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Choice in Government

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A Look Into the True Purpose of Government

How many of us just take government for granted? Have you ever asked yourself, “why do we even need government?” Maybe it just seems, it has always been there, and so we assume it always must be.

But what is government really for? Where does it come from? And do we really need it?

If government truly is a necessity, then is there a right and a wrong way to implement it? What are the things it should do? Are there things it should not do? And if so, who is going to enforce those limitations?

These are important questions and they probably don’t get asked often enough. And the answers can be very different, depending on who you ask. But if we think it through carefully, it is possible to arrive at some basic conclusions most of us should be able to agree on.

To get started, let’s examine what government really is, and how it has worked throughout history.

In many ways, it seems like government is opposite the idea of individual liberty and free choice. After all, what does government really do, other than enact laws and enforce them? And laws just tell us what we must, or must not do. That just seems like a big limitation on our choices. And why would we want that?

The answer depends on two basic possibilities:

  1. Government doesn’t really exist to help regular people at all. It is just a bunch of people who have power over us, bossing us around and making us do what they want. They maintain this power because they can, and because it is good for them—not everyone else. It is like the law of the jungle: The strongest can prey upon the weak and only the strong will survive.
  2. Government is there to serve the needs of all the people. Without it, we would be at the mercy of anyone who wanted to steal from us, harm us, or otherwise exploit us. The natural world does work by the law of the jungle where the fittest have a natural advantage. But with the addition of responsible government, we can protect the rights of the weak. That way, everyone has an equal chance to succeed.

Let us examine these two different kinds of government from an ethical standpoint. The first form, where the strong prey upon the weak is immoral, or evil. In many ways, it can be worse than no government at all.

In the absence of government, individuals would have to survive on their own. They might have to defend themselves from plunder or oppression, either individually or by cooperating with others for their mutual safety.

But when oppressive forces are in control of government, there is really no defense for the ordinary person. Governments possess police and military force. They have the power to tax, to imprison, and even to execute. When government is based on immoral principles, normal people really don’t have much freedom at all.

So ideally, we would prefer the second kind of government—one that protects all the people and helps us to be as free as possible. Under moral government, we recognize that all people have a right to liberty. Most people would like to be able to make their own choices and to be subject to fewer laws and restrictions. But without any laws at all, the weak would be vulnerable to those that are stronger, smarter or more sneaky. In other words, some people would get to enjoy freedom, but many others may not.

So a moral government is instituted in order to protect the rights of the people against those who would infringe those rights. An immoral government itself becomes the aggressor, serving the needs only of the powerful and creating even more injustice than might exist without any government at all.

Throughout history, we have seen examples of both kinds of government. Unfortunately, the number of governments truly based on individual liberty and the protection of human rights have been all too rare. And even when governments have been established on sound ethical principles, all to often, it has only lasted a few generations.

Government can become an immense center of power. And power attracts those among us who wish to use that power for their own selfish ends. If we are not vigilent in the defense of our freedoms, the wrong people will eventually end up in charge of us.

So it is difficult to become free. But it is also a challenge to remain free.

In our past, we have seen this theme play out again and again. Most often, it results in the division of people into two or more social classes:

  • The ruling class.
    These people make the laws, manage the affairs of government, and enjoy a high standard of living. They think they are pretty important. But they don’t really produce much in the way of food, clothing, or the other necessities of life.
  • The servant class.
    These people do the labor that really makes society work. They grow the food, work the mines, and build the infrastructure necessary for civilized living. Unfortunately, they usually don’t enjoy nearly the same standard of living as the elite, even though they do most of the work to produce it.

Historically, it hasn’t really mattered what form of government you live under. Eventually, people still end up getting separated into classes.

In many governments, the ruling class maintains its power by sheer force. For example, a monarch or dictator may use the power of government to punish, threaten, or kill anyone who defies his power. That way, he can keep himself and his associates enjoying the privileges of that power. As long as he is successful, most in the servant class will not dare to rise up in defiance.

In modern democracies, it works a little differently. Under this form of government, leaders must maintain the popular support of the voting public. They have to win elections every few years. So it is more difficult to maintain power over longer periods of time. But it can be done.

In a democracy, rather than power being concentrated in a single leader, it more often coalesces into parties. In the United States, this power is consolidated particularly in two powerful parties. And high ranking members of those parties cooperate internally, and often even with the other party, to share in the spoils of power.

The division of classes has evolved into a subtly different form, with the addition of a third class: The entitlement class. Government delivers perks of various kinds to this entitlement class, in exchange for its popular support.

For example, government might give out living assistance such as food, rent subsidies, help with tuition, or health care expenses. In recent elections, we have even seen the distribution of free cellular phones and even cash. In exchange, the entitlement class votes to retain power for those handing out the benefits.

And the entitlement class is not limited to the poor and needy becoming dependent on these perks. Corporations, educators and investors also line up to get money, subsidies and other favors from government. In a democracy, you only need 51% of the voters to support the status quo, and power can be maintained for generations.

Most Americans have a very low regard for the Congress, as an institution. Yet in a strange irony, most still favor their representatives to Congress, electing them again and again for terms that sometimes last for decades.

This is a result of this same dynamic. We all hate the pork spending we see in Washington. Yet we re-elect the representatives who are most effective at bringing home the spoils from Washington.

So let us return to the question: why do we even have government? Your answer may depend on what class you identify with:

If you are in the ruling class, you probably think government exists: To make society more organized; To keep people doing what they should, rather than what they want to; To redistribute wealth from those who have too much, and give it to those who don’t have enough; And to accomplish great public works, which probably would not occur without asserting strong, centralized leadership.

You probably think you are a pretty important part of the process. Without your leadership and intervention, things would not go well at all. Regular people would really not able to take care of themselves on their own. But with your help, they can all be happy and contented workers, going to their jobs each day, and making things function throughout the economy.

Because you are so important, you deserve a lot of money and comfort in your life. As you direct the resources of the economy, it seems only fair to peel off a generous share for yourself. Because you are smart and wise and frankly, you deserve it!

If you are in the entitlement class, you probably think government exists to provide things for you that you don’t know how to get on your own.

After all, life can be difficult and uncertain, at times. You go to your job every day and work very hard. It makes sense that you are just as entitled to the good things in life as anyone else. And if there is someone in government promising to give them to you, that is certainly worth your vote.

Everyone deserves free healthcare and a good education. We all want enough food to eat and a comfortable place to live. We all need a cell phone, clean clothes and a car. And it is way too much stress to have to figure out if we can really afford all those things. It would be nicer if we could just go to work each day and let someone else work out all the details to make sure we get what we need.

Corporate members of the entitlement class think government is there to be their “partner.” It is hard to get a business started and it can require a lot of money. Government seems to have a lot of money, so if they will give you some, that would be easier than having to raise it yourself.

Never mind that government doesn’t have anything to give except that which it has first taken from others.

This leads us to the servant class: Ironically, many people are members of both the servant class and the entitlement class. Basically, anyone who works in a productive job is a member of the servant class. We go to work every day trying to provide for ourselves and our families. We wonder why taxes have to be so high. And we get frustrated every time we have to deal with the DMV, the IRS, or a local traffic cop.

We appreciate many of the valuable services of government such as roads, utilities and a justice system. If someone breaks into our home, we want to be able to trust the police to give us the help we need. But it seems like half or more of everything we produce is taken away just to pay for the functions of government. Government seems to take too much, and to give too little.

So whose opinions of government are correct?

According to the understanding of the American founders, a moral, or just government is created to protect our individual rights. Furthermore, they started with the premise, that all people are created equal. We all have a right to own ourselves, to live free, and to pursue our own happiness as we see fit.

We shouldn’t be divided as servants and rulers. And no one is entitled to be in an elite ruling class and make everyone else provide for them.

The problem is, we are all very different, and it takes a lot of work to produce the things we want and need to live. Some of us are stronger, some are smarter, some are trickier. Everyone has different skills and talents. So even though we should all have equal access to the resources and opportunities life affords, we don’t always get a fair chance. Someone stronger might take what we have, or force us to work for their maintenance. Someone smarter might trick us into providing for them so they don’t have to.

In other words, some people are born with, or develop certain natural advantages. And they can use those advantages to unfairly exploit others.

The Founders recognized that a responsible government could be a protector of the weak and disadvantaged. With proper controls in place, individuals can be assured more equal access to life’s opportunities regardless of whether they are strong or weak in any number of different ways.

But by what justification does someone establish such controls? After all, if everyone should be free as a condition of their creation, then by what authority can one man rise up to form a government and enact laws that will restrict the freedom of others?

The answer is simple. Individuals should naturally be free to pursue their own lives as they see fit. But with this freedom, comes a solemn responsibility: we must not exercise our freedom in such a way that it unduly infringes on someone else’s freedom. For example, we should be free to grow our own food. But we should not be free to steal food from others, or to force them to produce food for us.

There is really no prevailing authority around to enforce this idea of individual freedom. So ultimately, we are left to do it ourselves. This is the basis for the right to self defense. We can freely exercise our own rights as long as we don’t infringe on someone else. And if someone else does begin to infringe our rights, we can justifiably defend ourselves against that aggression.

Because we have liberty, we can also freely associate ourselves with others who consent to the relationship. This means, people have a right to join together to secure their common defense. In other words, those rights we have as individuals, we can also delegate to a group or organization to perform on our behalf.

This is the idea behind ethical government. People can join together in a civil society whose purpose is to protect our natural rights and liberties.

But a government powerful enough to protect rights is also powerful enough to infringe them. And this is the ultimate danger of all government. As long as it only acts on behalf of our right of self defense, it is moral and within its rightful power. But government can also become the very aggressor it is supposed to protect against. It can become a bully itself, and begin to deprive individuals of their rights. This can cause the division of people into classes, forcing one person to serve another—the very definition of slavery.

The American founders recognized this peril and tried to take steps to prevent it. One mechanism was to form the country as a republic, rather than a democracy. They clearly understood that in a pure democracy, a majority could simply vote their will into being, without regard to the wishes or rights of the minority. So the Union would be composed of a variety of very independent states. This allowed citizens a diverse set of options in choosing where to live. If one state began to be too oppressive, people would be free to move somewhere else where conditions are more favorable.

A second mechanism was to limit the scope and power of the federal government. The federal government would be primarily responsible for two areas:

  • Foreign Policy
  • This would include such things as defense, immigration, and border control—all related to our interactions with other nations. The idea was to provide safety and security from hostile foreign forces who might threaten our notions of liberty and natural rights.
  • Interaction Between State Governments
  • This would include regulating (i.e. making regular) interstate commerce, and interstate transportation. It would also include establishing standards for things like weights, measures, and money to foster better cooperation and commerce between the various states.

But the powers of the federal government were intended to be few, and limited to those enumerated in the Constitution. Other powers, not explicitly spelled out in the Constitution were to be left to the States, or to the people of the country.

The founders were right to fear the ever growing power of a federal government. In spite of Constitutional limits on federal power, our national government has grown far beyond the scope envisioned by the founders. Today, it taxes citizens individually and then passes some of that money back out to the states, on the condition they go along with federally mandated policies. This was explicitly forbidden by the original constitution.

Today there is hardly an aspect of our lives not regulated directly by the federal government. It regulates the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the cars we drive, the medicines we can take. It defines how we can cooperate and exchange labor with each other. It controls how we may associate ourselves in marriage and family.

Worst of all, it forcibly takes wealth from one class of people and gives it to others in order to maintain a loyal, but dependent voting constituency.

In short, government has gone far beyond its rightful exercise of a collective right to self defense. It has become an aggressor in its own right. It now is a tool by which those who are politically strong can live at the expense of those who are politically weak.

So what are we to do? How is a government reformed, once it has grown far beyond its rightful scope?

First of all, don’t expect anyone elected to federal office to lead the way to federal reforms. If reforms will ever happen, they will have to come from the states, or from the people.

The States could do much to restore our original liberties, through a convention as described in article 5 of the Constitution. But the States are unlikely to act until the people rise up in large numbers to demand such reforms. We, the people, need to somehow be reminded that the purpose of government is not to give us stuff. It is only to protect our natural rights.

Once we begin to demand more than this from our government, it must turn to other people in order to get the things we demand. And when government gets in the business of taking from one person to give to another, the ultimate result is institutionalized slavery.

So what will it take to bring us back to a more moral foundation for government? History suggests this may not happen until we are humbled by financial catastrophe, foreign invasion, or an economic implosion.

But wouldn’t it be nice if we could just do it on our own, before any of that bad stuff has to happen—just because it is the right thing to do?