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….