Why Government?

I was commenting on a post over at En Tequila Es Verdad, and one of the (many) random thoughts that occurred to me was to toss out the question that has been sitting in my mind for quite a while, “What is government supposed to do?No matter what your political alignment, you believe that the government performs some set of jobs (perhaps you don’t think the government should do anything, but aside from the absolute anarchists, we all believe that the government has some legitimate purpose).  My question to you all is, “What is the role of government”?

I used to start my thought process from the point of view that government existed as an interface with other governments (in which case, what about a ‘world-government’?), and then (under libertarian influences) starting thinking from, ‘the government exists to enforce contracts’ point.  As a socialist, there is also the ‘government exists to support the individuals from exploitation by corporations’ view.

There are a lot of places we can start from, but then we should look to the consequences of our starting assumptions.  For example, let us begin with the libertarian viewpoint that interactions are always between individuals, and the government (where it exists at all) exists to enforce personal contracts.  Immediately, this implies the existence of some kind of court and records system.  How is that staffed and paid for?  How are court determinations enforced?  Is there oversight?  Contract law is itself quite complicated – do we have any regulatory framework for contracts?  If so, how is such a framework developed?  That implies the existence of some law-making authority (however limited it might be).  What about international interactions?  Contracts that cross state-borders?  The enforcement of such a contract may require some kind of (at a minimum) ambassadorial staff with other countries.  Immediately we see that there would be some large national government in place – what about at the local level?  States?  Cities?

Since the United States of America covers such a large geographical region, there should probably be some kind of division between local and national policy.  How are decisions made?  By popular vote?  Representation of some kind?  Once someone has governmental authority, how do we ensure they relinquish it later?  How do we ensure they do not abuse it while they have it?

Starting with one seemingly small thing, we find we must write some kind of constitution describing the entire system of government.  What are the basic jobs that government should do?

I believe that the government should, at a minimum, be the authority that:

  1. Records and Enforces Contracts between individuals, between individuals and corporations (here being any kind of collective organization), and between corporations.
  2. Protects individuals from abuse by all corporate entities (including the government itself).  This would be the enforcement of individual rights and liberties.
  3. Requires the participation of all citizens in every aspect of enforcement and decision-making; That is, enforces the obligation of citizens to themselves obey the law, serve on juries, etc.

I think my third point there deserves a little explanation.

Notice that for every right, there is a corresponding obligation (which is often ignored).  If we have the right to a trial by a jury of our peers, then there is a corresponding obligation to serve on such juries as we are called to do so.  In the United States of America, that is the one obligation explicitly mentioned in the Constitution.  I would argue that there are other implicit obligations that tend to be ignored – for example, the right to vote implies the existence of vote counters, election judges, etc.  Who actually does the work of counting?  At some point, we must collectively agree to participate- or to at least be willing to be considered outside the law if we don’t participate (that is, neither beholden to, nor protected by).  I notice many libertarians don’t want to be required to obey any laws, but still assume that legal protection will exist for them in some sense…

Notice also the distinction between individuals and ‘corporations’ or ‘collective entities’.  Any collective will give a significant amount of power to at least some of its members (very rarely will that power go to all of its members).  The governement itself is a corporation in that sense.  As are businesses, co-ops, unions, etc.  I think it an important distinction that has been deliberately blurred  – corporations are not people!  They should not have the same rights as people, nor should they be held to as low a standard as individuals are in terms of breaking the law (or lower if the current news is any guide).  The CEO of ABC Inc. may speak for himself, or he may speak for his company – but there should be definite legal limits between the two types of speach!  Merely having access to money and power does not give one (in my opinion) unfettered right to use it as you see fit.

Sadly, I must get to work preparing for the fall quarter.  I have classes to teach (don’t worry, not political science!), and need to produce lesson plans, syllabi, etc.

I hope that this post will garner some comments!  I have opinions, that doesn’t mean I’m anywhere near correct in my analysis of politics!  I certainly look forward to hearing what others have to say!

ex animo


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