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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.

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  1. November 13, 2010 at 8:35 pm

    Well-said. Right-wing rhetoric about “small government” was never an accurate reflection of reality.

    • November 14, 2010 at 1:03 am

      Hi, Ahab —

      Thank you for the nice comment! I wish that politicians would be more honest about their real intentions. A few of them seem to be, but not most.

  2. Brother Ted
    November 15, 2010 at 1:58 pm

    Rinth —

    Another well-written piece from you. (Where’s the Rinth’s fan page, complete with sketchy hermal remedy offers and pointless swag?)

    I’d just offer a modest disclaimer to say that not all Libertarians are as strident as the “privatize the roads” crowd. Just like the other parties, Libertarians also have more moderate elements too. These Libertarians are more focused on things like, do we really need to keep paying farmers not to plant, in the name of “farm subsidies”? Thank you, major parties. Or… if the Federal Commerce Department disappeared tomorrow, would you really even know the difference?

    The more sympathetic light in which to paint Libertarians is to call them the only group that’s been consistent about not spending money we don’t have. Here’s an anecdote for you: Between the Democrats & Republicans, do you know how to tell which party is more concerned about the debt? Answer: Whichever one isn’t in power.

    Indeed, for at least a generation now, both major parties have only believed in fiscal sanity when it’s been convenient. And after all, what’s the alternative position: “Keep Spending Money We Don’t Have”? Libertarians are the only group consistently opposing this idea.

    And if you’re against the war in Afghanistan, don’t look for help from the Republicrats. I think that’s $2.7 billions/week now, borrowed from the Chinese.

    So while you can find legitimate fault with Libertarian purists on certain issues, as you’ve fairly done above, seems to me our bigger problem right now is a Washington besieged with special interests, to which both major parties are beholden (in their own ways).

    Your newest loyal reader & future swag patron,
    — BT

    • November 15, 2010 at 6:19 pm

      Hi, BT —

      Thank you for the nice comment!

      You make good points. I agree that libertarians are much more consistent and principled than the two big political parties. Many libertarian ideas are just common sense, such as not starting wars and leaving people alone if they’re not hurting anyone. And common sense is a good test of almost any political idea. As for special-interest control of government, I wish I knew the solution. Public financing of elections would work, but Congress would never pass it and the Supreme Court would never approve it.

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