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Got Choices?

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The Ideal Role of Government

So what things should government rightly be doing? And what things are we better off to do privately, or within the framework of the natural laws of economics? Most of us probably don’t like the idea of big businesses using government power to squash smaller competitors. But do we think government should attempt to ensure merchants are providing safe and effective products to the public? Or can consumers learn to be more responsible to figure that out on their own?

Most of us don’t like the idea of “corporate welfare” where government gives financial assistance to businesses who may be failing due to bad management or changing market conditions. And yet this happens on a grand scale all around us. For example, consider green energy grants, agricultural subsidies or bank bailouts.

Do we think government should give taxpayers’ money to a failing car company or to an insurance company that has taken on too much risk? Should the government be allowed to give taxpayer money to a single company, picked out of an industry such as renewable energy or aerospace development, giving that company an unfair advantage over competitors who might not be as politically well connected?

Do we think government should use taxpayer money to perform acts of charity, or would such service be more effectively administered in some other context such as family, church or community? Should government attempt to manage other ethical standards such as what constitutes a marriage, or what types of sexual behaviors will be allowed, or what will be taught to our children about big questions? Should we allow government to tell us how much money we can earn, or how we may or may not exchange our labor with each other? Or can people be freely allowed to make contracts and agreements as they, and they alone deem to be in their best interest?

The first thing to recognize is that different people have different opinions about how much government should and should not do. This is a part of our Faith–the way we think and believe. Perhaps in the same way we don’t want government to establish a single, state-approved religion everyone has to conform to, maybe government should also not dictate a single state-approved role for government itself. Could that be possible? Could we be free to not only choose our own religious beliefs and affiliations, but also to choose the amount of government we will be subject to?

We have discussed several different forms of government and noted how each one tends to devolve into a circumstance where the weak, in one way or another, end up subordinate to the strong. We have shown how even democracy is not exempt from this weakness, when government gets in the business of handing out too many entitlements. We have noted that just because 51% of the people may vote to live a certain way does not mean it is correct or ethical to force the other 49% to live that way too. Is there a way to establish civil society so people can live in some degree of peace and security, and still be allowed a wide range of choice in how we exercise our Faith, including what we believe about the proper role of government?

In order to better answer this, let us first examine how government currently works on a number of different levels:

  • At the largest scale, we have the United Nations where delegates from around the world meet to try to resolve differences between nations, lobby for policies, and promote understanding between cultures.
  • Next we see national governments–often coalitions of smaller member states who themselves may enjoy a degree of autonomy, but likely rely on the national government in broader areas such as monetary policy and national defense.
  • Below state governments, we may have counties or regions having jurisdiction over land use, and public resources such as roads and utilities.
  • Where densities warrant it, areas may incorporate into cities which can implement their own codes to regulate zoning, traffic, utilities and health.
  • Often, organizational structures exist within counties and cities such as districts, neighborhoods or property owners associations.
  • Distributed throughout these geographical delineations, people may also choose to affiliate themselves with churches and clubs which also enjoy some ability to promote and regulate civil society.
  • At a fundamental level, of course, people are also organized into families by the very way in which nature works to sustain the species.
  • Although the smallest organization in society, the family is likely the most important and influential in the way it affects the quality of our lives, the ways we learn to think and believe, and the ways in which we get along together at higher organizational levels.
  • Finally, at the very foundation of society is the individual. And while individuals are usually most satisfied when they are engaged in groups such as the family and the community, still it is at this level, the individual person, where the most important and fundamental type of regulation takes place: that of self governance. For example, many people make good choices just because they are good people and want to do the right thing, regardless of how government may attempt to regulate their behavior. Most people have some degree of natural empathy for others and so would not knowingly injure or enslave them.

Across this hierarchy of government, there rages a never-ending battle over what type of powers, laws and regulations should exist, to what extent, and at what levels. Very often, when we determine something is not working as well as we might like, we pass responsibility up to a higher level of government in an attempt to address the problem more comprehensively. Stated in terms of feedback theory, we detect an error signal somewhere in society, but we may fail to recognize or accept a feedback system that is already in operation.

For example, we might observe the genuinely unfortunate condition where someone doesn’t have enough food to eat. We all recognize hunger as a painful thing whether it is happening to one person or a million people, so we determine to do something about it. We may understand on an intellectual level how hunger forms an important part of a naturally occurring feedback system, regulating the amount of food we produce and eat. In fact, if we didn’t get hungry, we would probably starve to death. But that theoretical understanding doesn’t do much to fill the stomach of a hungry person who needs food right now. So the most compassionate among us will have a natural desire to help those who are less fortunate and can not obtain all the food they need on their own.

Unfortunately, one compassionate person with some extra food might only be able to help a few others–certainly not enough to satisfy everyone who is hungry. So it seems natural for compassionate people to want to organize a socialized approach on a much larger scale. They might start with city, county or state government, trying to allocate tax money to help out those who are having trouble helping themselves. But local and state governments are often burdened with plenty of other problems to take care of and they never seem to have enough tax money for all the things they want to fund. Giving them one more thing to fund and manage can be a difficult proposition–particularly if there are other problems that seem more urgent.

This is where federal government comes in. At this level, there are not as many funding constraints–particularly when the government can create new money by borrowing from a central bank on behalf of future tax payers. And at the federal level there is also a fierce competition for a voting constituency. Politicians are always looking for groups of people who will give political support in return for one favor or another granted by the generous hand of government, even if the money to buy those favors must first be taken from other people who end up having to work for it. In short, the higher you go in government, the more likely you are to find someone willing to create a new program, particularly if it enlarges the scope of power for the politician or party who will get the credit.

While the short-term goal of reducing hunger for a relatively small number of people might be successfully met, in the longer term, a societal shift is likely to result. This is part of the unintended consequences we observe so often when trying to force a result out of an operating feedback system. Whereas previously, people might have assumed it was their responsibility to work and produce food and clothing for themselves, now they will begin to believe they have an entitlement to such things, and it is the obligation of other people to provide it. These perceptions skew the way in which natural economic feedback systems function.

Error signals which used to provide a negative, or corrective check back into the system, may now fail to function properly. Or worse, they may begin to provide positive, or destabilizing forces back into the system. Over time, hunger may not be reduced at all. Unfortunately, it might even get worse. And freedom of choice will be reduced, rather than enhanced, not only for the producing class, but ironically, for the entitlement class as well.

The goal here is not to debate the merits or faults of government welfare programs in particular but rather, to explore what happens when government takes on new roles and responsibilities at any level. It starts when a problem or inequity is observed such as crime, hunger or poverty. Such problems typically stem from a lack of personal responsibility at some level of society. Ideally, individuals should be responsible to provide for their own wants and needs, to the degree they are capable of doing so. Where individuals lack this capacity, it is fortunate if they can live and work within the context of a family unit, doing the best they can with the abilities they have, and depending on other family members to also contribute to the maintenance of the group so the needs of each person are adequately met. Where families are unable to provide for their own needs, it is certainly appropriate for them to seek help from larger units of society such as church, community and state.

Unfortunately, we sometimes ignore these fundamental and much more effective ways of providing for the maintenance of our fellow citizens who require a little extra help. Rather than recognizing the natural economic feedback processes that are already in play, we may jump immediately to the conclusion that government needs to somehow solve the problem. If a government at some level, proves ineffective at eliminating the problem, which it inevitably will be, the next impulse is to push the responsibility up to a higher level of government. But in many cases, that higher government may be even less effective at solving the problem, or it might even make things worse.

Regardless, power and control seem to always migrate upward, regardless of whether that approach makes life better for the public. The effect is greater and greater centralization of regulatory power and decision making authority. And the result, in the best case, is that a minority of the people will have to go along with what a majority has decided for them. More typically, even a majority may be forced to accept obligations they have not chosen for themselves and limitations on their choices decided by a minority who has discovered how to manipulate levers of power such as the legislature or the courts. The only real winners are those in the ruling class who get to wield power at the highest levels of government for their own benefit.

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