By Robert Higgs
Why do so many people consider certain actions to be immoral if taken by private persons, but not immoral—perhaps even morally praiseworthy—if taken by government officials?
One possibility is that people have become accustomed to government officials’ taking certain actions (e.g., getting income by insisting that people either hand over their money or suffer punishment) over long periods, sometimes from time immemorial, and they no longer evaluate the morality of these actions at all, but simply consider them to be part of the state of nature—“how things are”—somewhat as people do not regard destructive floods or hurricanes as immoral.
Another possibility is that people view government officials’ taking certain actions, which are regarded as immoral if carried out by private persons, as cleansed by virtue of the government’s having been established and maintained by democratic means. We might call this possibility “morality by virtue of (electoral) majority.” Of course, if we posed a reductio ad absurdum (e.g., is it okay to kill all the redheads if a majority votes to do so?), they may admit the inadequacy of this justification. Yet, in most workaday instances, many people seem to regard a majority vote not simply as a way of deciding who will occupy public offices or which policies will be implemented, but as a way of establishing the “rightness” or “legitimacy” of government officials’ actions.
Apart from the widely accepted idea that democratically undergirded actions are ipso facto morally validated, people may consider that government officials as such are not subject to the same moral criteria as private persons. Much as Richard M. Nixon believed—or so he claimed—that “when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal,” many people appear to believe that when the government takes a certain action, that means that it is not immoral. Again, nearly everyone would probably admit that this stance has limits: if the government were to act in manifestly Hitlerian fashion, people would recognize that government actions are not ipso facto moral. But by and large the government does not act in such grotesquely outrageous ways, and hence it may receive a moral pass from the public that private persons do not receive.
Perhaps other possibilities also exist. All that is certain here is that governments routinely take, usually with little or no condemnation or denunciation, actions that would be regarded as murder, assault, battery, destruction of property, extortion, fraud, and many other crimes if taken by private persons. This moral bifurcation helps us to understand why so many people tolerate more or less serenely the morally rotten governments to which they are subject.