How Government Governs Best

Those of us who spend much time discussing politics have heard the saying, government governs best which governs the least. It’s often attributed to Thomas Jefferson, but in fact, the origin is the opening paragraph of Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience. Because his words are a good introduction to today’s discussion, I’ll quote that paragraph in full:

I heartily accept the motto, “That government is best which governs least”; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe – “That government is best which governs not at all”; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have. Government is at best but an expedient; but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient. The objections which have been brought against a standing army, and they are many and weighty, and deserve to prevail, may also at last be brought against a standing government. The standing army is only an arm of the standing government. The government itself, which is only the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will, is equally liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it. Witness the present Mexican war, the work of comparatively a few individuals using the standing government as their tool; for, in the outset, the people would not have consented to this measure.

The war that he refers to was the Mexican-American War, but it could just as well be any war in our history, especially including those of the present.

But let’s work out exactly what the purpose of government is. Otherwise, we have ourselves a massive answer in violent search of a question. My statement of government’s purpose comes in three parts in order descending from greatest to least:

1. The protection of liberty

The first, foremost, and fundamental purpose of government is to protect the liberties of individuals when they live in groups. We saw last week (26 June 2013) an example of this in the Supreme Court’s rulings on DOMA and California’s Proposition 8. Though the rulings were more limited than I should have liked, they did at least declare the principle that all couples have the right to marry. More gains in that arena will follow in due course.

The idea here is that when people concentrate together, the rights that they are born with run the risk of being trampled by the herd. Just as two roads intersecting require traffic lights to allow for both to cross without damage, we have to have a government that will protect the rights of each of us from the desires of others. Notice that government does not create those rights. It exists to protect what comes before and above itself.

2. Creation of an environment for human excellence

The second function of government is to create and sustain an environment in which human excellence is possible. Human beings achieve great things when they work together. This includes consumer protections that guarantee accurate labelling of products, programs that see to the health of people, and services that provide a functioning transportation and education system. Yes, these cost money and have to be paid for by taxes (but not deficit spending, let us agree), but they enhance the liberties that each citizen is able to exercise, and as long as the tax rate is reasonable and agreed to by popular vote–in our case, for elected representatives–this is consistent with the first principle. In fact, let’s recognize that taxation is required for any government action. Without taxes, we lose even the first purpose.

But again, the idea here is that by creating an environment in which humans can achieve great things, either separately or in groups, government makes possible a broader exercise of the liberties we are born with.

3. Promotion of cultural growth

By culture, I mean the arts, sciences, technology, and other such expressions of human excellence. This differs from the second purpose in that I see a job for government not only to create an environment in which culture can thrive, but also to promote new developments that are unlikely to be achieved first by individuals or private companies. NASA and the Internet are my two favorite examples of this. Without government, space, both cyber and outer, would not have been opened. The rewards were too far off into the future, and the technical difficulties meant that profit might never come.

This third purpose is the one that I see as the most debatable. It is the area most subject to risk, as we have seen with the recent kerfuffle over Solyndra. It also is the most subject to waste. But without risk there is no reward, and I’m willing to accept the chance of some money being scattered to the wind, since, in fact, the better metaphor is casting bread upon the water. Yes, some of it will sink or rot, but much will return to us in unexpected ways.

Those are the three purposes that I see. A representative republic–one in which rights are beyond public opinion and citizens vote on who will lead for a defined term–is my choice of how to go about achieving those purposes.

Now, I need a term for this political philosophy. Libertarian somewhat fits, though people who today identify as such would object to many of the areas in which I see a role for government. Liberal would be a good word, if it hadn’t been corrupted by so many on the left of the American political scene. Progressive has suffered the same fate. To shift the debate from the deep ruts of our current parties, I propose a new word, coming from the ancient Greek word, ἐλευθερία, eleutheria, meaning liberty. I’m naming my political philosophy Eleutherianism.

Now to form a tax-exempt organization and begin raising funds….


34 thoughts on “How Government Governs Best

    1. Retired Mustang

      I took the quiz. I know it is intended for entertainment only. Still, like so many real tests of ideological purity from the past, it presupposes acceptable answers. It does, however, allow people to say “Ha! I’m more interested in freedom than you!”

      1. orlin sellers

        Since the quiz requires yes or no answers, it is black and white with no room for gray areas, To me, that’s a good thing since I am not a lawyer. It does seem obvious, to me, that if one is for less taxes, less government, less intrusion into one’s life, less intrusion or denial of natural rights, that that person would be more interested in freedom and liberty than say, Mikeb or Obama. Wouldn’t you agree?

      2. Retired Mustang

        My objection is to the idea that I must support a given percentage or the elimination of a specific entity or program to be truly interested in liberty. Now, I may support those eliminations (no laughter, please), but the prejudice in the questions, as phrased, remains.

      3. Retired Mustang

        Truly, I’m not being combative, but I’m willing to agree that it certainly seems obvious to you. It might even seem obvious to me. That’s not my point. My point is that just as I desire less intrusion from government, I’m also disinclined to allow myself to be backed into a corner by someone’s attempt to define my ideological purity. The very idea that someone would have any interest in doing such a thing annoys me beyond belief.

        This is my observation. People of most political stripes talk about freedom and liberty at length. They extol its virtues and pledge themselves to its defense. After they’ve “been in the game” long enough, they adopt this air of propietorship, as if liberty and its defense were their exclusive domain. No one else is as interested in freedom as they. No one else is as devoted to the cause of liberty. And they never see the harm they are doing to the pursuit of liberty.

      1. orlin sellers

        Greg, I consider the SCOTUS decision on DOMA a permission slip for gays. My point is that they shouldn’t need one and that the government has no business in what any individuals mutually and voluntarily agree to.

      2. Greg Camp

        Oh, marriage. A marriage license is a contractual arrangement between the involved parties and deals with property, taxes, benefits, and so forth. I agree that consenting adults have the right to live together without government permission. The question about DOMA is on whether gay couples deserve the same treatment as straight couples.

      3. orlin sellers

        RM, imo there is a big difference between talking about freedom and walking the walk. Words are cheap, but having the moral courage to defend the ideas and principle of liberty is pretty tough. It is easy to separate the talk from the walk..

        If you are for less government intrusion, you are, if you are for some government intrusion, you aren’t. It is black or white, yes or no.

    2. Greg Camp

      I disagree with most true/false or yes/no quizzes. Call it the professor in me, but I see complex situations as deserving complex answers. The questions on the quiz that you offered, Orlin, were too simplistic. Are you for or against X? Well, what if I’m for it in some things, but against it in others? That can’t be accepted in a binary test.

      1. orlin sellers

        Greg, I don’t believe there are any caveats when it comes to liberty.

      2. Greg Camp

        Put it this way. Liberty can be enhanced by some government programs and regulations. It’s like a stop light. On a low level, my liberty is constrained by my being made to stop, but without that limit, the higher liberty of being able to get where I want to go without a collision would be less likely.

      3. orlin sellers

        Greg, I’m married and my property taxes would be the same if I wasn’t married, just like my other taxes.

      4. Greg Camp

        But Orlin, if you die, your wife can inherit the property without the tax hit that a gay couple would get in states that don’t allow gay marriage.

  1. orlin sellers

    Seriously, Greg? Not to be smart ass, but if there weren’t white lines on the road would you be driving into oncoming traffic?
    Traffic lights, eh. Did you know that even the government says about 10% of fuel is wasted by people idling at stop lights. Have you ever noticed that these lights are never coordinated to keep traffic flowing, wasting everyone’s time and impeding commerce.
    You think traffic lights are for safety? Sorry, they are for revenue.

    And what about sitting at those pretty-colored lights when you can see nobody else on the road and under threat of law you are forced to remain stopped when clearly there would be no safety issue if you proceeded on your way. Explain to me how that is enhancing liberty.

    1. Greg Camp

      You offered examples of traffic lights done badly or of times when the lights should be on flash. But the principle remains. In an area of heavy traffic, when two roads intersect, one has to stop while the other goes periodically. The question is what timing for the lights and so forth is best, not whether the lights should exist at all.

      I support limited regulation, but I do see the need for some of it.

      1. orlin sellers

        If you are for government controlling traffic, the flow of traffic, the speed of the traffic, the intentional design to collect revenue you are not for a smaller, limited government. You can say you are, but to me, you aren’t.

    2. Retired Mustang

      I’m aware of no society, throughout all of human history, that has successfully existed without some form of government. Government, by definition, implies some degree of intrusion. While I might prefer no governmental intrusion at all, recorded human history and human psychology suggest rather strongly that such a thing is unlikely to work. Thus, we’re left with the question of how much intrusion is needed. Like it or not (and I don’t really like it) some intrusion is unavoidable.

      1. Retired Mustang

        Orlin, I would go even further and suggest that the difference between talking the talk and walking the walk, when it comes to freedom, is more than simply big. It is profound and is related to a person’s basic view of the value of the individual and his or her worth. Allow me to suggest that opposition to governmental intrusion is far easier than truly valuing the individual. Opposition to government intrusion does not require me to a “long hard look in the mirror” and, with relentless self-honesty, evaluate how I view people, especially people who disagree with me. Not to beat a dead horse, this is the failing of things like purity tests and simplistic “yes/no” views of people and their beliefs. When I use something like this to categorize someone, forcing that person into a box that I will use to define him or her, I have quite likely elevated my political philosophy (in this case) to a place of value above that of the person. This is a major reason for my objection to purity tests. Far too often, I hear those who, like me, oppose more governmental intrusion and want more freedom, make political philosophy of greater value than the individual it is supposed to serve and elevate. Freedom, as a political concept, has little to recommend it more than other other political concepts. It finds its true and greatest value only when it serves to benefit the individual.

        The Left tends to get this wrong by supposing that liberty can be enjoyed by groups. “If we protect this group, as a group “we will support the cause of liberty and the general condition of people will be improved” sounds good to many. Sadly, it never works. It never works because the philosophy of group identity, in which people are forced into another box, as a basis for rights and freedom, devalues the individual.

        The Right gets this wrong because it suggests freedom will elevate the individual. True enough. And then it proceeds to define individuals by forcing them into its own boxes, effectively denying, in practice, the individual value it seeks to affirm.

        Freedom and liberty should serve people, not the other way around. The individual is what matters. Liberty and its support are the exclusive domain of no single individual or group.

        Mercutio was correct. A plague on both your houses.

  2. orlin sellers

    RM, that is what I said when I complained that the SCOTUS ruled on DOMA to give a group a permission slip.

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