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INSIGHTS BLOG > The Fundamental Role of Government in Society - Part 1

The Fundamental Role of Government in Society - Part 1

Written on 23 August 2012

Ruth Fisher, PhD. by Ruth Fisher, PhD

I’ve been thinking a lot about the current state of government, the huge behemoth it’s become, and the humongous amount of disagreement among citizens (and non-citizens) about what role government should play in our lives. Of course, trying to change just about anything in government has become exceedingly difficult, because any proposed change whatsoever elicits loud protest from those who might be made worse off. This got me thinking about whether or not there is any change that (reasonable) people would all agree to.

This thought, in turn, led me to wonder what the fundamental role of government in society is. In other words, if we were to start from scratch, what responsibilities would everyone agree that government should have?

More specifically, suppose you have a group of people who arrive in a new land over which no one else has any claims. The group views all members as having been created equal and wishes to establish a society in which each citizen is endowed with the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The initial environment is one of free markets and anarchy.

Why free markets and not, say, communism? I assume each person has no inherent responsibilities or duties towards others (other than, perhaps, within families), which means each person is free to pursue his own interests, independently of the other members of the group. Should any subset of the members choose to form their own sub-community (e.g., a commune), that is up to them, but membership in any such community is purely voluntary.

The group agrees that it would be useful to establish a government that could provide certain duties for the members of the new society. In particular, they all agree that what they want is a government that will serve only to uphold the rights of the people -- life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness -- and nothing more.

What type of government would the citizens establish that would be acceptable to all?

First, let’s define what we mean by liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Merriam-Webster defines liberty as

the quality or state of being free:

a : the power to do as one pleases

b : freedom from physical restraint

c : freedom from arbitrary or despotic control

d : the positive enjoyment of various social, political, or economic rights and privileges

e : the power of choice

More succinctly, I define liberty as the freedom to act and the absence of coercion.

The right to pursue happiness may be defined as

...The right to pursue any lawful business or vocation, in any manner not inconsistent with the equal rights of others, which may increase their prosperity or develop their faculties, so as to give them their highest enjoyment.

Butchers' Co. v. Crescent City Co., 111 U.S. 746, 757, (1884.)

The establishment and operation of any form of government requires resources. More specifically, the citizens being governed -- or some subset thereof -- must provide the government with the resources needed to fulfill its duties. This means that citizens (the taxpayers) are prevented from enjoying the full fruits of their labors to the extent that they must sacrifice some of their income to pay for government. And to the extent that those taxpayers must be coerced into paying taxes in support of government -- that is, the taxpayers don’t agree with the amount being collected and/or the way their taxes are being spent -- those taxpayers sacrifice their liberty.

On the other hand, we know from history that there are some duties or opportunities that society would benefit from having that cannot or will not be sufficiently provided by free markets and anarchy. In these cases, at least some citizens can be made better off with some form of government intervention.

I envision the most efficient form of government to be one that establishes and enforces a set of laws that will provide the proper guidelines and incentives for members of society to behave in a way that all members find acceptable. Only when a system of laws will not accomplish what the members of the society need, will it be appropriate for government to step in and provide a larger role in the workings of society.

So, the goal then becomes to find the optimal mix of liberty, opportunity and government. That is, starting from free markets and anarchy, an optimal type of government will be one that establishes and enforces a system of laws to encourage efficiency and fairness and provide equality of opportunity, while respecting individuals’ liberty to the greatest extent possible. Only when the existing laws alone are not sufficient to provide liberty and opportunity to all will other forms of intervention by government be warranted.

Continue to Part 2