Thursday, September 15, 2005

the improper role of government

According to Rep. Rush Holt, “The essential role of government is to provide for its citizens in their time of need.” Well no, no it isn’t. Actually, the “essential role of government”—the American one—is to preserve and protect the liberty of individual citizens. Such is explicit in the US Constitution. Regardless, Viviane at TPM Cafe espouses ”the idea of government for the people” (government ought to be a force for good).
I’m amazed at the simplicity and the forcefulness of the concept — we have governments in order to help citizens in their time of need! That’s the basic principle; everything else is policy details. I suspect we can agree on the principle, even if we disagree on the implementation of it.

Nice try sunshine, but “we” cannot agree on that principle. Oh…my mistake. You must be referring to your fellow collectivist Democrats. Alright then, carry on...
This principle—helping citizens in times of need—gives an intellectual coherence to most Democratic positions. Government’s not about liberalism or conservatism or church v. state or the culture wars. Instead, government is about helping citizens—all citizens—in times of need. It’s about helping people when they cannot help themselves or when their own resources would be inadequate. This is why I support Social Security, this is why I want a strong FEMA, this is why I support money for education, Roe v. Wade, welfare, a “social safety net,” and access to the courts and trial by jury.

First of all, the US government produces nothing (save for pitiable dependants). Therefore, it has no earned or produced assets to disperse, in a grand display of benevolence, despite our overly compassionate friends' ceaseless advocacy for just that. No, every cent in the US Treasury has been confiscated by individuals that earned them. This, among others, is more than enough reason to reduce public expenditures to an absolute minimum. Secondly, as Congress scrambled to appropriate billions of its constituents’ dollars (in typical Pavlovian fashion), private individuals rolled up their sleeves and opened their wallets. That immense generosity, absent coercion, is how most people respond to legitimate need.

Hat tip: Julian Sanchez, who makes some astute observations about the misguided view of government as provider of needs.
What if putative needs conflict? (One cute but basically apt definition of economics, after all, is the allocation of finite resources to infinite human wants and needs.) What sort of help should it provide and how? These aren't policy details to be hashed out at the margins; they're the whole content of an otherwise empty principle. One might add: a dangerously empty principle, since it leaves the scope of government pretty much unlimited.