The Catholic philosopher, St. Augustine, famously asked: “Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies?”
Augustine understood that the fundamental power of government, like that of a robber, is the power of the sword. More recently the Chinese revolutionary leader Mao Tse-tung updated the metaphor, noting that “All political power comes out of the barrel of a gun.”
True, government also wields the other two kinds of social power: the pen, and the purse. But its ability to buy pens and to fill its purse with money needed to induce people to do things is based on taxes. Taxes are collected at the point of the sword. We do not have telethons---the power of the pen--- asking us to send in donations to support government.
The fact that government rests on the power of the sword means that it is potentially dangerous. Government-as-bandit can single out individuals or particular groups and do terrible things to them. It can just kill them outright, as the Nazis did to Jews during the Holocaust. Or it can imprison or fine them or strip them of their property.
However government is still necessary if we don’t want to find ourselves in a Hobbesian free-for-all where life is “nasty, brutish, and short.”. Legitimate government, government-as-legislator, must be able to deprive people of life, liberty, or property, but it cannot do so arbitrarily. It can inflict sanctions only on individuals who violate genuine laws, general rules of action which apply to anybody who takes the prohibited action. And of course rules which apply only to certain kinds of people are not general rules. Such rules, since they do not rise to the dignity of genuine laws, should therefore be called pseudolaws.
The requirement that government only inflict sanctions on people who have violated general rules of action gives everyone great protection from being treated arbitrarily. Legislators hesitate to enact obnoxious general rules if they, too, would be subject to the same rules.
An ideal government would be one where there are laws but no pseudolaws. The opposite of such an ideal government would be one in which there are no laws, but many pseudolaws. This is probably how the first governments originated, in the dim and murky past, as protection rackets run totally for the benefit of the racketeers.
The history of political progress since then has consisted of prolonged, intelligent resistance to government-as-bandit, resistance which has gradually moved us away from pseudolaws and towards societies governed only by genuine laws. We are not there yet, and some countries still have much further to go. But it is now possible to imagine the day when government-as-bandit will have disappeared from the face of the earth.
Perhaps the final blow against government-as-bandit will come when people in general engage in civil disobedience to pseudolaws. This will be feasible only in countries which are close to the goal. In countries which still have many pseudolaws, civil disobedience to them could destroy all order and thereby make bad situations even worse.
But in more advanced countries civil disobedience to pseudolaws could be helpful. And the usual fears that civil disobedience erodes respect for laws would not apply, since disobedience to pseudolaws hardly implies disrespect for genuine laws.