Why Do We Need Government?
Why do we need government?
If you ask conservatives, libertarians, or tea party people, they’ll say that the only purpose of government is to protect people from violence, coercion, and fraud.
Of course, conservatives interpret “protection” very broadly, to include bombing countries that haven’t attacked us and coercing everyone to live as conservatives think they should.
Libertarians, on the other hand, are often students at tax-supported state universities. And most tea party supporters are on Medicare, which they famously don’t realize is a government program.
But there’s a more substantial point involved. The idea that government’s only purpose is to protect people from violence, coercion, and fraud is based on a very simple picture that doesn’t apply to life in a complex society.
The picture is this: You’re living alone in the forest in a house that you built by yourself. You get your food from a small plot of land that you farm by yourself. A stranger shows up, tries to shoot you, and tries to take your house and your food.
In that situation, it’s perfectly clear that you own the house and the food. It’s perfectly clear that the stranger is committing aggression against you. And that’s the kind of situation in which the tea party idea of government would actually apply.
Ironically, of course, if you were living alone in the forest, then there wouldn’t be any government to help you. But that’s the mental picture some people have of an ideal government. They think that anything more would be “socialism.” Which would be bad. They’re not sure what it is, but they know it’s bad.
Libertarians’ Confused Idea of Government
Think about their definition of the purpose of government: “to protect people from violence, coercion, and fraud.”
They don’t mean all violence: just aggressive violence. If you use violence (against a person) to defend yourself, then they say that’s okay. It’s also okay if the government uses violence (against a person) to defend you.
The same thing applies to coercion. And they think that it’s perfectly clear when fraud does or does not occur.
Government Must Define the Rules
But in a complex society, it is usually not clear if violence or coercion is aggressive or defensive, or if fraud has occurred.
Their over-simplified picture of society, as a person living alone in the forest, misleads them.
For example, suppose that I’m walking down the street and you attack me. You knock me down and take my iPod. Is that aggression? On the forest model, yes. But what if you say that the iPod really belongs to you because I bought it with money I stole from your desk drawer? The simple-picture model doesn’t answer the important questions in that situation. Is violence acceptable to retrieve a stolen iPod? How much violence, and by whom? What are the standards of evidence to prove that something is stolen? How sure do you have to be in order to attack someone to retrieve the property you say is stolen?
Or suppose that I sell you a new shampoo I invented. You try it and it seems great. But I know that its chemical formula has a one percent chance of damaging your hair in ways that would be hard to prove are my fault. Am I required to tell you about that risk before you buy it? And if I don’t, have I committed fraud? The simple-picture model doesn’t answer any of those questions.
In a complex society, you need answers to those types of questions before you can even know what constitutes aggressive violence, coercion, or fraud. But the simple-picture model prevents people from realizing that.
You can’t protect people against aggressive violence, coercion, and fraud if you have no way of determining when those things have occurred. In order to determine that, you need a government to define the rules.
Government is Necessary
Therefore, before you can have a simple-picture government, you must have a government that does more than a simple-picture government is allowed to do. So you can’t have a government that does only what libertarians, conservatives, and tea party people want it to do. It’s impossible.
Government has to lay down the fundamental rules of society, and sometimes it must specify those rules with a high level of detail.
Government should also be (don’t laugh, I’m totally serious) the embodiment of our moral ideals and aspirations, promoting justice and good conduct.
Libertarians, conservatives, and tea party people are free to believe whatever they want. But, as someone else said, they’re not entitled to their own facts. If they want to make up their own facts, they’ll have to move to the middle of a forest and try out that simple-picture life that they admire so much.
P.S. Be sure to look at the Government is Good Web site, which you can see by clicking its graphic in my blog sidebar. It’s written by Douglas J. Amy, who explains the good things about government and refutes common myths. He’s also a wonderful teacher and is very funny.
Copyright 2010 by Rinth de Shadley.