The legitimate role of Government

 What is the legitimate role of government? How much government is necessary?

In the United States, the first of these questions was fundamentally answered by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence: “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…” That is, the legitimate role of government is to protect the rights of its citizens.

As to how much government is necessary, the U.S. Constitution elaborates by granting Congress taxing and spending authority for some specified activities such as, to pay government debts and provide for the common defense and the general welfare. Much of what government spends today is outside its constitutionally granted authority. Jefferson was prescient, “The natural progress of things is for the government to gain ground and for liberty to yield.”

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the average U.S. taxpayer paid a total of $60 in federal, state, and local taxes. By 2018, the average American family paid $15,748 in taxes to federal, state, and local governments.

The chief rationalization for this growth of government -and its reach- is that we desire for government to be helpful to the disadvantaged. We have come to believe that government should help the poor, the elderly, provide healthcare, education, help businesses, and much more. Two major issues with this belief are:

(1) Government does not have constitutional authority for most of these activities; and,

(2) government has no financial resources of its own to pay for them.

This means that government has to confiscate monies from some individuals to give it to others. In this short column, I must set aside the difficult philosophical question this confiscation raises: Is it moral to forcibly use one person to serve the needs of another? Yet, if the fundamental function of government is to secure the rights and freedoms of individual citizens, confiscation of the citizenry’s financial resources does not fit the definition.

In his 1850 book “The Law,” political economist Frederick Bastiat makes the case that: “Life, Liberty, and property do not exist because men have made laws. On the contrary, it was the fact that life, liberty, and property existed beforehand that caused men to make laws in the first place.” In other words, we have natural rights, and a democratic government is just a group of citizens hired to protect those rights and to perform functions authorized by the citizenry.

Undemocratic governments have no use for a political culture of compromise. On this topic, consider the contrast, between the American and French Revolutions. Colonial experience had provided Americans with an appreciation for the give-and-take of representative government. The French, untrained on representative government, relied mostly on violent action with tragic consequences.

The guiding philosopher of the French Revolution, Jean-Jacques Rousseau claimed, in his theory of the General Will, that there is a discernable collective will for the people as a whole. Dictatorial regimes always fancy themselves as the agents of this general will and reject the idea of political compromise. During the revolution, French patriots, unlearned in democracy, chose to conspire and scheme against each other rather than seeking to reach political compromises.

American Founding Fathers did not strive for a collective will. Instead, they sought compromise in their political divergence. John Adams noted in an 1814 letter to Thomas Jefferson, “Nothing can be conceived more destructive of human happiness; more infallibly contrived to transform Men and Women into Brutes…than a Community of Wives and Property.” Adams goes on to tell Jefferson that he thinks philosophers like Rousseau are mad.

But it was James Madison who made clearest the reasons for government: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” We are not angels, nor are we governed by angels.

[ My latest book is “Liberty for Beginners”, available in Amazon ]

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