Good Government

John Hood | October 5, 2009

The Basic Truth About Government

John Hood

I think it's OK to boss people around at the point of a gun.

Sound extreme? Well, unless you are a true anarchist, you agree with me because you believe there should be a government. By definition, any government exists for the purpose of carrying out certain tasks through the use of forceful taxation and regulation-that is, by issuing edicts enforceable at the point of a gun.

The basic conflict in politics is about the number of those certain tasks. For which tasks is it just to compel your fellow human beings to surrender the fruits of their labor to finance a government program? For which tasks is it just to compel your fellow human beings to follow governmental rules they would not voluntarily set for themselves?

If your answers to these questions create a short list, then you and I see eye to eye. Whether we call ourselves classical liberals, libertarians, conservatives, constitutionalists, or konk-eared splorks, we essentially believe that government is instituted among human beings to perform only a few basic tasks that can't be left to voluntary action, such as national defense, the legal protection of individual rights, and certain public goods that, for technical reasons, cannot be effectively priced and delivered through markets.

We're in good company. Most of the Founders of our country had the same view of government. It's evident throughout the letters, speeches, and official documents of the Founding Era.

However, if your answers to these questions about the just use of force create a long list, then you and I are in opposition. If you think it is just to compel taxpayers to subsidize sports stadiums, convention centers, banks, insurance companies, automakers, medical schools, opera companies, aquatic centers, passenger trains, or any other business venture or nonprofit enterprise, then you and I don't agree. If you think it is just to compel your fellow citizens to conform with your preferences-in housing, lifestyle, transportation mode, business relationships, or personal relationships-then you and I don't agree.

That doesn't mean we can't be civil. That doesn't mean we can't agree to disagree, or perhaps even agree to agree on a particular issue and work together despite our fundamental difference. But the difference remains.

Let me offer some replies to objections I can readily foresee.

Some might object that I'm just playing word games. Well, I agree that there's a semantic distinction at play here, but it's no game. Definitions are critical elements of any meaningful dialogue. Unless we can come to some agreement about the definition of basic terms such as "government," there is no way we can resolve specific issues of application. If you and I mean totally different things when we say "government," how can a political conversation continue?

Some might object that it's inconsistent for me, an avowed believer in the natural liberty of all humanity, to support any government, given that it is inherently forceful and contains inherent limits on personal liberty. There are, indeed, some libertarians who follow this argument all the way over into anarchy, but I'm not one of them.

Human beings have never lived without government of some kind. That is, humans have never lived without an authority who used physical force to impose his will and compel some kind of collective action. Given human nature, such a condition is inevitable. And an honest reading of human history suggests that any so-called anarchy devolves rapidly into irresolvable conflicts among armed camps, which end up monopolizing the first use of force in their respective territories-voilá, government!

To say that government is inevitable, however, is not to say that government will inevitably be large, costly, and tyrannical. Human beings have, indeed, lived for centuries under governmental authorities that imposed low taxes, regulated with a light hand, provided truly valuable public services, and otherwise left their citizens alone to make their own decisions.

Advocates of liberty should identify and press for policies and institutions that maximize freedom and minimize government coercion. That's a plenty lofty goal.

John Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.

John Hood

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