Tue 30 Sep 2008
What is government for? One (probably) positive outcome of the dragged-out-to-the-point-of-utter-numbness political campaigning is that it has caused me to stop and think through (a bit) what I actually believe the role of government to be. I have gut reactions to certain issues and I can think through my arguments on those issues, but I’ve not carefully considered the underlying political beliefs before. An interesting article on the morals of politics also contributed to this line of thought. So here’s a tentative sketch.
1. The primary purpose of democratic/republic government is to protect the freedom of its people to live their lives unmolested: that includes citizens and residents without the rights of full citizenship, such as children, legal immigrants, and those who are incapacitated by law or circumstance (prisoners, the mentally ill).
This means governmental provisions to protect us from external threats. (Not necessarily a standing army– diplomacy, drafts, readiness to stand firm when necessary.)
It also means protection within, when acting on our own freedoms causes harm or unnecessarily restricts the freedom of others. So basic policing and a criminal justice system are necessary, as are laws forbidding property crimes, violence, fraud, and some environmental damage. No consequence of lawbreaking should permanently rescind the right to life, or the right to vote.
Freedom and justice, the two biggies.
2. The government is the best vehicle for collective action by the people of the nation. When a majority of people or their elected representatives decide that we value something and want to undertake a project to express that value, the govt. and taxation is the way to go. For example, we value having a reliable network of highways. A perfect project for the government to build and maintain. Other examples– funding for medical research, aid money and intervention in poor countries in Africa. The caveat to this function of government is that it should not enact any projects or plans that conflict with role #1. Thus the Japanese-American internment camps of WWII were wrong, because they caused harm and restricted the freedom of people the govt was supposed to protect, even though a many leaders (including the president) were in favor of it. The government should not neglect its duty to protect the freedom of anyone, regardless of how risky one appears to the general population, unless that person has broken the law.
There is great value in having the government (local, state, federal) initiate these types of projects at the behest of the people. Why? Because no institution is better positioned to justly administer the programs and funding for an entire community, state, or nation. I believe that every child in this country should get enough to eat, and I am willing to pitch in to make that happen. Could I personally make sure that each child gets a lunch? No. Could my church? No. How about the Gates Foundation? Most likely not. But because of the government, every single poor child in public school is guaranteed at least one balanced meal a day.
Things the government should not do:
1. Protect people from themselves. This means that most “victimless” crimes should be decriminalized, including drug use. However, they should probably be regulated, to better protect the rest of citizens from their ill effects. Laws protecting us from ourselves should only be enacted when the cost to society for someone’s idiocy becomes too high to bear, and that step should be taken carefully at best.
2. Change or enforce cultural values against the will of the majority. I don’t really know why the government is in the business of officially recognizing marriages and divorces. Why should it care? Births, deaths, and parentage/guardianship, yes. The rest, not so much. If the country is tending more and more toward reckless spending and greed, so be it. If the movies and music are getting trashier and trashier, oh well. These are issues for families, churches, and other grass-roots organizations (if these groups are doing what they ought, they should be able to build a majority, right?). The exception to this rule is when cultural values are infringing on the safety and freedom of some people in the country; such a situation resulted in the Civil Rights Act.
A few corollary thoughts:
1. It’s a Republic. So the role of our elected leaders is not exactly to enact the will of the people. It is to keep track of what the people care about, and do the research and hard work and rigorous thinking and careful compromising that the people don’t have time or inclination to do, and propose action accordingly. Let’s say I think the financial bailout idea stinks (I do) and I call my representative and tell him so (I didn’t, too lazy). His job is not to vote against it. Why not? Because I don’t know enough about how the economy works to say what the right course of action is. His job is to find out how the economy works, thoroughly investigate the proposed action as well as other alternatives, weigh their various costs, risks, and impacts, figure out what will best allow me to to keep living my free unmolested life, and vote for that, and then let me know what he did and how he took my concerns into account. Evidence-based decision-making, dudes! No knee-jerk reactions, deciding from the gut, or mindlessly parroting the electorate.
2. No religion promoted by the government. Elected officials who are religious can be open about how their religion affects their decision making. But no laws, policies, or projects should ever be enacted whose only basis is religious, or whose intended outcomes are primarily religious. Not even if I personally agree with the religious goals or motivations. Why? Because I don’t want anyone telling me I have to wear a headscarf in public or pray in tongues at the baseball game. And I don’t want anyone telling Jews, Buddhists, and Atheists that their children only qualify for the school lunch program if they pray to Jesus before meals. I love Jesus and wish more people did, but faith is an invitation and not a precondition for the benefits of citizenship.