A highway patrol officer pulls a motorist over on a lonely stretch of highway, detains her, and assaults her, using her compliance with his authority to put her in a position of helplessness. This sort of atrocity is well-known under the heading of “police abuse” or “police brutality”; one can find all kinds of news items involving beatings, shootings, rapes, and robberies where the power of the badge was used in some way to deaden the resistance or retaliation that these crimes would normally inspire. A woman with any knowledge of the world would not quietly pull over to the side of the road and allow a stranger to handcuff her, were it not for the trooper’s lights and uniform. If an un-uniformed man were beating another with a club in front of dozens of onlookers, some of them might be tempted to intervene. The quiet compliance of the public with officers of the law does not follow the law, but the uniform. Even when officers act without authorization from above, the civilians still grant them the same authority.

Where does the real authority of a police officer reside? Civilians who submit to a rogue police officer, merely because he has a badge, clearly act in error. If a man with a badge is bent on rape or murder, without orders from his superiors to rape or to murder, he is obviously just a criminal like any other. But if his superiors did order him to rape or murder, (as the commanders of conquering armies sometimes do, to make an example of a civilian population) is he any different? Clearly, the chief of police has no more authority to order a rape or a murder than the officer has to commit a rape or murder on his own volition; the two are merely in a conspiracy to commit a crime. The badge does not make what is wrong into what is right, and neither does the title of “chief”.

How then if it is a matter of policy, if “The Law” really permits in some emergency, that its officers rape civilians or shoot them indiscriminately? How if the legislature, which we entrust with choosing what will be a crime and what will not, so decides? Does the city council, or the state house, or Congress, have the authority in fact, to authorize rape as a tool of policy? It is no answer to say that they will not do it; legitimate governments have indeed approved such things, sometimes tacitly and sometimes openly, particularly in wartime. The only possible answer is that if Congress authorizes a rape, they act in the same manner as the trooper who wields his badge to authorize it. The badge has no power to make the rape anything but a horrible crime, and Congress, it is self-evident, does not have that power either.

Who then can authorize a rape? The answer is obvious: Nobody. The act itself is a terrible abuse of a human being, and no human being has the right to do it. No order of a king or military commander alters the moral fact, nor can it be legislated away in the Congress or the courts or by popular referendum. The moral fact is beyond man’s power to move.

The same applies to the shooting of innocents; if “The Law” authorizes it, has it become right? Is the man who shoots an innocent person himself made innocent because he does it according to the rules set forward by his state legislature, saying that if he has been thus trained, sworn, deputized, and given a badge, and is faced with such and such circumstances, he may indeed gun down another man suspected of certain enumerated offenses? If this is possible, why cannot the same state legislature simply vote to authorize the same officer to rape a woman, provided he has been trained sworn and deputized and is faced with etc. etc.? A legislature that authorizes rape is a farce, and so is a legislature that authorizes and regulates murder. If you kill an innocent, you are a murderer, and if you “authorize” this, you are a conspirator in murder. That is all.

A step further: Is it right to fly a plane over a civilian city and release ordinance of white phosphorous, or plutonium for that matter? Is it made right by a Declaration of War by the Congress of the United States? If, under a condition of war, as declared by that legislative body, the moral veto on dismembering and killing strangers who have never done us any harm is silenced, then cannot Congress also vote to suspend the same moral laws which rebuke rape? Is Congress some kind of God, that we should say to our moral scruples, “It is alright, Congress said so.”?

One may well say that government action in these matters is preferable to mob action or individual rogue action for a practical reason, if not a moral one. “Of course Congress cannot authorize a rape, any more than a lone trooper can; only Congress is less likely to attempt to authorize it. The forms of government do not give the legislature the power to make real crimes innocent, or innocent deeds criminal; instead they give us the best chance of correctly codifying crime and punishment, as opposed to the reckless vengeance of mob rule.” This is a sane position, especially in the age of Democracies. Essentially it admits that the government has no special authority, that what is a crime for one is a crime for all. We would say, in this case, that it is wrong for the police officer to shoot an innocent, just as it is wrong for the neighbors to shoot an innocent, because the officer gets his authority from the community. The principle of representative government is that the people are at the top of the chain of command, and it follows from this that any authority denied the people themselves is naturally denied the government as well. The superstition of the King’s special privileges is rejected; instead, the powers natural to the people are delegated to the bodies of government. Only these powers cannot rightly exceed those of the people themselves, and this is, sadly, where this objection breaks down.

It would be a fine thing if the government, acting on behalf of the people, performed those functions which the people have a definite moral right to do, merely as a specialized agent in these matters. If the police officer performed the job of defending you against robbers, because you have the right to defend yourself against robbers. If the Department of Defense had the same moral license and scope in defending against invaders as the people would have, if they simply met the same invaders on the shoreline, with whatever rifles and axes they could muster up. But this is so directly the opposite of the case that one could scarcely call such a government a state at all. Overwhelmingly it is the case that the government is called upon specifically to perform functions that it is believed the people must not perform by any other means. How many of us would allow ourselves to search through the property and communications of our neighbors, in order to protect them against terrorism? How many of us, suspecting our neighbor of consuming some dangerous drug, would kick down his door and use firearms in his house, in order to put him in a cage for offending our sensibilities? How many would take revenge for a terrorist attack by burning and dismembering indiscriminately among the civilians of foreign cities? How many would fund these noble projects by demanding, on pain of imprisonment, or failing that, of death, some portion of every paycheck of our neighbors, whether or not they agree with our enterprise? How many consider it within our authority to permit or deny the commercial arrangements of our neighbors with each other, and interpose ourself, gun in hand, if one tries to make a living on terms we dislike? How many consider the health and education of our neighbors ours to direct and oversee, enforcing our tastes, again, with the force of arms? How many of us would threaten a drug company with destruction if it dared to sell a dying man a medicine about which we were uncertain?

In truth, the contention that “the government” is less likely to lynch, murder, rape, and plunder, than is a mob, is completely backwards. A mob is an ad-hoc assembly of angry people, entirely likely to engage in evil for the few hours it is possible for such an institution to be sustained. The impulse to dissolve a mob is its best feature, the feature that makes it part of normal, stupid, humanity. Nobody reading this particularly wants to take part in an angry mob, and everybody fears the consequences of such a rash course of action. The violence of a mob is shocking, visible, and frightening, and the result is that mobs are unpopular and rare. The violence of a government is legitimate, official, and frankly boring, therefore government is allowed to conduct its violence every day of the year, without a whisper of complaint. What criminal enterprise or riot of looting can compete with the depredations of the IRS? What civil disturbance can compete with a single “humanitarian intervention”, in terms of bloodshed and destruction? What poison can compete with the death wrought by the FDA?

To put it bluntly, the government is more dangerous than the mob. Why? Because you think the opposite. You do not trust the mob’s violence, and you do trust the state’s. You will withdraw yourself from the mob if it goes too far; how far has the government gone already, and you have not yet withdrawn your support for it? And the same is true of all your neighbors. How much further down the road of bloodshed has man advanced, thanks to the institution of government, than he would have been able to as a mere mob? How many times would every man have been sickened to repentance by his own part in every child killed in every military intervention, were he in the ranks of a mere crowd carrying out the same slaughter? How much sooner would murder and plunder have worn out our consciences if we were doing the work of the government with mere pitchforks and torches! You trust the government, you do not mind its violence; you should not then be surprised to find that legitimate government is bloodier in history, by many orders of magnitude, than is blind rage in the streets. Men trust the government, they do not trust the riot; therefore only the riot has a conscience.