Galt’s Speech, For the New Intellectual, 183.
Two questions: (1) is this statement literally true as written; and (2) if it is not literally true, then what principle distinguishes activities that it is proper for a government to perform from those that it is not proper for a government to perform.
I take the above statement to be a pithy, high-level summary of the three main categories of proper government action. I find this statement extremely useful as a way to quickly present the main thrust of the Objectivist view of government to those new to it, as well as to help order my own personal thinking at a general level. However, it seems to me that this statement cannot be taken as literally true. In particular, I do not believe that it is literally true that the only possible proper functions of government are police, military, and courts. What about a diplomatic corps? What about collecting government revenue (non-coercively, of course, but even then someone still has to collect and process the funds)? What about managing budgeting and disbursement of funds to other government agencies? These are merely a few examples, and other could easily be thought up.
Granted, the examples I cited are relatively minor functions in comparison to the main functions of police, military, and courts. However, even a minor function disproves the quoted statement if it is taken literally.
For the record, I do not have any major quibble with the quoted statement when it is taken for what it is—a pithy, high level summary. Any succinct high-level summary of a complex issue necessarily omits the various nuances, caveats, exceptions and so on that may pertain to the issue—if the summary tried to account for every such nuance, then it would become too lengthy and complex to serve its function as a summary. Thus, my question here is not meant to "bash" on this statement, but rather to clarify what the proper bounds of this statement are, and to flesh out a more accurate (if less pithy) principled framework for analyzing proposed government activities.
Rand identified the fact that "the protection of individual rights is the only proper purpose of a government." Securing individual rights creates the conditions necessary for men to live together as neither masters nor slaves, but as traders in the broadest sense.
In exploring the nature of rights, Rand found the signature of a rights violation: the initiation of physical force, whereby someone imposes his own judgment on another rather than leaving him free to choose his own peaceful actions. Hence her emphasis:
Notice that these "proper functions" flow from the purpose of a proper government, in that they each name a fairly general institutional means of securing rights against a broad source of potential violations. Could there be other proper functions of government in this sense? That would naturally entail an additional source of common rights-violations beyond those threatened by criminals, hostile governments, and the accidental offenses of others. I'm not aware of any such source, but Objectivists aren't dogmatists and if one were realized then devising some institutional means of securing innocents against the additional class of threats would of course be warranted.
Notice also that a "function" in this sense is not the same thing as an "activity." In enacting these institutional means to securing rights, of course there will be many activities and arrangements that support one or more of any or all of those functions. The key to determining whether any given activity of a government is proper is to ask: Does it involve the violation of rights? If so, then it is improper. If not, then ask: Is it needed in the support or implementation of a proper function of government? If so, then it is proper.
It's all about securing rights.