Why Government?


Why even have government? We tend to label ourselves conservative and progressive, at least for the two main political philosophies. That is not meant to discount the Greens or the Independents or the Socialist, or any of the other of what I'm sure are passionate but minor parties in our politics. Within each of those two major categories there is a bell curve from liberal to conservative, so you can have liberal conservatives that are probably close in ideology to conservative progressives, and vice versus. In this increasingly agitated and vehement political debate, is there a "right" answer? Probably not, there never has been, here or most anywhere in the world.

Let's start by looking at some descriptions from a variety of view points of why government might be necessary and how it should be managed. I've tried to find a progressive and conservative definition and one that is hopefully unbiased although I don't think there is such a thing as unbiased. I've use bold text (no help for the audio folks) for what seem to me to be keywords in their approach to governance.

First, from what I consider the Queen of Conservatism/Libertarianism, Ayn Rand: "The only proper purpose of a government is to protect man's rights, which means: to protect him from physical violence. A proper government is only a policeman, acting as an agent of man's self-defense, and, as such, may resort to force only against those who start the use of force. The only proper functions of a government are: the police, to protect you from criminals; the army, to protect you from foreign invaders; and the courts, to protect your property and contracts from breach or fraud by others, to settle disputes by rational rules, according to objective law."

Next, what I think most would consider a progressive or liberal POV from the Othering & Belonging Institute at the University of California, Berkeley. "An effective government is not simply a government that is a referee, but it is also an architect. The most important good we distribute in a democracy is membership; membership structures all of the other distributive decisions, including the rules of society. In that regard, barriers that would prevent members from participating, whether they are political, social, or economic, become profound."

Next, a more universal view from around the world via Guardian (not The Guardian news), a site that describes itself thus: "Guardian is an online education platform that provides free student's courses, articles, learning guides, admissions, scholarships & education news from around the world." Their take on what the purpose of government is goes like this: "The purpose of government definition, according to verified sources is to promote efficiency, rule of law, and order within the country to ensure things are well organized and working as expected within a state. Governments make laws, policies, provides social services, human resource, protection, and employment which helps to establish a developed state. Another function of the government, involves putting structures in place, fostering peace and unity, social service delivery, and implementing ways of enforcing the law."

And, finally, a purely capitalistic POV from Capitalism Magazine: "Under a political regime of liberty, each individual gives purpose and moral compass to his own life. Government may be narrowly limited to perform the essential task of protecting each individual's right to his life, liberty, and honestly acquired property. Or it may be used to try to modify, influence, or dictate the conduct of the citizenry." Quoting the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, "Government is in the last resort the employment of armed men, of policemen, of gendarmes, soldiers, prison guards, and hangmen. The essential feature of government is the enforcement of its decrees by beating, killing, and imprisoning. Those who are asking for more government interference are asking ultimately for more compulsion and less freedom."

By quoting Alexis de Tocqueville's deservedly famous Democracy in America, written in the 1830s, the libertarian POV rings loud an clear; "After having thus taken each individual one by one into its powerful hands, and having molded him as it pleases, the sovereign power extends its arms over the entire society; it covers the surface of society with a network of small, complicated, minute, and uniform rules, which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot break through to go beyond the crowd; it does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them and directs them; it rarely forces action, but it constantly opposes your acting; it does not destroy, it prevents birth; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, it represses, it enervates, it extinguishes, it stupefies, and finally it reduces each nation to being nothing more than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd. I have always believed that this sort of servitude, regulated, mild and peaceful, of which I have just done the portrait, could be combined better than we imagine with some of the external forms of liberty, and that it would not be impossible for it to be established in the very shadow of the sovereignty of the people."

I like word maps to visualize a lot of text like this. If you're not familiar with word maps, they use AI to scan the text and the terms that are used most frequently show up as larger text and bolder text, suggesting that those are the important issue or points in the text. Here is a word map for the about text discussing government.

 We can see the dominant words are government, force, law, protect, individual, liberty, social property and membership. It seems clear to me that both conservatives and progressives want some of the same things. Yet, we are unable to reach agreement or a consensus on how to govern. I'll try to summarize these points of view so that we can examine the basic differences that would seem to be at the heart of all the divisiveness in our 21st century America.

Ayn Rand: Ayn seems to want, more or less, a police state protecting us from harm, but one that otherwise claims to allow almost unfettered freedom.

Berkley: Government is an architect. An architect by definition is creative while applying standard design principles to their work. Presumably, this view seeks a better future in which we all have a membership in the design and maintenance of our democracy.

Guardian: This one seems to focus a great deal on law and order, and organization and structure, while providing social services and fostering peace and tranquility.

Capitalist Magazine: This government approach seems to focus a great deal on the individual and their freedom to acquire property, legally, while protecting the individuals right to freedom and honestly acquired property.

Basically, we have one idea where a conservative government should play a minimalist role in everything except enforcing the law and rules, and another idea where a more progressive view of a government has at least some responsibility for the health and welfare of its citizens.

Both seem to want control, but of different parts of people's lives. The conservatives seem adamant about owning property and likely the financial success that goes with that, privacy, and protection against some unnamed threat of crime and violence. Other than that, they want government to butt out; they are not at all convinced the government should be mucking around in the social side of people's lives; jobs, healthcare, or even taking care of the aged who may not have saved for retirement.

The progressives want some of the same opportunities to own property and pursue financial success, but not at what they see as the expense of others less fortunate than themselves. The progressives, I believe, see that some of the crime that the conservatives fear is driven by poverty, joblessness, and other social issues like racism, sexism, etc. When an individual has little or no hope and is destitute, they have nothing to lose by trying to better their lot in any way they can, even if that includes criminal behavior.

These two points of view drive the way each political ideology views funding government activities with the progressives favoring social programs that they hope will alleviate some of the suffering that leads to criminal behavior and the conservatives wanting mainly to punish the criminals, assuming they made a decision to break the law, which of course they did out of desperation. Conversely, the conservatives seem less interested in punishing those in the upper classes for what is typically defined as white collar crime. Committing non-violent crimes by ripping off people and institutions seem to be not as egregious in their minds as a poor person breaking and entering to steal money or goods. The conservatives want to spend the money on policing and institutions of incarceration, especially for the lower income classes.

I'm inclined to use the analogy of a family with children. Is it the parent's responsibility only to make sure the children play by the rules and to perhaps use strict and punitive measures to see that they do, or do the parents play a larger role in supporting the children in their pursuits while making sure that they are treated equally, and lacking for none of the necessities of life like food, education, and shelter, while perhaps even showing some love toward the children? If one child graduates cum laud, and another follows the trades, should they favor one over the other?

Another argument against the conservative approach I might make as regards staying out of people's lives would be the use of drugs, specifically marijuana. If you argue that government should stay out of people's lives unless their actions are a threat to others, then the conservatives should not have a problem with marijuana, but many do.

Study after study has shown that people who are high on weed are not criminally inclined. While 85-90% of all drug arrests involved simple drug possession offenses, there is little to no data suggesting that marijuana use leads to criminal behavior. The point of this paragraph is that the libertarian argument is basically that if you are not a threat to others or harming others, the government should butt out.

As for the progressive argument that government should play a bigger role in helping people get off of drugs, especially things like crack and methenphetamines, that would seem to be a more proactive approach to governing than waiting until the drug addict commits a crime and then arresting and punishing them. As Benjamin Franklin famously said, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." Doctors regularly run various tests on our blood and other diagnostic screenings to catch disease early and save lives; that is being proactive. With the conservative approach applied to medicine, the mortuary business would be much more active.

In the end, it seems that both ends of the political curve agree we need rules and laws, but we disagree what those rule should be and who gets to make them based on our personal, religious, and moral underpinnings. Fundamentalist Christians will most likely come down on the side of extreme laws for things like abortion, same-sex relationships, etc. And, progressives will favor a more open approach, accepting people for who they are, and caring for those who are unable to care for themselves which seems to be much closer to the Christian code we keep hearing about.

In the end, are we a family or team or are we simply a collection of 300 million lone wolf individuals with no responsibility to ensure that others aren't left to starve? Do we believe that a rising tide should float all boats or do we not care about those without a boat who might drown? I find it interesting that many of those who subscribe to the every man for himself approach are often the ones who profess to be Christian but ignore the teachings of their Lord, Jesus Christ. And, if past performance is any indicator, the conservatives are just fine with the government bailing out huge investment firms and other mega corporations in trouble, but not helping the average working class family.

It seems to come back to two basic tribes, those with all the dough and are typically in power who stick together and protect each other, and those with considerably less who are struggling constantly to get ahead.

We have to decide if we are a "United" country. Are we, as our Pledge claims, "One nation under God with liberty and justice for all", or are we a nation of individuals who are only responsible for themselves and not our brothers keeper? The answer to that question will lead us to many solutions to the problems in our country, or continue the class struggle that has define the last 40 years of our existence.

If we truly care about the lives of everyone, we'll seek ways to make everyone safer from guns, dangerous chemicals, speeding vehicles, the effects of climate change, drugs, and intimidation or bullying. Equality and fairness should be the two guiding principles of governance.

If on the other hand, we decide we don't care about each other's safety and welfare, only our own, then it would seem that we are well on the path to dividing this country between those who care and those who don't; between those who have a surplus and those who are destitute; between races and nationalities; between those who believe we are a unified nation and those who are fine with an every man for himself approach. That seems to me to be path toward more division and perhaps even a new civil war.

Are we a family or not?