If information wants to be free, why are textbooks so expensive?

Stars and Stripes, Justice Dept. Washington, D.C.  Photo © 2007 Scott Hanley

If information wants to be free, why are textbooks so expensive?

Stars and Stripes, Justice Dept. Washington, D.C.  Photo © 2007 Scott Hanley

Defining Government (.pdf)

At the heart of government is its capacity to use force. This makes many accomplishments possible, when force is used legitimately, but it can also be dangerous, when force is used illegitimately. Self-governance is sometimes possible, but government seems to be both inevitable and necessary.

Government “Claims a Monopoly on the Legitimate Use of Force”

German sociologist Max Weber defined the state as that organization “that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.”1 Because the government is the functional arm of the state, and political scientists often use the term “the state” to refer to government, Weber’s definition functionally defines government itself. Like Lasswell’s definition of politics, this definition includes both the good and the bad elements of government. What does it mean to successfully claim a monopoly on the legitimate use of force? It could mean that every single person in the given territory has happily agreed to surrender any claim to a right to use force on their own (which is what Thomas Hobbes suggested in Leviathan), or it could mean someone who has so terrified everyone else that they all meekly submit.

What Weber’s definition does mean is that all governments are based on force—there is no other necessary characteristic. Democratic governments may have representation, elections, and rule of law, but they also rely on force to coerce obedience. Authoritarian governments also rely on force to coerce obedience, but don’t always bother with representation, elections, or rule of law.

Government Doesn’t Do Anything Unique…Except Claim a Monopoly on the Legitimate Use of Force

We like to think that governments are necessary because they perform tasks that can’t otherwise be successfully accomplished in a society.  But Weber argues against that, saying government doesn’t do anything that other organizations don’t do.

[Government] cannot be defined in terms of its ends. There is scarcely any task that some political association has not taken in hand, and there is no task that one could say has always been exclusive and peculiar to those associations which are designated as political ones... Ultimately, one can define [government]...only in terms of the specific means peculiar to it, as to every political association, namely, the use of physical force.2

This shouldn’t be surprising.  Governments are just made up of people, so they do the same political things that people do.  This insight has important implications when we argue about the proper relationship between government and the private sector.  Any task can potentially be performed by a non-government organization.  But this doesn’t answer the question of what tasks should be performed by government and which ones by private sector actors.   That question is not answered here (there is no objective answer), but Weber’s analysis reminds us to keep an eye on the role of force in accomplishing political tasks.  


Government’s Force Kills

Force is power, and as English historian Lord Acton famously put it, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” American political scientist Rudolph Rummel has an even gloomier claim: “Power kills; absolute power kills absolutely.”3  

To claim a monopoly on the legitimate use of force does not mean that governments will always use their force legitimately. So far we’ve seen that one of the political actions of individuals or groups is to get what they want, or solve their conflicts, through violence, and now we’ve learned that government is just a political actor that does what other political actors do, so it is no surprise that governments engage in violence. Violence is the foundation, origin, and still today a primary activity of government. The historical record is filled with examples.  The Mongols “possibly slaughtered around 30 million Persian, Arab, Hindu, Russian, Chinese, European, and other men, women and children,”4 and in 1099, when European Crusaders took Jerusalem, “40,000 to possibly even over 70,000 men, women, and children were butchered.5  

The modern world has been no better than the ancient world, because technology amplifies the capabilities of force. In addition to the 34 million people who died in battle in the 20th century, more than four times as many—over 150 million civilians—were killed by the governments that controlled their territory.6 The Nazi regime murdered an estimated 21 million people.7 The Soviet Union killed almost 58 million people in a little over half a century.8 Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists in China killed 10 million people between 1927 and 19499 before losing the civil war to Mao Zhedong’s Communists, who proceeded to kill as many as 76 million more people.10 And in the 1970s the Khmer Rouge government of Cambodia killed nearly 2.5 million people out of a population of only about 7 million—over one-third of the population—in just a few years.11  

We can compare this to what non-governmental actors do. The worst industrial accident in history was the 1984 Union Carbide chemical leak in Bhopal, India, which killed up to 11,000 people died (about 3,000 almost immediately, and possibly another 8,000 over time from chemical related diseases). The worst terrorist attack in history, the 9/11 attacks by al Qaeda against the U.S., killed around 2,750 people. Compared to governments, businesses and terrorists are pikers.

Historian Thomas Babington Macaulay explains how the organization of people into a distinct group is itself a factor leading to the abuse of the power of force in his discussion of how one of King William III’s advisers could recommend that he slaughter Scottish highlanders who opposed his rule.

The most probable conjecture is that he was actuated by an inordinate, an unscrupulous, a remorseless zeal for what seemed to him to be the interest of the state.  This explanation may startle those who have not considered how large a proportion of the blackest crimes recorded in history is to be ascribed to ill regulated public spirit.  We daily see men do for their party, for their sect, for their country, for their favourite schemes of political and social reform, what they would not do to enrich or to avenge themselves.  At a temptation directly addressed to our private cupidity or to our private animosity, whatever virtue we have takes the alarm.  But virtue itself may contribute to the fall of him who imagines that it is in his power, by violating some general rule of morality, to confer an important benefit on a church, on a commonwealth, on mankind.12 

But Government Appears to Be both Inevitable and Necessary

Despite government’s dangers, it appears to be both inevitable and necessary. Inevitable because the opportunity to control the distribution of resources (a form of who gets what, when, and how) seems to be irresistible. Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel, argues that formal governments came into existence with the development of food production, because once there was surplus food available (something hunter-gatherers rarely experience), those who could control that food surplus and its distribution could benefit themselves and control others. As Diamond notes, this distribution of benefits is one of the basic features of government.

At best [governments] do good by providing expensive services impossible to contract for on an individual basis.  At worst, they function unabashedly as kleptocracies, transferring wealth from commoners to upper classes.  These noble and selfish functions are inextricably linked, although some governments emphasize much more of one function than the other.13

Government may be inevitable and necessary because of the need for coordinating the group for self-defense. Government is often effective at solving coordination problems by using its force to impose organization on a group, and a group that is well-organized is a potential threat to less well organized groups. The first societies that organized themselves under government were better able to compete for territory and resources than those based simply on family relationships. So the only effective way for other groups to effectively defend themselves would be to also organize, and once started down that road there is no turning back: the larger, better organized, group that can command more soldiers and more resources will most often win. And groups could keep getting larger for two reasons: 1) One group could conquer and absorb another group, increasing the conquering group’s population and territory; 2) Two or more groups could voluntarily join together to improve their defensive capabilities against larger groups.  

This has probably been common throughout the history of human civilization, and we have seen examples of it in the past several hundred years among countries. The United States were only loosely joined together under the Articles of Confederation, and the threat of attack by major world powers that had colonies in North America was one of the motivating factors behind joining together more securely under the Constitution. The cantons (provinces) of Switzerland—also known as the Helvetic Confederation—were originally independent principalities that, over time, joined the confederation in part for mutual defense.  And in the late 19th century the multiple independent

Germanic states combined to form Germany as we now know it, with a distinctly militaristic purpose, and the independent states on the Apennine peninsula combined to form modern Italy. No stateless society (a society without formal government) can very well stand against the power of these large states, so living without government is, for the most part, no longer an option.

This seems like a dismal view of the justification for government, but as James Madison said in Federalist 51;

But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?  If men were angels, no government would be necessary.  

And as noted in the Diamond quote above, governments do good as well as evil, providing services to the individuals under their control that they would have difficulty obtaining in the absence of government. Resolution of conflicts can be made more peaceful and less violent through the creation of laws and judges; coordination problems can be resolved by ensuring everyone gains some benefit from the desired action; and collective action problems can be resolved—free riders mitigated—by requiring contributions from everyone (i.e., through taxes). That government can do these things does not mean it will always do them well, fairly, or honestly. But that they often cannot be accomplished without government is certain.


But just because government is sometimes necessary, just because it is especially good at forcing solutions to coordination and collective action problems on those under its authority, does not mean that it is always a necessary solution. Because it has power, and power always seeks to expand its reach, those people who occupy positions in the government often try to provide solutions for every real, potential, or imagined problem in a society. And those who have become accustomed to government having such an extensive reach may instinctively look to it for a solution before attempting a solution without it.

But what if people can resolve their problems among themselves voluntarily without resorting to a higher authority that is based on force? The practice of resolving political problems is called governance. Governments, obviously, engage in governance, but groups can engage in governance without the presence or participation of government, too. For our purposes here, we'll call that self-governance.

Self-governance has not received enough attention from political scientists, but the study of it is advancing. There is no agreed-upon formal definition yet, but the previously mentioned Elinor Ostrom was the undisputed leader in the effort to understand this concept of governance without government, and one of her research partners, Michael McGinnis, explains it this way.

Governance does need not be restricted to the activities of formal organizations designed as part of a “government” [with] authorities having “power over” subjects or citizens, but instead can be realized in the form of citizens jointly exerting “power with” others, as they jointly endeavor to solve common problems or realize shared goals.14

Self-governance—governance without formal government—may seem rare, but it's actually quite common, perhaps so common that we tend not to notice it. An example that's popular among political scientists is “sand lot baseball,” where the kids set and enforce their own rules without turning to an official governing body to make the rules and assign umpires. For example, “that shrub is second base,” “the pine tree is foul territory,” and “over the Jones's fence is a ground-rule double.” Pickup basketball players do the same thing when they decide whether a rebound has to be brought out beyond the foul line or not, whether the team making a basket keeps the ball or the other team takes it, whether they'll count three point shots, etc. It's such a natural human activity that we tend to do it without realizing the significance of what we're doing, which in fact is drafting temporary constitutions for the governance of a temporary society.

There are more formal, officially structured, examples of self-governance, too. Churches frequently govern themselves without having an actual government. Neighborhood watch associations—voluntary groups of citizens who patrol their neighborhoods to watch for suspicious activity—also have to govern themselves—allocating watch times to the participants, and perhaps material resources like walkie-talkies or shirts to identify themselves, which also requires making sure members allocate some of their resources, time and money, to the organization. Governance without government can be even more complex, and can, in the right circumstances, persist over many generations. The Hutterites, an agrarian Christian sect, live in self-contained and self-governing communities. Leaders are elected by the people to take responsibility for various types of decisions (such as what to plant, or whether and where to buy land), but have little direct formal authority over anyone, a model that has worked for them for nearly four hundred years. In Spain there are communally owned and self-governed irrigation systems that date back as far as the 1400s.15 They have developed a set of institutions—rules and procedures—for ensuring the maintenance of their system and a fair and satisfactory distribution of water. Similarly, there are communities in the Swiss Alps that have managed communally owned grazing land since the 13th century, almost 800 years of continuous self-governance.16  

We are so accustomed to the existence of government—we are in fact intertwined from cradle to grave in a complex system of multiple levels and units of government—that we tend to see the existence of government as obviously the correct and proper thing (which is not to say that one necessarily agrees with what that government is doing). But if we could resolve all our political problems through self-governance, the necessity for formal government would not exist, and the use of force would not be so prevalent. It is our inability to do so, whether because of our own human failings (as James Madison suggested) or because of the complexity of the problems we face (as David Hume suggested), that cause us to create and turn to the power of a government for solutions. The trick, then, is to capture the beneficial aspects of government while minimizing its negative aspects.


Government is defined by the legitimacy of its use of force. But that does not mean that every governmental use of force is legitimate. Although it is dangerous, and in some cases self-governance is possible, government is both inevitable and necessary

Questions to Think About

  1.  What is Weber’s definition of government? Do you agree with him, or disagree? Why?
  2.  According to Weber, what is the important distinction between governments and other forms of human organization?
  3.  Can you think of any instances in which government has used force illegitimately? The American Federal Government, your state government, your local government?
  4.  Have you ever participated in self-governance? In what type of organization?


  1. Weber, Max. 1919. “Politics as a Vocation.”
  2.  Ibid
  3. Rummel, R. J. 1994. Death By Government. New Brunswick and London: Transactions Publishers.  P.1.
  4. Rummel, P.51.
  5. Rummel, P.47.
  6. Rummel, P.4.
  7. Rummel, P.111.
  8. Rummel, P.79.
  9. Rummel, P.123
  10. Rummel, R. J. n.d.  “China's Bloody Century.” http://www.hawaii.edu/powerkills/NOTE2.HTM.  Accessed October 11, 2010.
  11. Rummel, 1994. P.160.
  12. Macaulay, Thomas Babington. 1068. The History of England (1848-61), abridged edition. Edited by Hugh Trevor-Roper.  New York: Penguin Books. p. 418.
  13. Diamond, Jared. 1997. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.  New York: W. W. Norton. p. 276.
  14. McGinnis, Michael D. 2010. “An Introduction to IAD and the Language of the Ostrom Workshop: A Simple Guide to a Complex Framework for the Analysis of Institutions and their Development.” Manuscript prepared for the comment by participants in the Institutional Analysis and Development Symposium, University of Colorado, Denver, April 9-10, 2010. http://php.indiana.edu/~mcginnis/iad_guide.pdf.  Accessed September 29, 2010.
  15. Ostrom, Elinor. 1990. Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action Problems. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  16. Ibid.