What Is Government’s Role?
A friend recently stated that government’s role is to create “social order”, and accused me of not wanting the government to “restrain evil”. While I feel that I answered him as well as I could at the time, I wanted to expand upon the idea of the proper role of government and share some of my thoughts.
The social order point is interesting to me because it supposes several things. First, it supposes that social order can be imposed effectively through government. We have to remember that government is a monopolistic use of force and shouldn’t be confused with voluntary social arrangements. So how orderly will a society be if its values are imposed from the top down? Sure, you can make people comply, grudgingly, when they’re threatened by use of violence. But is that the goal? Or is society more than that?
If a government were to mandate that everyone has to go to church on Sunday, would that be a legitimate law to the end of promoting social order? What about mandatory community service?
And of course, the idea of creating social order begs the question: Who’s idea of social order? What is that society going to look like? Germany circa 1939 was very effective at creating and imposing social order; So was the Soviet Union. However, those societies are not, I imagine, what one has in mind when speaking of social order. So, I think it would be safe to say that there is more to this concept than compliance with law.
I think there is a strong voluntary component to a desirable society, and I suspect that few would deny this. The question then becomes, “What is the legitimate use of force in society?” I don’t think it’s a question that should be answered lightly. Forcing people to do things against their will is not something to be careless with lest we seek to minimize the value of individuals.
Now, its easy to say that a democracy will solve that puzzle for us; After all, if a majority agree that a use of force is legitimate, then that is how the people, overall, wish to be governed. But what about the people that don’t wish to be governed in that way? In fact you can very easily in a democracy have a situation where a minority of the people succeed in “winning” a particular issue. For example, a hypothetical democracy could have five major parties. One party could win an election with 30% of the vote, while the rest is scattered among the remaining parties. A majority of the people didn’t vote for a particular party or candidate, yet, that candidate ends up winning. For a realistic example, we saw this in 1992 with Ross Perot. He claimed 19% of the vote, which largely took away votes from George Bush, and Clinton won the election with 43% of the vote. For even more extreme examples, one need look no further than lobbyists obtaining special favors and getting “their” candidates elected. Additionally, all this says nothing of the tyranny of the majority; simply because a majority agrees on something doesn’t make it right.
I do believe that it’s desirable to “restrain evil”, to quote my friend. However, it shouldn’t be overlooked that abuse of government power is rampant currently, and the more power that those in power receive, the more likely it is to be abused, making citizens at large subjugated to further tyranny and powerless to restrain it. Furthermore, I see no reason why it should fall solely on government to restrain evil; individuals are free to express their opinions, and to back them up by action. To use a rather trite example, if I am offended somehow by a program on TV, I do not have to watch it; I can even email the creators expressing my dislike, if I so chose, and if the programming in general on TV wasn’t to my liking, I can simply not watch at all. If my views happen to be shared by others, then the producers and networks will accommodate in order to retain viewers and ultimately stay in business.
But that example misses the bigger picture: It’s not about whats on TV, whether marijuana is legal, or whether homosexuals can get married. It’s about liberty. Humans are not perfect, far from it in fact, and that is why power needs to be restrained. The more we abdicate the responsibility for ourselves, the more we can expect to be unhappy with the outcome, and the further we will get from a free society.