The Proper Role of Government
Tibor R. Machan
Most of the time those of us who write columns address fairly specific issues and have only a little space to call upon general principles. But it is such general principles that guide the thinking behind the comments on special topics. Even the most pragmatic among us, who think principles are a myth, implicitly invoke principles, if only the principle that power is the ultimate arbiter of right versus wrong.
In my own reflections and comments about various topics, I do invoke certain basic principles of political life and perhaps it will be useful to lay these out, briefly. Perhaps the most crucial aspect of these principles concerns the nature and limit of a proper, just government. And where the position I hold is most challenged is how much government ought to do for those who lack the ability and resources to get into various areas of social life with some reasonable hope of success.
The government’s role in helping to get people into the game, so to speak, when they are virtually or completely out of it, is, as I understand it, nil: this just isn’t the state’s proper and safe function. Putting it another way, the government isn’t there to be generous, kind, helpful, supportive, charitable and so forth — it exists so as to make sure peace prevails and justice is done. We, as human beings in our various relations to one another, must deal with innumerable challenges as the government protects our rights mainly so we are then free to choose to do what is right on our own initiative. (The government, like referees at a sports event, must take care of the rules, not play the sport, as it were. The players must do that!) And the system of rules, or justice, requires that no one’s rights be violated, no one’s rights to life, liberty and property and all the derivative rights that flow from these.
Now this is of course something not likely to be fully realized, even if it is in fact realizable. (Here a very handy work is Tom G. Palmer’s Realizing Freedom .) But it is imperative for those who understand it never to give up the fight. That is a duty of citizenship — to strive to advance and uphold the principles of justice as much as that is possible to do, whatever disagreements and opposition one faces.
It is not that the government might not here and there, now and then, do some extra good besides maintain peace and justice — even help deserving people. But on average it does so at paying a price that is prohibitive, namely, becoming a criminal organization that subdues and robs Peter to "help" Paul. Government isn’t able to produce wealth with which to help — it must forcibly get people to work and confiscate their wealth to provide its support. And that is plain assault and robbery, however much cost-benefit analysis has gone into the process.
When government gets into helping people by hurting other people, it loses sight of its proper job and that encourages very serious malpractice. One reason so much goes awry in countries around the globe is that the governments do not devote themselves to their proper task of securing individual rights but have gone about doing innumerable other things that destroyed its integrity as a peacekeeping organization. And once the government lends its hand — its legitimate tool of physical force when properly limited — to purposes other than keeping the peace — securing our rights — there is no end to the corruption. Everyone will want to have the same done for his or her vested or special interest. So, even those exceptions that may seem so minor and have such good reasons behind them contribute to the corruption of the proper function of governments.
As to democracy, its role isn’t to set the rules or establish the principles governments should uphold but to select the personnel who will administer the rules and work hard, often valiantly, to protect those principles. Otherwise democracy becomes complicit in perpetrating injustice — as when people vote to take property from each other, to restraint trade, to set wages or to control peaceful sexual practices and otherwise attempt to regiment people to behave well. This is an assault on the dignity of the human individual and democracy cannot justify that.
Obviously no brief discussion can do this topic sufficient justice. Still, it might be of some use to know where some of us concerned about the growth of the scope and size of government are coming from as we offer our criticisms of its expanding scope and power.