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.


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24 responses to “What Is Government’s Role?”

  1. necessaryandpropergovt says :

    I agree 100% with your conclusion. Your last 3 sentences are exactly the topic of the article I used to open my own blogging career 3 weeks ago. Non-caustic, common sense persuasion is what I’m trying to offer. I have skimmed back through a half dozen of your recent posts, and it appears we’re cut from almost the same cloth. I’m now a follower. Let me know if you’d ever like to co-write anything.
    – Jeff

    • The Existential Christian says :

      Thanks for the response! I too aim for non-caustic persuasion, and intentionally avoid labels in order to allow people to hear the ideas I present without the connotative baggage that they may carry. I’m glad you enjoy my writing; it feels good to know that I’ve had an effect on somebody.

  2. necessaryandpropergovt says :

    Re-reading this article, I also note how non-religious your logic is, at least in this case. It’s especially interesting here because you’re dealing with the subject of “restraining evil.” I’m glad you brought up the concern of “who gets to define what “evil” and “social order” mean.
    I’m not particularly religious myself, but I do have a firm sense of Judeo-Christian morality. In my first article, I laid some groundwork, in simple terms, from the fundamentals of our country’s founding documents. In doing so, I couched the whole thing about “our unalienable rights come from the Creator” part in terms of the concept of natural law, rather than delving into God. I’m not offended by agreeing about a Creator being the higher power, but since I know some very ethical, moral, and libertarian-minded atheists who read my blog, I was trying my hand at keeping that part of the groundwork of explaining the Founder’s philosophy non-religious.
    In doing so, I incurred some moderate wrath from couple commenters, and went on record as promising to write a follow-up column about it. So now that I find your EC blog where you’re also seemingly seeking to stay somewhat “neutral” on this particular area of political & governmental philosophy, it piques my curiosity. Are you willing to share a bit about your views in this area?
    Also, could you share a bit more about yourself, either here or on my page? Nothing too personal or deep of course…just age, line of work, college degree, notable books you’ve read/liked? Some of these things provide insight into what shapes a person’s opinions. (BTW, I’m a 50-year-old electrical engineering manager in the aerospace industry in Colorado with a wife & 2 teenagers, and I’m a Thomas Sowell & Milton Friedman fan.)

    – Jeff

    • The Existential Christian says :

      Jeff, I am currently away for the long weekend, which means I’m away from my computer so I’m typing this on an iPod and have to keep it short until I have more time to respond.
      I try to find the underlying principle in the ideas I present, and because of that I tend to focus on finding common ground rather than assuming that the reader shares my worldview. Also, at one time I was an atheist, so I think I am possibly more aware of how many of the Christian arguments come across. Natural rights doesn’t contradict Christianity and yet non-believers can get on board as well. Also, I fear to force my beliefs on other people for precisely the same reason I don’t want theirs forced upon me. While it may be that Christians could have a majority and pass all kinds of laws based on their beliefs, it could just as easily go the other way, and indeed I think our culture is shifting towards a more secular one.
      As far as personal, I probably should update my page to reflect something informative, but here’s an overview: I’m 29 years old, I work as a carpenter, have a wife and child, and I have no higher education, only a high school diploma. I am not nearly as well read as I would like to be; I could read all day, but recently I have read Common Sense by Thomas Paine and am reading The Road To Serfdom by F. A. Hayek. Honestly I haven’t read many other books on political theory. I read Reason a lot. I like The Freeman. Henry Hazlitt got me started on the economic thing. The rest is just years of introverted thinking finally escaping into the light of day.
      Also, thanks for commenting! I enjoy discussing this stuff and I will try to respond more fully when I get home.

    • The Existential Christian says :

      Oh, I forgot to mention one book I particularly enjoyed: The Law by Frederic Bastiat. I would consider it influential to me.

  3. mrs. neutron's garage says :

    … “It’s not about whats on TV, whether marijuana is legal, or whether homosexuals can get married. It’s about liberty.”…

    I’m afraid that no matter how many times I read that sentence of yours, instead of getting more understanding, I just get a headache.

    What if I’m a gay, atheist, marijuana smoker paying for cable TV (the only kind available because they have a monopoly) that runs Fundamentalist Christian programming and old Jerry Falwell sermons on half the channels? How is that “Liberty”? If the only “freedom” and “Liberty” a government offers is the “Liberty” to pack up and move to another country or culture…. can you really call it “Liberty” or “freedom”?

    • The Existential Christian says :

      I’m not entirely sure I understand your question, so if my response doesn’t quite make sense then feel free to clarify or respond. The type of liberty I am talking about is a freedom from coercion, so if a gay atheist pot smoker doesn’t like what’s on TV, they are under no obligation to continue paying for cable, just as a Christian is under no obligation if there were a plethora of programming that they didn’t enjoy. I have no problem with people expressing their opinion to the cable company, but I do have a problem with someone using the coersive power of government to mandate programming that they happen to enjoy.

      A person will still retain thei liberty to influence culture. I would prefer that it happens in a voluntary setting rather than an involuntary one.

    • necessaryandpropergovt says :

      Mrs Neutron,

      Perhaps if you make your point one step at a time.

      The title of the article we’re discussing is “What is government’s role?” Government doesn’t provide cable TV. And cable TV isn’t a monopoly…the channel lineups are very influenceable by your viewing habits. If all the channels are religious and objectionable to you, then you don’t watch, or you cancel your cable service. If enough other people also complain or cancel, then the cable company will change its lineup or risk losing market share. The presence of two major satellite TV providers has stopped cable companies from ignoring their customer’s preferences.

      But I don’t think you were seeking a lesson in free market choices and supply/demand feedback mechanisms.

      Are you hypothesizing some kind of FUTURE scenario where government controls what TV channels you are allowed to receive?? If so, then you’re envisioning some kind of post-constitutional dystopia, and then asking us questions like yours is an exercise in science fiction. Under your dystopian scenario, it certainly ISN’T liberty or freedom.

      I have other points to make regarding the multiple definitions of liberty and freedom, as viewed by those with a constrained vision of human nature, and those with an unconstrained vision. But I’ll wait to hear your responses first.

      – Jeff

      • mrs. neutron's garage says :

        Forgive me for not making myself clear. As I originally stated it was the sentence… ”

        … “It’s not about whats on TV, whether marijuana is legal, or whether homosexuals can get married. It’s about liberty.”…

        …that made my head hurt. I simply do not understand how telling a gay person they are not at liberty to marry the person they love… isn’t about liberty. Nor do I understand how prohibiting a person from altering their consciousness with pot under pain of imprisonment… is not about liberty. It seems to me that one might as well add that prohibiting a woman from exercising full control over her own body by outlawing abortion, or, birth control isn’t about liberty either. Or, perhaps not permitting certain people to live in certain neighborhoods, or, apply for certain jobs.

        To my way of thinking these things, control over ones own body especially, go to the heart of what, at least I, think of as Liberty. Of course I am free to leave, or, not watch a TV program that openly demonizes and scapegoats gays, atheists or any other group currently out of fashion with the local christian broadcasters… but, is “put up with it or get out” the kind of liberty you are talking about? Is a Government that claims “Liberty and Justice for ALL” not really serious with that claim, or, should it read… Except for gays, poor people, women and (depending upon where you reside) various religious and nonreligious minorities?

        It was the above quoted sentence I take issue with. In fact, I strongly disagree.

        All the Best
        Mrs. N.

      • The Existential Christian says :

        I think you are misinterpreting the sentence; I am strongly against government interfering in those areas, and many others as well. I don’t want to tell anyone, gay or straight, pot smoker or not, what to do. I am suggesting that many people who claim to be supportive of liberty actually are not, as evidenced in the areas I listed. So while I may have my own feelings and opinions on those matters, I believe people should be free to act as they wish, provided they don’t harm anyone else in the process.

  4. mrs. neutron's garage says :

    All right, if, as you state, you believe “people should be free to act as they wish, provided they don’t harm anyone else in the process”, how am I misinterpreting your definition of Liberty when you write… IT’S NOT about “whats on TV, whether marijuana is legal, or whether homosexuals can get married”?

    Isn’t that exactly what liberty is about? It is to my mind. I would submit to you that if you told a gay couple seeking the economic and social advantages of a marriage license that denying them one … was about Liberty… they would look at you as if you had two heads.

    Beyond that, it’s one thing to claim to be “strongly against”, as you claim, “government interfering in those areas”, and quite another to “be supportive of liberty”. I can “believe” that black people and white people are equal in all respects, but, if I tolerate the existence of businesses that refuse to accommodate people of color my inactions speak far louder than my words when it comes to my REAL views on liberty.

    So, I find myself at a loss when I attempt to understand just what it is you think “Liberty” means. Are you “supportive”, or, do your “own feelings and opinions on those matters” place you firmly in the camp of those “many people who claim to be supportive of liberty [but] actually are not?

    Talk is cheap, belief is even cheaper, requiring no proof at all, but, Liberty is quite a different animal entirely. It requires ACTION both to secure it and to maintain it for ones self and, perhaps, more tellingly, for others.

    Perhaps you could help me to not “misinterpret” where you really stand by not being so vague on your “own feelings and opinions on those matters”.

    Respectfully Yours
    Mrs. N.

    • The Existential Christian says :

      I don’t want to deny anybody a marriage license; that’s the difference. I think that people should be able to enter whatever contract they wish. You’re misinterpreting because you think that I do want to deny them that right. You are continually mis-reading the sentence to mean the opposite of what I intended. In the future I will try to be more clear.

      • mrs. neutron's garage says :

        Please don’t apply motives to me that are not there. I’m not a mind reader and you are not either. If you were you wouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that I “misinterpreted” you for (a) purpose, or, the purpose you state. I “misinterpreted” you because, as I stated in my initial post to you, no matter how many times I read it I could not understand it.

        Now, you begin what one would expect to be a simple clarification with this beauty. …”I don’t want to deny anybody a marriage license; that’s the difference. “…

        What’s the difference? The difference in what? Again… I have no idea what you are talking about.

  5. The Existential Christian says :

    I’m not applying motives to you, Mrs. Neutron, I was simply explaining the manner in which you were misinterpreting me. The difference that I speak of is between how you were interpreting the sentence vs. what I intended. As I said earlier, I will attempt to be more clear in the future to avoid these sorts of misunderstandings.

    Mrs. Neutron, it appears that we are having much trouble communicating. Given that we seem to share the same view on this particular matter, can we agree to simply leave this conversation at that?

  6. Raunak says :

    great reasoning! India is a great example of a democracy gone bad. The ruling party secured only around 30% of the votes and gets to decide the fate of the remaining 70%. I am not the biggest supporter of democracy at a big level…I think it works when the population to govern is very small…a few thousand only.
    The founding fathers of India had foreseen this and incorporated an excellent system called “Panchayati Raj” where powers were given to democratically elected bodies in each village. Every village has a population of around 2000-4000 people and they would elect the governing body. Unfortunately, selfish politicians at the federal level, to wield more power and siphon off public money, stripped the village bodies of their powers.

    • The Existential Christian says :

      I’m not familiar with Panchayati Raj, but from your description it sounds similar to Federalism. Is that correct? I agree with you about democracy; every system of government has issues, though, and democracy is one of the better ones, despite its ills.

      I think the American system, as intended, was pretty darn good. Unfortunately, every system is corruptible, and America’s has been corrupted. I tend to agree with Thomas Jefferson that government should be completely recreated every 19 years; as crazy as it initially sounds, it’s a short enough time span to (hopefully) keep the corruption in check.

  7. The Dandler says :

    Well, I believe I’m that friend you’re quoting! Just remember my comment about the restraint of evil was based on my exposition on the differences between conservative and liberal (progressivist) philosophy. Conservative philosophy (illustrated in the federalist papers) holds that humans are inherently evil, that power corrupts, and that evil must be restrained by the government and must be restrained in the government. This is why we have never been a democracy. It was a way to restrain individual evil culminating in the rule of the masses. This is why there are three branches of government: to keep government power in check. So, I never meant to argue that the government itself (appointed for the sake of keeping social order by restraining evil) is outside of scrutiny. Government (and yes, Elizabeth Warren, corporations too) are people. And people are flawed. Progressive philosophy is that people are inherently good and if given enough resources, utopia will emerge. This has been proven wrong again and again. It’s a wrong assessment of human nature, both experientially and theologically.

    I think you need to restructure your argument about a voluntary society around this premise. Would voluntary societies really work, when most people WANT to be ruled, as long as they are kept comfortable? The problem with voluntary societies is that few actually want to volunteer. Few want to trade in comfort for truth. Few want to do the work that it takes to maintain a libertarian society. So you end up with a class of go-getters making decisions for the lazy bums. And power begins its inexorable corruption . . . classes are formed. Decisions made by a few. Etc. People might make the same mistake as communists – everyone will pull their weight. But no. Everyone won’t pull their weight. You were correct about the flaws of democracy, as noted above.

    I also never argued that it’s solely the government’s job to restrain evil. Of course individuals can do their part. But most individual won’t do their part. And some individuals can’t do their part. It makes the necessity of government intervention (of course, not to the extent that liberals might argue for) a realistic option for a society. To argue otherwise would be naive. I see good, structured society as the perfect balance between the individual, the government, and business, each one “checking” the other, keeping the evil to a minimum, and giving each space to do what it has to do. In my book, it’s not the government’s fault, the corporations’ fault, or the individuals’ fault. It’s everybody’s fault. Everyone is flawed. And we need to deal with that reality until Kingdom comes.

    Now, in regards to the concept of “liberty” (which I find interesting and illusory, most of the time), that’s another post. I think as a Christian commentator, you do have to take into account the Judeo-Christian view of God and His involvement in government and the world. The concept of a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is not a biblical concept. It may be a valid concept, but its not valid on theological grounds. But again, that’s for another day.

    Great to be back. 😉

  8. The Dandler says :

    Okay, FINE. I couldn’t stay away. 😛 So I present this connundrum to your “liberty” theory:

    “For he (the emperor – who, I might add, ended up killing the very writer of these words for expressing his religious beliefs) is God’s servant to do you (the church) good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” – Romans 13:4

    “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right.” – 1 Peter 2:13-14 (Written by a dude ALSO executed by the emperor)

    (Spoken in regards to a vision had by Nebuchadnezzer, a pagan king ruling over the Jews – a vision about the punishment God was about to bring on this king for his evil) The punishment was so that he acknowledges that “the Most High god is sovereign over all the kingdoms of the earth and gives them to whomever He wishes” (Daniel 4)

    etc. etc.

    I believe citizens are “free” in so much as passengers on a cruise ship are free. They are on an appointed boat, which has an appointed destination, and an appointed captain. That destination is pre-ordained, even though the passengers are free to move around on board as they wish and partake in any activities they wish. It doesn’t change the coarse of the nations or the world. God takes responsibility for the captains he has placed. He has placed them for a specific purpose (to punish evil and promote good) and removes them when they ignore or abuse that purpose. We may believe we have a say when we vote in our President, but I think – even apart from a view of the Creator’s sovereignty – many people do realize that these elections are pre-ordained even by men. And as we saw in the 2004 election, even when the people “will” one thing, the opposite happens. You could argue that God has ordained a government that operates on the “will of the people” and so we should vote, because He sovereignly has given us the opportunity to partake in the process. Granted. But it still begs the question of just how free we are, what with all this “pre-ordaining” going around.

    I know this view of God seems a bit Medieval, and I’m sure it would be abhorrent to some, but it has to be dealt with. The idea of the Creator as a King and the spiritual and physical realms as His subjects permeates most of the world’s religions. Now, the disposition of that king, His character, may differ by faith (and for that I’m thankful the Christian god is above all seen as being a loving god), but He’s seen as a king just the same. He’s not an elected official. Maybe that’s why people by nature tend to drift towards a kind of monarchism – why there’s this need to be led in so many of us. We’re all looking for someone to step in and make things right. We all, to some degree, feel a little disenfranchised and want to be a part of something greater, something led by someone who knows what they’re doing. So the wrong people begin to step in and try to provide that – of course, going horribly wrong every time.

    Maybe that’s where a more libertarian view, grounded on this theology, comes in. While on this ship, even though there is a captain, let’s maintain our freedom to move about as we see fit, with the understanding that ultimately we are headed towards a destination outside of our control and that ultimately even the captain of our ship answers to the commander of the fleet, who is bringing all ships into Himself.

    • The Existential Christian says :

      How are your responses consistently longer than the blog post itself?! 😉

      What I’m advocating when I speak of a voluntary society isn’t a *perfectly* voluntary society; that would be anarcho-capitalism. I agree it would be unworkable, if nothing else because it would be “too complicated” for most people to live in compared with our current system. I see the lack of “volunteers” as a problem in any society, and ours is no different. What I was attempting to advocate for in my “Tragedy of the Commons” post was for more people to be individually active in living out their beliefs rather than abdicating their responsibility to a group (often, government).

      With regards to liberty not being a theological concept, allow me to disagree! While it may not be spelled out directly, it can very easily be inferred. For example, from “Do not kill” in the Ten Commandments, we can infer that God doesn’t want people killed, because they innately posses a right to life, or from “Do not steal” that property rights are to be respected. That doesn’t mean that God isn’t sovereign and can’t do as He pleases; it’s in reference to what is a worthy concept of government, given that we do in fact live in a nation where we can have influence over it. I can assure you, if I were living under Nero, I wouldn’t be blathering on about this stuff.

      As far as your cruise ship analogy, we can have a Calvinist vs. Armenian argument later ; ) Suffice to say, that is getting more into the area of “meta-political”, if you will, and honestly is outside of my current realm of thinking. So perhaps, in a cosmic sense, our voting doesn’t really matter (but then, what does?!), but at least in the short term, it does and it has consequences.

  9. mrs. neutron's garage says :

    …” For example, from “Do not kill” in the Ten Commandments, we can infer that God doesn’t want people killed, because they innately posses a right to life, or from “Do not steal” that property rights are to be respected. ..”

    How does one respect a Judge that uses Laws to punish, but, flagrantly refuses to act according to them Himself?

    Mark Twain’s little story about the fly is a good one. If a “man” invented (or) created the fly and unleashed it upon the world to torment dumb animals, starving children and lay its eggs in the wounds of fallen soldiers praying not to die we would curse his name for all eternity. Children with cancer, syphilis, earthquakes, deformed babies…. WAY too much to make excuses for simply to soothe one’s existential fear of death.

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