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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.