with the form of individualism in which individual rights actually mean that no human authority can compel an individual to do anything other than to desist from initiating force against another individual. Therefore, the "non-initiation of force" is a necessary part of the philosophy of individualism.

The anti-socialist position implied here that no person should be compelled to surrender their property, including any part of their earnings, under the threat of force, for the use of someone else; that successful individuals should not be compelled to support failures; that there is no justification for taking from one who will work to give to one who will not, is a position fully supported by Jefferson.

But, for Jefferson, this principle derives from the rights of property and the just administration of the state, not from the inability of government rightfully to collect taxes and to enforce its decrees.

It is the right to property earned and possessed, not the inability of lawful government to compel obedience, that is at issue. It is ludicrous to think that Jefferson would ever have suggested that lawful government, representing the will of a whole people, could be trumped by some imagined right of individuals to be free from coercion.

To rest the right not to have one's property taken and given to another on a theory that the state has no power to compel its members to make contributions from their earnings for duly approved measures for the common good, is to completely distort the meaning of a free society and ultimately to undermine its authority and its continued existence. Only the most insignificant of organizations could continue to exist if it had no power to require specific contributions from its members. While it is always true that a dissenting individual can quit such an organization if he chooses not to pay assessments, and, similarly, a dissenting citizen may emigrate if he chooses not to pay taxes, it is the height of absurdity to propose that the organization or the state itself has no right to make such assessments in the first place.

The real significance of the non-initiation of force doctrine is its opposition to the very principle of self-government, i.e., government of, by and for the people. In denying all rights except those that belong to individuals, this doctrine denies to a people their right to nationhood and their right to a common destiny. The Founding Fathers never contemplated the idea that individual rights took precedence over national sovereignty. Jefferson stated it thus:

All natural rights may be abridged or modified in their exercise by the consent of the governed. This means, of course, the collective consent; as indicated below, bodies of men express their will through their majority, and the majority of one vote is to be respected as though it were unanimous. If we were to assume that a body of individuals, such as a whole nation of people, could give their consent to an abridgment or modification of their rights, but that any members who individually refused their consent were not bound by the decisions of the majority, decisions of the majority would be meaningless, and the collective consent of a body of people would be a mockery.

The doctrine that force can never be initiated against a member of society denies to an entire nation of people its sovereignty. To this, some naive persons might reply, "Good! Sovereignty should rest in the individual." But national sovereignty, the power to make decisions and laws for the nation as a whole, cannot rest in the individual. To deprive a whole people of their sovereignty is to deny that nation of its right to exist as a nation. Objectivists treat nations and other associations of people, not as existing entities, but "merely" as collections of individuals. They afford to those collections no collective rights whatever. But this is nothing more than an attempt to change the nature of something by redefining its properties. It is a pointless attempt to deny what is plain to any person of common sense. A people obviously form a nation and do things and act in ways that no individual can. Nations have powers and rights that no individual can exercise, most importantly the right and power to form new governments and make of that government what they please. This is most clearly spelled out by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, and it is the very means by which individual rights are secured.

No individual has the right to alter or abolish a government, much less to institute new government. Indeed, some individuals have seized that right in some countries--a fact that demonstrates that indeed the right to perform such acts does exist. But no individual has a natural right to exert such power. It is frustrating to have to explain this to persons bent on denying even the most obvious facts just because those persons are determined to believe that "only individuals have rights." Individuals have rights, nations have rights, corporations have rights, ships on the open seas have rights; it is only abstract theorizing that defines such rights out of existence.

What the "non-initiation of force" means is that a people, coming together to form a nation, establishing the rights and duties that shall exist for themselves, are, by this doctrine, denied their right to govern themselves and to demand of members the duties and other requirements which it decides are necessary for their mutual well-being--species of requirements which even a high-school debating society has the right to determine for itself. This non-initiation of force dogma says that such a people lack the right to enforce those measures they in their wisdom deem necessary for their common good on those rebellious individuals who choose to enjoy the benefits of association in society, but refuse to share the duties and responsibilities for the maintenance of the society. Individual sovereignty means the will of each individual is placed above the sovereign will of a whole nation.

Notice that even the staunchest supporters of this doctrine do not deny that government has the power to compel performance; all governments have this power, however it may be used. What they attempt to do is philosophically emasculate their own government and render it incapable of exercising governmental power. Since this power exists in all states of the world, whether for ill or otherwise, the result of such a policy would be to give the enemies of a state--and the most vicious of that breed also--a destructive advantage over one's own country. Thus, this doctrine acts as a Trojan Horse in America, whether intentionally or not.

Such a doctrine denies to a people the power to take concerted action for their common good, except those that protect individuals from the use of force. It decrees that all such actions outside of such police protections must be taken by individuals.

This undermining of government is rationalized by the assumption that if the philosophy were fully and perfectly implemented, rational individuals would always respond to a nation's real defensive needs. And a sovereign nation is told that other functions that it wishes to perform for itself are disallowed. But we are compelled to ask, Who, then, or what power will tell a sovereign nation what they can and cannot do, if the greater portion of its citizens determines on a certain course of action? This is the question left unanswered. Those who would propose these doctrines also, as we shall see, deny the power of the people through, democratic processes, to change the principles of the government under which they live. How then will these doctrines be made effective? What sovereign entity shall declare them the policies by which the nation shall be governed? Obviously, the only way such a theory could be rightly implemented is through the very means which the theory denies and despises: the majority will of the people themselves.

Recognizing the vulnerability of a nation practicing non-initiation of force in a world of nothing but power and force, the claim might be made that at least the influence of these ideas would serve as a constructive ideal. But would they? Would even a partial move toward this principle make a nation stronger and safer? Not likely. These ideas could only serve to weaken, not strengthen a nation vis-a-vis other nations. They sap a nations unity and vitality as each individual declares his independence from the nation itself. The dissemination of these ideas would not make us more secure, but less so. Their effect is to lessen the confidence of people in government and to foster a rebellious attitude toward the authority legitimately invested in the state by the people.

The real result of a greater proliferation of these vitiating ideas would not be the progress toward a healthy political ideal, but the gradual disintegration of society itself, along with the disappearance of effective law and order. In the vacuum thus formed, raw power would doubtless exert itself, and the blessings of liberty would be lost as despotism rose to the occasion.

But here is another conundrum. All societies consist of persons who are irrational, who make decisions on the basis of narrow, prejudiced views. In order for there to be an Objectivist Society or any other society based on a "rational theory," its institution would be much like that necessary for communism: The nation would need to be subjected to authoritarian rule to prevent those who are "unenlightened" from undermining the fledgling society. And that form of repression would need to be continued until the consciousness of the whole society was "raised" to an acceptable level. All teaching and doctrine contrary to the "Received Truth" would need to be suppressed, for that would only undermine the dissemination of this "truth." As we know from experience with communism, that need never ends, and the promise of a "pure" society becomes an excuse for perpetual oppression and tyranny.

But, someone might ask, Isn't the American society based on the indoctrination of a similar political theory? Isn't America dominated by a political idea? The answer is, It is not. The American society is inspired by ideas and ideals and principles and theories; but it is founded on the organization of sovereign POWER, in which the people themselves are the ultimate sovereign. Therefore, as Jefferson wrote, we can tolerate any kind of dissenting ideas as long as we are free to contradict them.

The structure of American government started out more idealistically pure than it is today. But no theory of government can be maintained except through some form of dictatorship unless it is embedded in the hearts of its people. When a nation's government rests on popular sovereignty, the principles that govern it must be embraced by the people, or it will soon become corrupted. Hence, when we look for the preservation of a free state, we cannot depend on its theoretical establishment, but we must depend on the people themselves and their education for the burden of self-government. Such exalted principles as we believe our nation is founded upon cannot of themselves endure unless they are embraced by the people of this nation. And the most important element in maintaining those principles in the heart of the people is that they be educated in them.

And this only emphasizes another point that Rand ignores: Freedom means that a whole nation has gained the right to liberty and is engaged in maintaining it. Freedom in the political sense is won and possessed by nations, not by individuals, and it is done with guarantees (such as Constitutions and Bills of Right) that are effective generally. It occurs as the result of a common, unified effort, or it doesn't happen at all. Those ideas and theories that would undermine this collective nature of freedom undermine freedom itself.

A society forms a government to protect individual rights and "to secure the greatest degree of happiness possible to the general mass of those associated under it." The government necessarily has the right to require certain actions by its citizens in the furtherance of this object and to force compliance if it is not forthcoming. Securing our rights is certainly the first object of government.

    "It is to secure our rights that we resort to government at all." --Thomas Jefferson to Francois D'Ivernois, 1795.

But securing our rights is not the only purpose of government, and even that object cannot be fulfilled unless government has the powers necessary for it to exist and to perform its functions. The most obvious instances, and the ones that give the most trouble to Non-initiators, are:

1. The necessity of a nation to defend itself against invaders and to compel its citizens to assist in that defense if necessary. The answer given is that we should rely on volunteers entirely; if the cause is just, rational citizens will always come to the defense of their homeland. In this way, the future of a whole society rests upon hopeful expectation. What great nation could plan and mobilize for an effective defense in an all-out war resting solely on such uncertainties? Even if a volunteer service is frequently sufficient for some wars, what nation would be so foolish as to place upon itself any limitations whatsoever to its ability to defend itself in time of crisis?

    "A ship at sea in distress for provisions meets another having abundance, yet refusing a supply; the law of self preservation authorizes the distressed to take a supply by force. In all these cases, the unwritten laws of necessity, of self-preservation, and of the public safety control the written laws of meum and tuum." --Thomas Jefferson to John Colvin, 1810.

To meet the needs of defense, Jefferson favored a militia in which every capable man was required to participate.

    "We must train and classify the whole of our male citizens, and make military instruction a regular part of collegiate education. We can never be safe till this is done." --Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1813.

Non-coercion was tried as a principle of national defense, but was thought insufficient for the needs of a great nation in the real world.

    "In the beginning of our government we were willing to introduce the least coercion possible on the will of the citizen. Hence a system of military duty was established too indulgent to his indolence. This [War of 1812] is the first opportunity we have had of trying it, and it has completely failed--an issue foreseen by many, and for which remedies have been proposed. That of classing the militia according to age and allotting each age to the particular kind of service to which it was competent, was proposed to Congress in 1805, and subsequently; and on the last trial was lost, I believe, by a single vote. Had it prevailed, what has now happened would not have happened. Instead of burning our Capitol, we should have possessed theirs in Montreal and Quebec. We must now adopt it, and all will be safe." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Cooper, 1814.

2. The necessity of a nation to collect taxes in order to finance its lawful functions is another situation that gives non-initiators problems. It was the fact that citizens were subject to these demands that Jefferson thought sufficient justification for their having the right to vote. This makes sense, because if the requirements are to be made on free individuals in a free society, they should at least have the power to determine what the requirements shall be through their votes.

    "Every male citizen of the commonwealth liable to taxes or to militia duty in any county shall have a right to vote for representatives for that county to the legislature." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes for a Constitution, 1794.

The whole idea of "No taxation without representation," one of the chief complaints of the colonies that led to the American Revolution, was not an opposition to the state's power to tax, but an opposition to being taxed by an authority that does not represent the collective will of the people. The cry was not, "No taxation of individuals." The British thought they could levy taxes upon their American colonies as they wished, without any input from those being taxed. That kind of subordination was equated by the colonists to slavery. It was not the naturally coercive nature of taxation that was objected to, but the fact that taxes were extracted without consulting the will of the people, and the people were treated as a tax-producing machine for the benefit of an overseas nation. The will of each separate individual was never a factor.

To Rand, on the other hand, government in a free society has no right to coerce its citizens to do anything except refrain from using force on another. Absent is the idea that a free people are free to do things together for their common good, and to require general support for measures adopted.

    "Freedom, in a political context, means freedom from government coercion. It does not mean freedom from the landlord, or freedom from the employer, or freedom from the laws of nature which do not provide men with automatic prosperity. It means freedom from the coercive power of the state--and nothing else. --"Conservatism: An Obituary," Capitalism the Unknown Ideal.

The distinction between force exerted against those who initiate force against others, and force exerted to compel obedience is impracticable. It would require all kinds of legal fictions in order for society to protect itself sensibly. The person with TB, the child molester, would need to be considered as using their disease as a "force" against other people. Otherwise, all society would be at risk from persons whose "individual rights" permitted them to become a threat to the common good.

It is individualism pushed to the outer limits of isolation and alienation that would deprive the government of the functions it needs to exist. Non-Initiators are thus compelled to refer to persons who support such sovereign rights of a people to act for their own survival, including Jefferson himself, as "statists" and "collectivists." And often these Non-Initiators will confess that, Yes, they wish to pursue this policy, even if it results in the destruction of our "statist" society, naively believing its destruction will somehow result in a society of greater freedom and not result in greater tyranny; that opportunistic despotic forces will not come forward to seize power when legitimate power is overthrown.

The use of the term "statist" to describe anyone who believes in having a central government is but another example of "a deception wrapped in a distortion hidden in an exaggeration." The term "statism" means "concentration of economic controls and planning in the hands of a highly centralized government." But this is broadened by the Non-initiators to include any form of regulation by a central government. Society, according to them, lacks the right to make any impositions on individuals to which they do not each give their voluntary consent.

It is absurd to apply the term of "statist" or "collectivist" to the government which a people elect to govern themselves. This is another example of the denigration of popular government in favor of an anarchic form of individualism that not only ignores the will of the people, but even suggests that the people as a whole have no legitimacy. Not so with Jefferson, however.

    "The catholic principle of republicanism is that every people may establish what form of government they please and change it as they please, the will of the nation being the only thing essential." --Thomas Jefferson: The Anas, 1792.

Objectivists believe "the only function of the government is to protect individual rights, i.e., to protect men from those who initiate the use of physical force," and are fond of quoting Jefferson when he wrote:

    "No man has a natural right to commit aggression on the equal rights of another, and this is all from which the laws ought to restrain him."

But they omit the context from which that is taken, a context which speaks not only of restraint, but of duty. They attempt to make Jefferson appear to oppose any enforcement on individuals other than the protection of rights. But that is not what Jefferson wrote.

    "Our legislators are not sufficiently apprised of the rightful limits of their power: that their true office is to declare and enforce only our natural rights and duties and to take none of them from us. No man has a natural right to commit aggression on the equal rights of another, and this is all from which the laws ought to restrain him; every man is under the natural duty of contributing to the necessities of the society, and this is all the laws should enforce on him; and, no man having a natural right to be the judge between himself and another, it is his natural duty to submit to the umpirage of an impartial third. When the laws have declared and enforced all this, they have fulfilled their functions; and the idea is quite unfounded that on entering into society we give up any natural right. The trial of every law by one of these texts would lessen much the labors of our legislators and lighten equally our municipal codes." --Thomas Jefferson to Francis Gilmer, 1816.

"When the laws have declared and enforce all this"--all this what? Declared and enforced our natural rights and our natural duties.

It is grossly naive to think that a modern government can exist in this world if "the only function of the government is to protect individual rights, i.e., to protect men from those who initiate the use of physical force." The Founders certainly conceived of a government as more than that. Jefferson expressed the object of government in much broader terms.

    "The only orthodox object of the institution of government is to secure the greatest degree of happiness possible to the general mass of those associated under it." --Thomas Jefferson to M. van der Kemp, 1812.

    "The freedom and happiness of man... are the sole objects of all legitimate government." --Thomas Jefferson to Thaddeus Kosciusko, 1810.

    "The care of human life and happiness and not their destruction is the first and only legitimate object of good government." --Thomas Jefferson to Maryland Republicans, 1809.

    "The first object of human association [is] the full improvement of their condition." --Thomas Jefferson: Virginia Protest, 1825.

Thus we have Freedom, Happiness, Care, Full Improvement--all of this is more than merely "to protect men from those who initiate the use of physical force." It is a description of a government acting on behalf of its people, doing what, according to the will of its people, is conducive to the freedom, happiness, care, and full improvement of their condition.

    The Insidious Nature of Political Propaganda

Theories that deprive the people of their collective rights become just as potentially destructive of Constitutional government as any Marxist or communist doctrine. Such theories could never prevail in a stable society, but what they can do is serve as an undermining force against an established government and its legitimate functions. Thus, while never being able to shape real government policy, they can serve as a disintegrating influence and permit the ascendency of authoritarian forces that would take over if democratic government were destroyed. These theories poison the public consciousness and often have their most significant influence with people who are more intelligent than the average and who, for that reason, are more likely to be in leadership positions.

The result can be noted in public discourse. Assumptions are made that are destructive and even treasonous. The ideas are spread in casual conduct, and a rebellious spirit seeps into the public consciousness and gains acceptance, sometimes even in high places. On the internet, one sees signatures and arguments such as

    "Taxation is Theft, Jury Duty and the Draft are servitude."

    "Those who *would* govern us are enemies."

    "People who are paid with stolen money (tax revenues) likewise are moral accessories to a wrong act. In short, such people are sleeping with the enemy. I hope they are not enjoying it too much." --Bob Kolker.

This destructive legacy is the result of the Non-initiation of Force doctrine. While appealing to the individual's self-interest and desire for freedom, it undermines the only means and the only institutions that can secure him that freedom.

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