The Role of Government

I’m going to wax a bit philosophical here.

Folk who know me (most here, I would presume) know that I lean very heavily “pro-liberty” if not outright libertarian.

OTOH, I part company with many Libertarians (the capitalization is no accident) in that I believe that some government, a “state” if you will, with some modest power is necessary for the preservation of liberty. “That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men….”

Consider this example: being able to get up on your roof with a rifle to drive off rampaging hordes of barbarians (whether Avars, Huns, Viking raiders, or rioters) is liberty. Having to do so because the barbarian hordes are endemic to your situation, is not.

So the barbarians have to be driven off or kept suppressed, which requires organization with the sanction to use force (since the barbarians, pretty much by definition, aren’t going to respond to sweet reason. If they did, they wouldn’t be barbarians). And once you have an organized body with the sanction to use force, there you have government.

Too little government, and your “freedom” is spent fighting off the barbarians piecemeal. Government itself is a restriction on freedom, also just about by definition.  And the more government, the more that restriction.

So there must, then, exist some level of government, some small level of government, where liberty is maximized, where each individual has the most freedom.  That level may change depending on circumstances.  For instance, a highly dispersed population with little in the way of external threats doesn’t need much in the way of a military and/or police to “keep the barbarians in check.”

The folk who founded the US appear to have been attempting to find that level. And perhaps, at the first, they were pretty close to it–or would have been if they could have gotten rid of chattel slavery (which wasn’t politically achievable at that time and the attempt would almost certainly have destroyed the country before it ever got started).

I submit, however, that the level of government that leads to the greatest freedom (which may vary depending on a number of factors) is always unstable–in fact, I wonder if it’s not the _least_ stable form of government–and will immediately begin to move in the direction of either anarchy or totalitarianism. Various “checks and balances” may slow the motion but they cannot halt it.  Add in that changes to circumstances (increasing population density, rise of external threats, etc.) shifts the amount required for greatest freedom, and maintaining that level becomes even more difficult.

I do wonder if perhaps the checks and balances in the original were not too successful in slowing the move toward totalitarianism. At least some of the Founders did appear to expect a revolution every couple of generations and they got one in the American Civil War, but, although that did lead to an end to chattel slavery I’m not sure that it was a net win for Liberty in the long run with the increase in Federal power that can be traced directly to it. But the increase was slow enough, before and since, that we, as a people, largely got out of the habit of revolution. While the old saw about boiling a frog is not true, not for frogs in pots of water anyway, it remains a useful metaphor and, I think may describe what has happened to the US.

I have said before that at this point, I don’t think a revolution is likely to help–it would just exchange one tyranny for another. Still, If we’re going to turn back from the brink, we’ll have to find other means.

What those means might be, I don’t know. I don’t even know if a new tyranny or even an outright “dark age” is avoidable at all.

And if, somehow, we were to turn back, where would we find that “sweet spot” of maximum liberty and is there anything more than was done in 1787 to give it some semblance of stability?

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4 thoughts on “The Role of Government”

  1. I think the Federal government can still be, and should be, quite limited. The population density of the nation is not high. Certain states and/or cities if allowed by the states they’re in, can and probably should experiment with various solutions (without violating our civil rights) to their problems caused by population density. This would allow the people to move around to the areas that suit them best. Unfortunately there are a bunch of politicians that want to consolidate power rather than solve problems.

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    1. We need more government than was appropriate in 1787. There are more threats. The “barbarians” come in different flavors. Where, in 1787 the Atlantic on one side and a hostile wilderness on the other formed much stronger natural barriers than our current borders. The situation is different and the response needs to be different.

      That said, the Federal government is far, far larger than it needs to be, indeed than it can be if the goal is individual liberty. People are entirely too willing to use the fact that some adjustment is needed (and why we have the Amendment process) as an excuse to put forward a whole laundry list of government programs and powers that they desire, all with the aim of granting “goodies that other people pay for” or restricting the liberties of their fellow citizens because “there ought to be a law.”

      It’s enough to make a man snatch his hat off, throw it on the ground and stomp on it.

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  2. If you want people to care about the size of government, stop automatic withholding. Have their government bill included with their paystub instead, and require payment like any other bill.

    Additionally, move tax day to October 15th.

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  3. “some small level of government, where liberty is maximized”

    Exactly. That’s why the Founders did not write about untrammelled liberty, but “ordered liberty.” Anarchy is no more desirable a condition than tyranny, and so we always must seek to balance on that razor’s edge.

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