Tag Archives: Libertarianism

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….

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God, guns, and gays

I’ve written many times before on the question of gun rights and gay rights. Sometimes, I’ve even put the two together. Today, since both subjects are drawing the attention of America, I’m joining them to show the common thread.

As I’ve said many times, if you’re not hurting me (or an innocent person), do as you will. The Wiccans use that saying as the basis of their ethics, and it’s a good summary of the libertarian philosophy. It is also at the heart of the American way of doing things.

At the same time, Americans have a Puritan strain running through our collective consciousness. Recall H. L. Mencken’s line about Puritanism–the haunting belief that somewhere, someone is having a good time. It’s the reason that our missionaries wandered the globe making women wear woolen dresses in the tropics. It’s the reason that we forced a change of governments in Iran in 1953 and in Chile twenty years later. It’s tied up in the reason that we removed Saddam Hussein from power. In all of those, we had the belief that people were doing things in a way that we didn’t approve.

In our nation and in any society, there will always be a tension between the individual and the group. It’s been my observation, both as a student of history and by keeping my eyes open, that while individuals screw up from time to time, to make a royal mess of things requires the idiocy of crowds. That being said, I generally favor regulation to increase in direct proportion with size. Individuals deserve wide liberties, while groups often need to be restrained.

At the same time, I recognize that actions do have consequences and those consequences at times demand a response from the rest of us. When that’s the case, we have to balance the harm that could be done against the rights that we all should value.

Consider, then, the two issues that I named above. Take gay marriage first. A recent article in The Wall Street Journal considers the evidence of harms and benefits. The conclusion given, based on a review of the literature, is that there is evidence toward looser unions when same-sex couples are allowed to marry, and those same-sex couples have a lower concern about monogamy. That being said, children raised in same-sex couple households do as well as children in other relationships, and the time a relationship lasts and the number of partners tolerated in a relationship reflects overall changes in society in general.

What about guns? About 30,000 persons die in a given year from gun fire, and a couple hundred thousand are injured. The majority of deaths are suicides. Accidental deaths come in around 600. Contrast that with the number of defensive gun uses in the same period–in other words, cases in which someone uses a firearm to defend against a lethal threat–run anywhere between 108,000 and 2.5 million, depending on which study you accept. We also see that over the course of the last two decades, as gun laws have loosened and more states have allowed citizens to carry guns, the rate of violent crime has dropped. While cause and effect are hard to link, the evidence does show that more guns in more hands doesn’t result in more violence.

In other words, both gay marriage and gun ownership and carry have a mixed bag of results for society. This is where I have to fight against that Puritan yearning that so pervades American thinking. It is not the job of society to sweep in and right every wrong. A world in which no wrongs can occur is a soulless existence. Human beings are born with the power to choose, and that includes choosing right or wrong. It also includes a vast territory of grey, even presuming that our understanding of the two opposites is as good as we wish to believe.

I come back to my original idea. The fundamental principle of a society must be that each member is entitled to as much liberty as can be. The limits of liberty are defined by what would destroy the society or harm its members unduly. I realize that these terms are vague. To introduce clarity, look at the data that I cited above. Despite the mixed results, we see no evidence that either freedom will destroy us all. In fact, on balance, both freedoms create more good than harm. That being the case, I ask here a question that I often raise when the subject of control vs. freedom comes up:

Give me a reason to support control that does not depend on the theology regarding your favorite deity.

That means, obviously, the Christian God, but it just as well applies to pronouncements from social theorists in the absence of proof. Yes, the Bible in a literal reading is against homosexuality. Yes, a number of political philosophies are against private citizens having firearms. But America, a Constitutionally defined secular and agnostic nation, cannot base its laws on theology. Understand that by secular, I mean the law must be independent of any reference to an outside power, and by agnostic, I mean that without evidence and in the presence of speculation, the law must admit to not knowing.

We in this country have made the extraordinary choice to build our law on that principle. It was a good choice, both in terms of utility for the individual and the society as a whole. It was the correct choice if we believe that we all are born with rights. It is a choice that each generation has to make again and defend again.