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For Starters, What Is Government?


Soon! Soon! Welcome contemplation of the voting booth will silence political shouting. Most of us will have had a bellyful of charge and countercharge, of shrill bombast, of candidates almost questioning each other’s parentage. How refreshing it would be to hear one reply as did the Virginian in the novel of that name: “When you call me that, smile.”

Also refreshing would be campaign oratory, even sound bites, such as spoken by our Founders more than 200 years ago. They were concerned about philosophical underpinnings of government — those dealing with private property, freedom, and the nature of human beings.

I’d like to hear even a few references to four questions:

1) What is government? Its definition? 2) By that definition, do we need government? 3) If so, how much? Where should the limitation on government be placed? 4) How can that limitation be maintained?

For starters, how about these answers?

1) As George Washington pointed out, government is organized force; like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a terrible master. It is the sole legal repository of the collective force of citizens living within a given boundary. It is the raised clenched fist of authority enforcing the thou-shalt-nots.

2) Yes, we need government, but for the same reason we need limited government — limited, that is, to defending our nation from attack and to keeping the peace internally. Power does corrupt, as pointed out by Lord Acton and Thomas Jefferson 100 and 200 years ago.

3) Well, let’s draw the line after police protection and national defense, enforcement of contracts, and punishment for fraud and misrepresentation. How about public fire protection? And (roughly in chronological sequence of history) public roads, postal system, and education? Public parks, housing, food, and subsidies to favored groups? Public control of work hours, holidays, wages, communications, commerce, water, and garbage? Public transport (including Amtrak)? Public medicine? Public banking, money, and interest (the “Fed”)? Public licensure of fishing, hunting, and damn near every profession and occupation? Public planning, zoning, and building codes? Public pools, courts, rinks, courses, and paths? Public outer space and oceanic depths?

The list is endless. Now, change the world “public” to “socialized.” As we have witnessed the collapse worldwide of socialized economies, where should we draw the line beyond which we forbid our governments to do with their monopolized use of force? Where, then, do we allow peaceful, entrepreneurial, creative, free-market activity to proceed in directions now unimaginable?

4) Wherever that line might be drawn by each individual in curtailing governmental use of force, let each person consider how that boundary will not be violated. Our Founders tried. They inserted the words “no” and “not” 46 times in the Constitution to proscribe, not prescribe, those things that our governments could do.

Would that each voter return to first principles — basic premises — in considering his choices in each election. Let each of us pose these questions of any issue or candidate: If passed, would government’s coercive power over the individual tend to be diminished or increased? Would that power tend to be narrowed or widened? Would government’s regulatory power over each citizen’s life and property be restricted or enhanced? In what has already become (by almost invisible increments) a massive, socialized orgy of confiscation (legalized stealing), would money left in our wallets for our own “pursuit of happiness” be more or less?

Then, let us vote accordingly!

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    Stu Pritchard is an author for The Future of Freedom Foundation. We'll have a more detailed bio for them soon.