Bill and Joe are neighbors. Most people would agree that it would be wrong for Joe to take money away from Bill. That’s fine with Joe. He would never dream of taking Bill’s money; he knows it is wrong; he knows Bill would be angry and that he (Joe) could be punished for stealing.
Would it make any difference if Joe can convince twenty other neighbors to gang up and take the money from Bill and give it to Joe? No?
What if hundreds or thousands of people get together and demand the money? What if they call themselves a government? What if they make a law to take Bill’s money?
Obviously, if the government takes Bill’s money, it doesn’t call it theft—it calls it taxation. We have had millennia to become accustomed to the idea that if enough people agree to initiate force against others, that force becomes legitimate. We never stop to consider that the same act committed by an individual would be condemned and severely punished.
How individual crime becomes acceptable when committed by the community
If a thousand people each own one acre of land and they cooperatively combine their land, then together they have one thousand acres. Not two thousand acres, not even 1001 acres. No one would pretend otherwise.
If a thousand people each have the right to defend their own lives and property—with violence if necessary—then those same thousand have the right to cooperatively combine with each other to defend all their lives and property.
But here’s the rub: When a thousand people organize in the use of defensive force they become far more effective in protecting themselves, but further, they cannot fail to notice that in wielding a thousand-fold power, they can do a lot more than just defend themselves. They can make anyone in the neighborhood do whatever they want. How can this happen? Can the group acquire a right that never belonged to any individual in the group?
Frédéric Bastiat was a 19th-century French political economist who argued that no person can confer on the law more power than that person already possesses. One cannot give what is not his to give. If a thief gives you money that he has stolen, you obtain no right to that money, for the thief cannot give you a right he does not possess. Likewise, government becomes illegitimate when it pretends to possess authority it has not been given. In 1850, Bastiat, in The Law, argued that the use of force must, therefore, be strictly limited:
“The law is the organization of the natural right of lawful defense; it is the substitution of collective for individual forces, for the purpose of acting in the sphere in which they have a right to act, of doing what they have a right to do, to secure persons, liberties, and properties, and to maintain each in its right, so as to cause justice to reign over all. . . . So long as personal safety was ensured, so long as labor was free, and the fruits of labor secured against all unjust attacks, no one would have any difficulties to contend with in the State.”
As noted above, when a government is given the power of a thousand people—or a billion—for their defense, the urge to use the power is irresistible. This sets the stage for government’s initiation of force whenever necessary to accomplish its ends, not because it is right, but because it can.