Monday, February 16, 1998

Week of 02/16/1998

On Government
What is the role of government?
- by David Matthews 2

You know, there’s an old warning I keep hearing every time the state legislature meets - "hide your wallet!" It doesn’t matter which state. I’ve heard the same warning in five states so far. I’m sure many of my Internet fans can tell me via E-mail that they’ve heard the exact same warning as well in their states, or have come across that in other states.

There is only one state that I’ve been to that I haven’t heard that warning. New Hampshire. Maybe it’s because the state legislature is only a part-time occupation there. One of the students who graduated with me in college was elected to the state house while still studying. That should give you some idea as to how casual state politics is up there. Or perhaps it’s because the state has neither a sales tax nor an income tax to collect and exploit. Not having an exorbitant tax fund to play around with sort of cuts out a lot of the political methane other state legislative bodies exude with glee.

As I type this, the Georgia House passed the state’s budget with forty pages of pure pork-barrel programs. No doubt Governor Zell Miller won’t even hesitate in signing it into action. Meanwhile, President Clinton is pushing for his "super-sin" tax on cigarettes. He claims this mega-tax on an ever-decreasing one-fourth of Americans will pay for his planned social programs. Meanwhile, I get reports of taxpayer-funded haircuts for members of Congress who already get paid six-digit salaries, and other cases of government wastes that we’ll be eating without any recourse whatsoever.

If anything, it helped me reflect for a minute as to what the role of government should be.

Clinton would like to have us believe that government’s role is some sort of parent’s parent or big babysitter. While the conservatives would cry out "that’s just pure liberalism," I must point out that the role many conservatives would have government play is no different in action or motivation than their liberal counterparts. They, too, would operate as a parent’s parent, making sure everyone followed some standard of morality that only they could dare define.

One would parent us, the other would preach to us. Which one do you want?

You know, the best definition of the role of government I’ve ever seen was written over two hundred years ago:

"We, the people, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

Let’s break that down so you can get a better understanding of the meaning.

"We, the people.." This means everyone. Ironically, not everyone enjoyed the same amount of freedom at the time. "We, the people," were simply "we, the land-owning, mostly Christian, white males." But now the words "we, the people," does mean everyone.

".. in order to form a more perfect union .." This means it’s not a perfect collection of people. Bear in mind that the original 13 colonies each had different philosophies and different origins. The northern states were mostly founded on religious persecutors who escaped their own persecution from England. The southern states were founded mostly on colonists learning to reap the bounties of crops like tobacco and cotton. They had a hard time seeing straight on several issues, including slavery. All groups shared a common disdain for the tyrannical antics of King George III, which was what brought them together in the first place. The whole purpose of government in this sentence was to create an environment where such differences would be allowed. You might say this was the original "big tent" philosophy.

".. establish justice .." In other words, to right certain wrongs. Contrary to collectivist myths, even libertarians support the need for the courts and a justice system. There are certainly crimes that even libertarians would want enforced.

".. ensure domestic tranquility .." We have so many differences in our society, that another important goal for government is to make sure they all get along without killing each other. That can get difficult at times. The current struggle over abortion is the best example of how those differences can be downright lethal.

".. provide for the common defense .." The threat to America was not just from the various viewpoints, perspectives, and cultural differences, but also from outside threats. America faced many threats to its borders, from the British (War of 1812), the Mexicans (Spanish-American War), the Japanese (World War II), the Soviet Union (Cold War), and now to various terrorist factions. Certainly, the role for government is to protect from threats from without and within.

".. promote the general welfare .." You know, this is the one statement that liberals and conservatives have misused often. For liberals, the very word "welfare" means wealth redistribution, social programs, and the like. For conservatives, it means allowing the merging of church and state, and for things like Prohibition and McCarthyism to occur. So what does this mean? Simply another goal of government to improve society overall, not use their authority to the detriment of the country.

".. preserve the blessings of liberty, to ourselves and our posterity.." The founding fathers of America had just freed themselves from a tyrannical monarch, they certainly did not want to form a new country to fall down the same path. So one of the key responsibilities is to ensure the freedom of individuals, not just for themselves, but for all subsequent generations born afterwards. In an era where the "divine right" of kings was a given, to have a country founded on the basis that government’s role is to preserve liberty for its citizens was unheard of!

You’ll notice that there is no mention of government’s role being a "parent’s parent," nor that they are charged with protecting or preserving the moral upbringings of its citizens. In fact, reading over the rest of the document, you’ll find that neither of those things are mentioned anywhere in the Constitution. Most of it is procedural stuff - how the three branches of government should operate, how laws are passed, etc. Only that extremely vague notion of "common welfare" mentioned twice in the Constitution comes close.

Also missing are the means to "preserve the blessings of liberty" anywhere in the Constitution. This was a notion that one founding father, Thomas Jefferson, commented on. No doubt had he been present when the Constitution was being written, he would have made sure little things like the Bill of Rights would have been included from the start instead of adding them on later. Instead, the notion of "liberty" was simply left to the states to determine until the Bill of Rights were written a few years later. But even then, there was no set means of preserving those freedoms once granted. The Supreme Court came close, but they would only provide protections in piecemeal, and only on their terms. For all the bluster of conservatives and liberals, it fell to private groups like the American Civil Liberties Union to carry out the job of "preserving the blessings of liberty, to ourselves and our posterity." They may not be 100% accurate in their determinations of those freedoms, but they do manage to fight the good fight when everyone else refuses to.

It’s sort of interesting when specified freedoms can only be defended by private organizations, while it’s the vague notions of something called "greater welfare" are debated heavily by government and take precedence.

But that brings us back to the question at hand - what is the role of government?

Well, what kind of government do you want? A monarchy? An oligarchy? A theocracy? A democracy? Does this government’s power rest with the public, or with a committee, or just one person?

Believe it or not, these are hard questions for some folks to answer. There are plenty of Americans who sing with self-righteous indignation Lee Greenwood’s song about how proud they are to be Americans "where at least I know I’m free," and yet push for censorship legislation that would make George Orwell’s Big Brother look like a traffic cop in New York City.

If anything, the monarchs, tyrants, and the theocrats have it easy. They KNOW what kind of government they want, and the role that government should play. In the case of a monarchy, the government reflects the will, wants, and needs of one person. Even in a theocracy, you already have a set model to base government on - namely religious texts. That’s the appeal for groups like the Christian Coalition. No debate, no arguments, just open up the letters from St. Paul and start follow instructions.

It gets more complicated when you’re dealing with a committee. Lenin’s view of the Soviet Union was far different from Stalin’s view, and from there the view of the communist party hierarchy. That’s really why communism failed in Russia.

America suffers the same problems the Soviet Union did. The definition of freedom as defined by someone like Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson is different from the view of someone like Hugh Hefner or Harry Browne. The only difference is under someone like Hef or Browne, folks like Falwell or Robertson would STILL have a voice. Whether or not the reverse can be said is debatable.

Simply put, the role of government is to apply the principles of that country into action. A country whose principles reflect the concept of freedom for all means just that - freedom for all. Not just for fifty percent plus one of the active voting populace, but for all.

It’s ironic that in the case of the United States, every principle, no matter how vague, is enforced, except the one that matters the most.

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