MY THESIS, in simplest terms, is: Let anyone do anything he pleases, so long as it is peaceful; the role of government, then, is to keep the peace.
In suggesting that the function of government is only to keep the peace, I raise the whole issue between statists or socialists, on the one hand, and the devotees of the free market, private property, limited government philosophy on the other.
Keeping the peace means no more than prohibiting persons from unpeaceful actions. This, with its elaborate machinery for denning what shall be prohibited (codifying the law), along with the interpretation, administration, and enforcement of the law, is all the prohibition I want from government—for me or for anyone else. When government goes beyond this, that is, when government prohibits peaceful actions, such prohibitions themselves are, prima facie, unpeaceful. How much of a statist a person is can be judged by how far he would go in prohibiting peaceful actions.
The difference between the socialist and the student of liberty is a difference of opinion as to what others should be prohibited from doing. At least, we may use this as a working hypothesis, think it through, and test its validity. If the claim proves valid, then we have come upon a fairly simple method for distinguishing between warlike and peaceful persons—between authoritarians and libertarians.1 But first, let us consider prohibitions in general.
How many animal species have come and gone no one knows. Many thousands survive and the fact of their existence, whether guided by instincts or drives or conscious choices, rests, in no small measure, on the avoidance of self-destructive actions. Thus, all surviving species have, at the very minimum, abided by a set of prohibitions—things not to do; otherwise, they would have been extinct ere this.
Certain types of scorpions, for example, stick to dry land; puddles and pools are among their instinctual taboos. There is some prohibitory force that keeps fish off dry land, lambs from chasing lions, and so on and on. How insects and animals acquire their built-in prohibitions is not well understood. We label their reactions instinctual, meaning that it is not reasoned or conscious behavior.
Man, on the other hand, does not now possess a like set of instinctual do-nots, prohibitions. Instead, he must enjoy or suffer the consequences of his own free will, his own power to choose between right and wrong actions; in a word, man is more or less at the mercy of his own imperfect understanding and conscious decisions. The upshot of this is that human beings must choose the prohibitions they will observe, and the selection of a wrong one may be as disastrous to our species as omitting a right one. Survival of the human species rests as much on observing the correct prohibitions as is the case with any other species.
But in our case, the observance of the correct must-nots has survival value only if preceded by a correct, conscious selection of the must-nots. When the survival of the human race is at stake and when that survival rests on the selection of prohibitions by variable, imperfect members of that race, the wonder is that the ideological controversy is not greater than now.
When Homo sapiens first appeared he had little language, no literature, no maxims, no tradition or history to which he could make reference; in short, he possessed no precise and accurate list of things not to do. We cannot explain the survival of these early specimens of our kind unless we assume that some of the instinctual prohibitions of their earlier cousins remained with them during the transition period from instinct to some measure of self-knowledge; for, with respect to many millennia of that earlier period, we know nothing of man-formalized prohibitions. Then appeared the crude taboos observed by what we now call “primitive peoples.” These had survival value under certain conditions, even though the reasons given for their practice might not hold water.