What is the Proper Role of Government?
In a very real sense, all human beings are one big, extended family, due to our common nature and ancestry. Every human being alive is biologically related to you and me in some way; all our families are related. In this sense, we are all blood relatives. Likewise, since we are all created by God in his image and likeness, we are all spiritually related as well.
We can all trace back our genetic lineage to a small group of human beings many millennia ago. These were the first human beings, the first human families and the first human tribes and communities. At the beginning we were all essentially one family and one tribe. As our human family grew, we started physically separating into different family units and tribes and putting more distance between each other as we spread throughout the world.
Every family and tribe had to manage their own resources and co-ordinate their activities in order to survive and prosper. This required sharing work and resources for the benefit of all members. It also required maintaining order within the group to make such a thing practical. And because human beings have a spiritual desire for fairness and justice beyond the mere survival benefit of such behavior, we can also figure that each group adopted some sort of moral code by which they lived, and castigated those who violated it.
Here we see government, economy, family and all other social functions manifested in one integrated family or tribal system. There isn’t a distinction here between the law and the rules of the family, there isn’t a separation of tribe and government. There isn’t a distance or much of a difference between those who lead and those with other functions.
Rather than being an impersonal institution, the task of governing is a personal one, distributed among the people. This is the people whom you grew up with, love you, provide for you, and whom you also love and provide for. There is a sense of duty towards others and a deep sense of identity as a family or tribe. This relates, though imperfectly, to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s idea of “the noble savage”. This was the stage of hunter-gatherer.
As human tribes started discovering agriculture and farming and began to settle in particular areas, the function of individuals started to become more specialized, and production and resources less equally distributed. As settlements became towns and cities and societies became increasingly more complex, tasks more specialized and relationships more abstracted, more formal roles and rules were taken on and eventually the institution of formal government came to be.
Whether this picture of human social evolution is entirely accurate or not, there is good reason to believe that formal, impersonal government came from less formal and more personal family and tribal rules. This is one of the theories of how government came to be.
And so, with this background mind, we ask the principle question of this episode and politics in general: What is the proper role of government? This is a question which has been and continues to be hotly debated in places where there is still freedom for such debates, and many, many answers have been given. However, we can summaries every answer into one of three general responses:
The first one is “None.” This expresses the belief that government should have no role in current society.
The second response is “Specific & Limited.” This expresses the belief that the government should have a very specific and limited role in current society.
And the third response is “All-encompassing.” This expresses the belief that government should have a very broad, all-encompassing role in current society.
Let’s explore these three general options.
“None” says that government simply should have no role in society. This option seems to hark back to our ancient past, where there was no institutional government. Government and law is based on force. Without the use of force, there is no government and there is no legitimate law. Behind every law is a threat. Every government utilizes social, economic and physical force. This option would have us do away with government entirely and engender purely voluntary cooperation without recourse to the use of force. This view would be consistent with anarchism, which doesn’t mean chaos, but rather comes from the Greek “anarkhos” meaning “without a chief”.
Those who hold to this concept of government tend to find the others as morally bankrupt and oppressive.
“Specific & Limited” views the utilization of force as necessary and condones its use but limits its application strictly to very specific functions. This view emphasizes natural or negative rights. It also emphasizes private ownership, minimal regulation of business and an economic system largely unmanaged by government. The idea behind this view is the attainment of maximum individual freedom with minimal, but effective government control. This view could be considered politically conservative or classical liberalism.
Those who hold to this concept of government tend to view the first option as unworkable and other as immoral, stifling and oppressive.
“All-encompassing” considers government a useful and effective tool for the management and improvement of society as a whole, without specific limits. Here government expands into new areas as is needed or wanted by the people. This view emphasizes positive rights. It regards the use of government force as a legitimate and necessary means for achieving equality in social opportunities and resources among the people. This is considered a moral duty of government and society at large.
Those who hold to this concept of government tend to view the first option as senseless and the last one as immoral, corrupt and compassionless.
These are the three general answers to the question of government’s role in society. They are broad, but mutually-exclusive. Now let’s analyze the pros and cons of each one.
Analysis of Government Options
Although “None” sounds idyllic, it’s big problem is that it simply doesn’t work. It doesn’t take the reality of human nature and its social dynamics into account. This option embraces pacifism, which is a complete opposition to the use of force of any kind, even for defense. In our world this would simply mean domination by those who relish the use of force upon those who reject it. James Madison writes in Federalist #51: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” Unfortunately, men are not angels and it is sometimes necessary to use force and violence to oppose the like.
“Specific & Limited” leaves many things up to individuals and smaller organizations, both smaller governments as well as voluntary, non-government organizations. Instead of full pacifism, it more closely aligns with the non-aggression principle, which rejects the initiation of physical force or violence, but permits its use to counter such force or violence. This has the unpleasant side-effect of allowing for many immoral and sinful activities to occur without penalty of law. It allows for racism, bigotry and unfair wages. It allows for social and economic inequality among people. It does not embrace many, if any positive rights.
“All-encompassing” aims to use law and government to improve society in almost every area. This has the side-effect of dramatically increasing the administrative and economic cost of government. It also blurs the line between public and private property and business, with it’s extreme manifestation outlawing them. It extracts a great deal of wealth from the individual in order to re-distribute it. The more the individual earns, the more that is taken from him. The less an individual earns, the more that is given to him. Although the public welfare and positive rights increase dramatically, personal choice and negative rights tend to decrease substantially as well. Freedom of speech is respected only to the point of what government considers appropriate.
Any of these options can fit conservative or liberal ideas. What distinguishes them from each other is not the particular social norms being espoused but the scope and general role of the government. For example, a very liberal-minded society can choose to have a “Specific & Limited” government, though they may accept very liberal views, such as legal prostitution and gay marriage. Likewise, a society may opt for an “All-encompassing” government and use it to impose religious ideals upon the people.
The Catholic Church rejects the absence of government, because it identifies government authority as a human necessity (Catechism of the Catholic Church, Paragraph 1898). It also rejects the extreme manifestation of an “All-encompassing” government, because it would not allow for private property, which is a basic human right, among other things. She does, however, allow for other manifestations of such a government as well as a “Specific & Limited” one.
Upon serious consideration, the prospect of not having a government at all reveals itself to be unworkable or even detrimental. When we consider a Specific & Limited government, we realize that it does have considerable drawbacks. And when we examine an all-encompassing government, we recognize that it comes with a heavy price as well.
This was not unknown when our country was founded in the late-18th century. Americans were coming from Europe, which had governments entangled in all sorts of matters and mixed affairs of the state with concerns of the Church. In other words, they had already experienced all-encompassing governments. Governments which restricted speech, religious practice and heavily taxed their citizens, supposedly for the common good.
The American Choice
With 20/20 hindsight its not surprising to say that the founders chose to establish a government that was limited and specific in its functions. And yet, this was a bold and unprecedented move on the part of our forefathers. How easy it would have been for them to claim the right to be kings or emperors, or to have simply stayed within the favor of King George III and the British government. Our forefathers were affluent and influential political figures and this was certainly a readily available option for them.
At the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, when the details of the American government were being settled, Benjamin Franklin was asked by an American eager to hear the news “What have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin responded by saying: “A republic, if you can keep it.”
Monarchy meant the same old story. A government without many limits which did not reflect the will of the people. With a Constitutional Republic, the American people would not be bound by virtually unlimited government power, but government and government officials would be bound by the limitations specified in the Constitution. Democracy would allow the American people to choose who they saw fit to represent them, but not to step outside the limited bounds of the Constitution. Pure democracy, as the forefathers knew, was a dangerous thing without limitations in power.
The separation of the executive, legislative and judiciary branches was yet another mechanism designed to limit the concentration of power and protect Americans from abuses. The separation of Church and state was not about abolishing religion from the public square, but rather about ensuring that the state would not be an instrument of any particular church, and that no one would be persecuted for his religion or even lack thereof.
Furthermore, even with those checks and balances in place, the founders did not institute a central government which would have had complete power, but rather a federal government, which allowed the individual states to make the majority of the decisions about how to conduct their business, as long as it was not against the federal Constitution or within the limited powers specifically given to the federal government.
The American government was not set up to mold citizens into some ideal nor to provide them with all necessary goods and services via taxation and the public treasury. It was set up so that individuals and communities could decide themselves how to live and how to spend what they earned. Indeed, it was set up to free citizens from being overly-dependent upon government. It was set up to protect their religious liberty, not to abolish it.
Even the best of intentions cannot make an all-encompassing government any less of an invasive, stifling force. The forefathers were right. Government must be specific & limited.
Yes, such a government system allows for racism, bigotry and unfair wages. These are the consequences of free will. They are sinful, but they are not within the proper authority of the government to regulate. These are left to be dealt with in the social arena.
Yes, it allows for social and economic inequality among people. Government’s role is not the social and economic equality of its people, but the protection of their inalienable rights. And no, a limited government does not embrace many, if any positive rights. This is because positive “rights” often come at the cost of our more essential rights.
The American founders were not the only ones who saw the great benefits and virtues of limited government. As a French citizen, economist Frédéric Bastiat knew the all-encompassing government very well, which in France’s case was socialism. In 1848 he wrote the following:
“People not only want the law to be just; they also want it to be philanthropic. They are not satisfied that justice should guarantee to each citizen the free and inoffensive exercise of his faculties for his physical, intellectual, and moral development; they require of it that it should directly spread welfare, education, and morality throughout the country. This is the seductive aspect of socialism.
But, I repeat, these two functions of the law contradict each other. We must choose between them. A citizen cannot at the same time be free and not free. M. de Lamartine wrote me one day: “Your doctrine is only the half of my program; you have stopped at liberty; I go on to fraternity.” I answered him: “The second half of your program will destroy the first half.”
Negative vs. Positive Rights
Bastiat is expressing the idea that positive rights tend to undermine negative rights. Negative rights, also called natural rights are those inalienable rights that our forefathers believed are the very foundation of all human rights. These rights don’t come from government, nor from a consensus of the people. They are rooted in a higher, objective source, namely God.
In fact, in the Declaration of Independence, there are clear references to God and the negative rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. The founders advocated the view of philosopher John Locke who used the very similar phrase of “life, liberty, and property”. Locke based his political philosophy on his Christian spiritual beliefs, and though he supported religious tolerance, he considered that atheism should not be legally tolerated, because it would undermine the fundamental principles of liberty and lead to chaos. Again we see this connection between spiritual freedom and political liberty being recognized by those who influenced and founded this nation.
And while outlawing atheism would be a violation of our inalienable rights, and I’ve known several atheists who are very pro-liberty, a political philosophy that lacks a foundation in God and man’s spiritual nature cannot explain objective rights and may fail to recognize them.
Negative rights are called “negative” because they are rights from coercion. They are the rights not to be assassinated, raped, attacked, assaulted, kidnapped, harassed, stolen from, surveilled, manipulated or otherwise forced to do something against your will or conscience. These are negative rights because they don’t force anybody to do anything. In fact they are rights against the use of force. They are the right to be let alone.
Bastiat says that:
“When law and force confine a man within the bounds of justice, they do not impose anything on him but a mere negation. They impose on him only the obligation to refrain from injuring others. They do not infringe on his personality or his liberty or his property. They merely safeguard the personality, the liberty, and the property of others. They stand on the defensive; they defend the equal right of all. They fulfill a mission whose harmlessness is evident, whose utility is palpable, and whose legitimacy is uncontested.”
Bastiat also believed that this was the purpose and extend of the law. He wrote:
“Do not forget that the law is force, and that, consequently, the domain of the law cannot legitimately extend beyond the legitimate domain of force.”
The non-aggression principle permits the use force only to protect these rights from being violated. For example, when an individual is faced with deadly force, he can morally counter this with deadly force himself, in order to protect his and others’ right to life, but he has no right to initiate such a use of deadly, or any other kind of force. He may defend his rights, but not be the aggressor against somebody else’s.
So-called “Positive rights” on the other hand, not only permit, but require the initiation of force upon others, in order to obtain further goods and services. Here the state claims a right to initiate social, economic or physical force against individuals who have not initiated force.
Whether its a fine for not purchasing health insurance, a criminal charge for expressing any belief arbitrarily dubbed “hate speech”, being forced to endure a government-mandated educational curriculum or to take an unwanted vaccine into your bloodstream, or simply taxation for any number of programs not directly related to the proper functions of government, these positive rights erode and entirely obliterate the negative rights that they supposedly build on.
Positive rights make the individual a subject, rather than a citizen, of the state. Rather than the state existing for individuals, it views individuals as existing for the state and society at large. The individual becomes a hostage of the state, always at its whim, whether it is run by the few, as in a clear dictatorship, or by the many, as in a pure democracy, where no Constitution exists to recognize negative rights and restrain the state. It is “might makes right” in disguise.
A society sold on positive rights will end up denying negative rights and creating an all-encompassing state, which will manage an individual’s life cradle to grave, at the low, low cost of his dignity and liberty. One of man’s distinguishing features is his moral capacity and responsibility. Such a government would in large part rob the individual of his ability to act on that capacity and exercise that responsibility.
Instead, he is expected merely to submit to the state and have the state decide what to do with his resources. Rather than a responsibility to the poor, the citizen only mind his supposed responsibility to the state. The state becomes the coercive apparatus through which everything is done, and no one has personal responsibility or even ability to do very much.
In such a state, charity and true self-sacrifice and giving become increasingly difficult. And rather than choosing your own path, it has already been chosen for you. Though God has given you the free will to choose, the state has decided to eliminate that freedom for your own good. In fact, even when an action is morally wrong it does not necessary justify the use of force against the one committing it, for the corrective action may be a worse injustice than the original action. When no force against another has been initiated, no force is needed or morally justifiable, as a general rule.
“when the law, by the intervention of its necessary agent, force, imposes a system of labor, a method or a subject of education, a faith or a religion, its action on men is no longer negative, but positive. It substitutes the will of the legislator for their own will, the initiative of the legislator for their own initiative. They no longer have to take counsel together, to compare, to foresee; the law does all this for them. Intelligence becomes a useless accessory; they cease to be men; they lose their personality, their liberty, their property.”
Governments often begin by promising attractive positive rights, and, via the same principles, end up claiming a right to assassinate, assault, kidnap, harass, steal from, surveil, and manipulate non-violent individuals for some supposed greater good of society.
But government cannot give or take away rights if these rights are truly inalienable, that is intrinsic and inseparable from the human being.
The Confusion of Society & Government
But perhaps its not surprising that some believe that functions that belong properly to individuals, families and voluntary communities should also belong to the state.
It may well have been appropriate for all the functions of government and society to have been carried out without distinction in very small communities, and especially in families and tribes, in our ancient past. The close relationships we used to have in such communities has been replaced by far more distant, formal and impersonal governments. To fail to distinguish the difference between government and the rest of society is a serious error, though, which leads to a misunderstanding of government’s proper role. When government acts upon this misunderstanding, it results in the grave aforementioned injustices.
Bastiat was clear about this distinction. He wrote:
“Socialism, like the ancient political ideology from which it emanates, confuses government with society. That is why, every time that we do not want a thing to be done by the government, the socialists conclude that we do not want that thing to be done at all. We are opposed to state education; hence, we are opposed to all education. We object to a state religion; hence, we do not want any religion at all. We are against an equality imposed by the state; hence, we are opposed to equality; etc., etc. It is as if they accused us of not wanting men to eat, because we oppose the cultivation of grain by the state.”
Not only does this error confuse government and larger society, it also attributes all general initiative and direction in society to government. It considers government to be society’s principle driving force and finds this to be morally and practically necessary for the correct functioning of society.
Thus, individuals, families and communities are seen not as having their own proper initiative and direction, but as being followers of a greater initiative and direction of the collective country, as directed by government. People, in this view, are not ends in themselves, but means to a greater social objective. They are mainly raw resources to be used, much like crops and farm animals.
This oppression is often defended on the grounds of the common good. But what is not good for anyone, is not good for everyone. Government is seen as knowing what is best for society, and thus the individual, upon which it imposes its will. Some present this in a cheerier light, claiming that we will be happier under the thumb of the state. And yet, even if the government did know what was best for us, imposing it would be a negation of man’s free will and liberty.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau is partially responsible for the popularization of this view. Bastiat writes:
“Rousseau was convinced that isolation was man’s natural state, and, consequently, that society was a human invention. “The social order,” he says at the outset, “does not come from Nature; it is therefore founded on convention.”
Bastiat goes on to say…
“However, the founder of a nation must set a goal for himself. He has human raw material to put to work, and he must shape it to a purpose. Since the people are without initiative and everything depends on the lawgiver, he must decide whether his nation is to be commercial or agricultural, or a society of barbarians and fisheaters, etc.”
This is a fallacious and unhealthy understanding of society.
The presence of government can guarantee some degree of justice in society, rather than become a source of institutionalized injustice, which some people regard as unavoidable. Nor must it become an all-encompassing entity either. Instead, government can be a force for good and protect people’s inalienable rights, providing necessary order and justice in society, if it is specific and limited to those particular functions.
Rather than choose the easier path, the forefathers of the United States of America opted for this principled alternative instead. This is the legacy which they have given us.
Bastiat had this to say about us:
“Look at the United States. There is no country in the world where the law confines itself more rigorously to its proper role, which is to guarantee everyone’s liberty and property. Accordingly, there is no country in which the social order seems to rest on a more stable foundation.”
He went on to cite two issues with U.S. law:
“The question of slavery and that of tariffs, that is, precisely the only two questions concerning which, contrary to the general spirit of this republic, the law has assumed a spoliative character.”
This was written in 1848. Thankfully, we got got rid of that first issue, which is and always has been inconsistent with, and a flagrant violation of, our inalienable negative rights. And we are much better for that correction. That said, it is doubtful that Frédéric Bastiat would be able to make the same favorable claim of the United States today.
Evolution vs. Corruption
There are those who are truly grateful for and cherish what the founding fathers have given us. And wish to continue their vision of a government with a specific and limited role.
Obviously, a government must be able to adapt to new natural, social, and technological developments. Such changes may well be prudent and appropriate. Indeed, the founders designed our government for such flexibility. But we must be careful to properly distinguish between changes in application and changes in principle. While the form in which the government carries out its tasks may legitimately change with circumstances, its functions must remain the same if it is to stay true to is founding principles.
We expect government officials to use automobiles, not horse-drawn carriages. Likewise, we expect government to enact laws protecting individuals’ online privacy, which would have not made sense in the pre-computer era. Such utilization of contemporary resources and current applications of law are well within the proper functions of a specific and limited government.
However, there are those who do not appreciate the handiwork of the founding fathers. They insist instead that government must expand its functions into other areas of human society. The advocates of this position often simply do not understand the underlying philosophical principles of our government. They do not distinguish between changes in application and changes in principles. Some people honestly and passionately strive to expand government power in the belief that this power will be wielded only to increase justice in society. Yet history has shown this notion to be naive and dangerous.
Rather than a legitimate development, this represents a fundamental corruption of our government’s principles, akin to the corruption of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire.
Although governments are as diverse as their societies, and may take many forms, there are only three general options when considering governance from the point of view of liberty. No government, specific and limited government, and the all-encompassing government. These are ideal forms. No human institution is its ideal. Even as Bastiat praised the United States for its adherence to an ideal, he noted two glaring exceptions. Exceptions, even grievous ones, can always happen.
However, the criteria for determining what type a government is would be the general rule, not the exceptions. Another possibility is the transition from one form of government to another. However, this state does not last indefinitely. It is a state either without principles or with warring principles, for it does not fully or even largely observe the principles of either form.
Although we talk a lot about “democracy”, which is an important part of our government system, it is our Republican principles, that is, what makes us a true “Republic”, prescribed per our Constitution, that oblige the government to recognize our negative inalienable rights and to observe the principles of being specific and limited, which is what our founding fathers designed the American government to be.
This document has attempted to elucidate why this is indeed the only proper form, and thus, the only proper role of government. Things have changed dramatically since it’s inception however, and America’s form of government is no longer as clear. There are many who advocate for another form. Others mistakenly believe that mutually-opposed principles can co-exist in the same government. And many more simply refuse to think or care much about it, which they do at their and our peril.
In the year 2000, Congressman Ron Paul said the following:
“The nature of a republic and the current status of our own are of little concern to the American people in general. Yet there is a small minority, ignored by political, academic, and media personnel, who do spend time thinking about the importance of what the proper role for government should be. The comparison of today’s government to the one established by our Constitution is a subject of deep discussion for those who concern themselves with the future and look beyond the fall election. The benefits we enjoy are a result of the Constitution our Founding Fathers had the wisdom to write. However, understanding the principles that were used to establish our nation is crucial to its preservation and something we cannot neglect.”
This author urges you to be part of that important minority who cares about what the proper role of government should be, for your own sake and that of your fellow country men, and to share it with prudence and tact as much as possible, for this concerns them all far more than many of the daily things most of us distract ourselves with.