What Purpose Government?

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After reading the news yesterday about the French students and others who have decided to protest the presidential election no matter who wins, I started thinking about why. Granted, these are people who do not like any of their options in the run-off, but when you look at the protests and “protests” in France and in the United States, their arguments come down to one thing: the government is not doing what they believe it should.

In other words: what is the duty of government? What is its overarching purpose?

In many religions, there is a set of basic texts and creeds, sometimes condensed into a catechism for ease of learning and understanding. In the United States, at least when the Constitution was promulgated, it came with a set of statements. Likewise the Declaration of Independence, although much of that document is a list of what governments were NOT supposed to be doing. Like so many creeds, the difficulty lies in how later believers understand the meanings, or translate them into their own native languages. Today we look at the “eye for an eye” portions of the Levitical Laws as horribly brutal. In the times when they were written down, they were a merciful check on regional traditions of feuds and revenge killings.

So what is the job of government? I suspect everyone you ask, at least in the western world, would agree on “provide for a common defense” and mediation – keep bad people out, or punish wrong do-ers so you the individual don’t have to or if the individual cannot, and to serve as a neutral party when people have disputes. Diplomatic/ foreign affairs matters would probably be another safe matter, in general.

Once we get past those broad points, it starts to get increasingly messy. What is the “general welfare” in the Preamble to the US Constitution? On one end you would have a large number of European and US socialists who would argue that it is a minimum standard of living provided by the government, minimum amenities including broadband internet access, medical care of a minimum standard, and a limit to social and economic inequalities because society functions best when all are materially equal. On the other end, I suspect you encounter people who want to government to impartially impose a minimum basic framework of laws designed to discourage the worst excesses of human nature (no murder, no rape) and then leave people alone to make their own way. Encouraging good behavior like charity might be considered, but not imposing charity by means of redistributive taxation.

Does the ideal government provide or does it prevent? Is it the job of the modern nation-state to provide physical benefits for residents from cradle to grave, with the bureaucracy and controls that such systems would require? Or is it the duty of national government to provide a system of basic operating conditions in the law but nothing else, so that citizens can do what they see fit with their persons and property, so long as they don’t interfere too much with other citizens rights?

That seems to be the foundation of all the talking past each other and arguing that goes on in the media and in legislative chambers today. The self-proclaimed “anti-fascists” cover a wide range of opinions, as best I can gather from their various statements, actions, and media, but their government should protect people from mental harm and any possible risk of offense while also providing a multitude of physical benefits (good jobs, medical care, food, therapy, entertainment and recreation). And anyone who disagrees is obviously heartless and cruel, or at best dangerously deluded, and fails to understand the basic realities of what is needed to create a decent, humane world. From there it gets pretty messy.

I personally tend to lean toward the warning variously attributed to everyone from Thomas Jefferson to F.D.R. (!) and Gerald R. Ford that any government that is strong enough to provide all one could desire is also strong enough to remove those goods and privileges. My personal preference is for the minimum government possible at the lowest level possible, sometimes called subsidiarity. If the local government (city, county, tax district, water district, neighborhood organization) can handle it well, then it stops there. If not, then it is a matter for the state. If something is too big for the state, such as national defense, a national currency, diplomacy and treaties, then it should be handled at the national level. Equality of opportunity over equality of outcome or benefits would be the goal. Things that can be handled informally, such as through private charity and individual initiative, should be done that way.

I can already hear complaints about how, due to historic patterns and conditions outside individual control, there are people who start with fewer opportunities and a weaker foundation. Because of that, to make claims of equality of opportunity is hollow and mean. To which I point at the dysfunctional culture that has been created by well-meaning (and in some cases deliberately power-hungry) efforts to provide and regulate equality of outcome and ask how is that better? A culture has arisen that punishes individuals for attempting to escape the government safety net, or to pursue their own strengths and talents. How does that improve the general welfare?

To see the ultimate example of cradle-to-grave government benefits, at least in theory, look at the accounts of life under the Soviet Union and other Communist regimes. In 1980, who had better opportunities and a better minimum standard of life: the United States and western Europe, or the USSR and Warsaw Pact countries, and the average Chinese?

But, say the well-meaning, material goods are not really the important thing! Spiritual life, the sense of collective accomplishment, the availability of state-funded arts and music and parks and other public goods, the unity of purpose of the group, those all made life better than in the cold, greedy west. The government needs to provide those things, even if it costs a great deal of money that some people would prefer to spend on their own desires.

To which I say: show me a beautiful Soviet painting. Play for me beautiful music composed by a government composer during the period of 1948-1991. Tell me how standing in line for hours to get meat or bread or shoes improves my spiritual well-being. Show me the spiritual leaders and profound moral truths that came from the Soviet Union. I’d argue that the great moral truths plainly spoken, and the spiritual leadership emerged in opposition to the Soviet Union’s crushing of the human spirit.

The historical record that I’ve studied suggests to me that large, all-encompassing governments begat monsters and nightmares. The best intentions in the world didn’t stop it from happening, and have not stopped it from developing in other places with welfare-centric states. For all the wonderful social benefits that people have so lauded in Scandinavia, especially Sweden, once society lost its basic cultural core (eroded in part by those benefits, I would argue) and lost the sense of the value of the individual, disaster ensued. Don’t believe me? Look at the news from Sweden and Germany and other places, and the governments’ attempts to minimize the reporting of problems. A government that can grant public housing can also remove it, as people in Germany, Canada, Sweden, and other places have discovered.

Government in some form is necessary as long as humans are humans. Anarchy or strong-man rule are not good things. Neither is a government that can grant, and remove, everything your heart might desire. Give me as small of a government as is functional, and the opportunity to thrive or to fail, brush myself off, and to try again.

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23 thoughts on “What Purpose Government?

  1. “Today we look at the “eye for an eye” portions of the Levitical Laws as horribly brutal.”

    Speak for yourself, I find them overly merciful myself. But God is supposed to be both a merciful and a just god, so I will reluctantly accept them as just.

    • That’s a good point, considering that said laws were given in a world in which most legal systems were based on a (commoner’s) life for an (aristocrat’s) eye, or a few coins (from an aristocrat) for a (commoner’s) eye, assuming the offender was in a generous mood.

  2. Your last paragraph is spot on, as I’ve often said, government is a necessary evil. We need some, but as long as we have enough, the less we have the better.

  3. My only nit is that on a very small scale, “Strong Man” rule can work.

    In those situations, the Strong Man could “see the results” of his mistakes and is easier to overthrow if he goes beyond what the tribe likes.

    Of course, it still depends on “what kind of person” is the Strong Man. His son or successor might not be a good leader.

    • Yes, it can. As you point out, when you average the results over centuries, the track-record is not so good.

    • “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” -Lord Acton
      The benevolent dictator is a dream, with the exception of George Washington.

      • George Washington wasn’t immune from the desire for power, he simply removed himself from the temptation to be a dictator by stepping away from public life after two terms as president. Barack Obama has similar reasons for vowing to remain in public life.

  4. “My personal preference is for the minimum government possible at the lowest level possible”

    {insert image from game show Family Feud} Good answer, good answer.

    I would submit that a strong government = the strong man. That government that can give you everything can (and frequently does) turn into the bully that we usually see as the “strong man” in the movies. Cloaking it under the guise of “for you own good” doesn’t make it any less invasive. (like forcing someone to wear seatbelts or helmets.)

      • You would not get any arguments from me. _grin_ Especially since too often “for you own good” is a cover for someone else’s good: insurance company for example.

  5. Each paving stones marked “It’s for the children”, “I did it for you”, “For the greater good”, etc, all the way down.

  6. Pingback: How Much Government Do You Want? | Quasi Renaissance Man

  7. More and more, government, at least in the US, seems to be for the propose of transferring wealth from the productive classes to the nonproductive classes.

  8. ” their government should protect people from mental harm and any possible risk of offense while also providing a multitude of physical benefits (good jobs, medical care, food, therapy, entertainment and recreation). And anyone who disagrees is obviously heartless and cruel, or at best dangerously deluded, and fails to understand the basic realities of what is needed to create a decent, humane world.”

    No, the people who disagree are moved outside the definition of people and suitable for extermination.

  9. “The General Welfare” has come to mean that everybody should be on Welfare, generally…

  10. In the case of these here US of A, the best answer is found in the preamble of the Constitution: to ” establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty”. But notice that what follows is a government of explicitly enumerated powers and along with Amendment X, a statement that the powers not enumerated for the federal government are explicitly reserved for the States and the People.

    This is very simple. What we now have is a government that has to a great measure given itself permission to exceed the explicit enumerated powers by manyfold. But government here was intended to just allow us to live our lives as we pleased. Sadly to many people see government as a means unto itself, and thus we now have the “deep state”, forming a kind of meta-congress of our Wise Overlords. They have become very vocal and visible due to their utter shock at Trump’s election.

  11. “The historical record that I’ve studied suggests to me that large, all-encompassing governments begat monsters and nightmares. The best intentions in the world didn’t stop it from happening”

    I don’t accept that those who proposed “large all-encompassing governments” had good intentions, nor do I accept that those who propose them now have good intentions either.

    If you manage to refute incontrovertibly a claim that a substantial increase in government power is needed to solve problem X what we invariably see is that its proponents, rather than accepting the alternative solution to X, instead come forward with some other problem Y, always with this same demand. This is not evidence of good intentions. It is evidence of post-hoc rationalisation at best, and dressing the will to power in whatever cloak will best conceal it at the time.

  12. We know explicitly the purpose of the US government, as its purpose was clearly spelled out in the Declaration of Indpendence:

    “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,

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