What is the proper role of government?
"If men were angels, there would be no need for government..."
-- James Madison, "Father of the U.S. Constitution"
From ancient times, when pharaohs and kings ruled with unshakable authority over thousands of their poor, uneducated constituents to the present day when the notion of a king or queen seems a throwback to a less civilized era, people have discussed the true nature and role of government. Historians, philosophers and social scientists have asked the question: "Why do we need government?" The answer, although rooted in the complexity of the human soul (as Madison hinted) is relatively simple. We need a system under which people can live their lives in freedom, without fear of an overbearing dictator or persecution, to pursue their chosen objectives absent an intrusive third party destructive to their aims.
|The Magna Carta|
Perceptions of government have evolved dramatically over the centuries. In the year 1215, barons in England revolting against the king drew up the Magna Carta, now recognized as one of the foundational documents of western civilization. Residents in the thirteen American colonies in the 1760s and 1770s felt the strong arm of King George III and the British Parliament- and reacted by starting a revolution which changed the course of human history. Philosophers from Aristotle and Socrates to Locke, Voltaire, Rousseau and Montesquieu have opined on the proper role of government in human affairs- and the debate continues today.
|The French political philosopher Montesquieu|
President Abraham Lincoln said “The legitimate object of government is to do for... people whatever they need... but can not do... for themselves..." Recently some in the United States have called for greater government involvement in people's lives; completely free health care, free education up through the college level, a guaranteed income and many other benefits. FACT CHECK: Nothing in life is FREE. Whenever someone states that the government provides something for free, everyone must realize that while there may not be an immediate charge or cost to that person, someone is paying for (or subsidizing) it, almost always through higher taxes, fees or other forms of revenue generation. While it is tempting to think that the government will provide some things for us at no charge, we must always ask two questions: 1) Who is really paying for this?and 2) Should I be providing this for myself? After thoughtful consideration, the most logical answers are: 1) other people ARE paying for it and 2) a person should think very carefully before taking advantage of anything advertised as "FREE".
Economists have long espoused the concept of price elasticity of demand: if something has a very low cost and is desirable, people will utilize ever greater quantities of it; if the price is high, demand for that item (or service) will be lessened. Those who propose FREE health care, free college education, a guaranteed income and other government-supported initiatives are ignoring something very basic: there is a COST for everything and demand for anything labeled as FREE will be essentially unlimited. Having the government provide services which are generally in high demand- and label them as FREE is an invitation to fiscal disaster and an ever increasing role of government in the lives of all citizens.
|James Madison, considered by many historians as the "Father of the Constitution"|
The Founding Fathers revolted against what they felt was unacceptable government intervention in their lives. America was founded on the idea that people should have a direct voice in the operations and the limitations of government- and a say in how much intervention (in the form of taxes and government guidelines) is warranted and necessary. The U.S. Constitution was created to delineate- and limit- the authority and powers of government- and the first Ten Amendments (now known as the Bill of Rights) restrict governmental powers and codify the rights and privileges of ordinary citizens.
The French philosopher Montesquieu stated that "Government should be set up so that no man need be afraid of another..." Montesquieu meant that no man should be afraid of other citizens OR representatives of government. Montesquieu had a strong influence on the thinking of James Madison and the other Founding Fathers. Madison WAS right. If men were angels, we would not need government. Reasonable people can disagree on the proper extent of the role government should take in our lives. Those wanting smaller, less intrusive government often find themselves strongly opposed to people wanting to expand government's role. However, it is highly likely that if Madison and the other Founding Fathers were alive today, touring 21st century America, most of them would be shocked by the extent that government has grown- and the level of its intervention into the lives of its citizens.
|The United States Constitution|
It is this author's view that- as Lincoln said- government should not do for people what they can and should do for themselves. Having government maintain essential functions (military, police, healthy, clean food, air and water, safe pharmaceuticals, workplace and public safety, etc.) is fair and reasonable, but any "overreach" into the personal lives of citizens should be very limited and avoided. The truly helpless and indigent should receive assistance whenever possible; we are a rich enough country to help those who cannot afford it due to no fault of their own (physical or mental handicap, disasters, etc.). By maintaining fair, but strict limits on the role and intervention of government in our lives, we guarantee that personal freedoms are not infringed and society functions with a greater degree of self-sufficiency- exactly what the Founding Fathers envisioned.