The legitimate object of government is to do for a community of people whatever they need to have done, but cannot do at all, or cannot do as well for themselves, in their separate and individual capacities.
► Abraham Lincoln
… an attack phrase on centralized federal authority and massive taxation and expenditure.
► William Safire, Safire’s Political Dictionary
Safire’s assessment was largely right: a statement including the phrase “the proper role of government” is apt to be an attack on same, with the idea that whatever the main subject at hand is, is not within the “proper role of government.” (Ironically, the supporters of government activism tend not to talk much about the proper role of government as such.)
The attack tends to have three problems in association with each other.
First, all of government is smeared as needing limitation in a way no other aspect of society is; did all those governments officials, high and low, drink some special kool-aid?
Second, it forgets that government is interactive with the rest of us. (You don’t think businesses affect what governments do? Churches? Even, from time to time, individuals? Activist groups?)
Third, in connection with that, obsession on government’s proper “role” diverts attention from other sources of power in our society – which can gain more power in turn, as long as we’re warned not to look in their direction.
One of the foundations of “proper role” rhetoric in recent years is an article written by Ezra Taft Benson, a secretary of agriculture in the Eisenhower Administration, called “Proper Role of Government.” It cleanly isolated a central kernel of the limited-government argument:
“… the proper function of government is limited only to those spheres of activity within which the individual citizen has the right to act. By deriving its just powers from the governed, government becomes primarily a mechanism for defense against bodily harm, theft and involuntary servitude. It cannot claim the power to redistribute the wealth or force reluctant citizens to perform acts of charity against their will. Government is created by man. No man possesses such power to delegate. The creature cannot exceed the creator. In general terms, therefore, the proper role of government includes such defensive activities, as maintaining national military and local police forces for protection against loss of life, loss of property, and loss of liberty at the hands of either foreign despots or domestic criminals.”
It’s a thoughtful contention – if government is created out of the authority of the people, how can it do anything you or I individually cannot do? – but it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.
You and I as individuals lack the authority to do even the basic things Benson argues governments must do, such as protect people from harm and provide for the common defense. Accomplishing those things means commanding people to do certain things; we as atomized individuals, have no such authority. Nor do we have authority to raise money – other than by begging for it, which as a practical matter wouldn’t work – to accomplish those things.
Authority to do anything that government does, including those things the staunchest libertarians would endorse, means governments have authority beyond that of individuals.
If we want to get into theorizing about how this might be justifiable, simple enough answers are available. These grow mostly out of the concept of the social contract: By living in and benefiting from our society, we give up some of our absolute liberty in the interest of gaining other compensating advantages. It’s transactional; a tradeoff. We can (and many of us do) disagree about the precise terms of that deal, but such a deal is what people who live in any society – whether one like the United States or one drastically different – officially or unofficially agree to. If you don’t, you leave, or you might be punished by the other people who stay.
And there are people who try to withdraw to some extent, sometimes in minor and subtle ways and sometimes in ways more obvious. But most of us take the tradeoff, knowingly or unknowingly, sometimes grumbling as we do. But nonetheless we do.
Benson said in his article that he draws much of his philosophical inspiration from the United States Constitution. But the Constitution itself disagrees with his reductionist view. Its first sentence says this: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
What it takes for government in America to accomplish these things has varied with time, often has been debated, and sometimes has moved into unpredictable areas.
Few members of the founding generation were as fierce in their calls for limited government as Thomas Jefferson; but in 1803 he doubled the size of the United States with a purchase of land from France, a purchase for which neither he nor Congress had any clear constitutional authority. (Analysits of that day rwisted themselves into pretzels in attempts to find it.) Jefferson did it because like many other people he had become convinced that it was in the interest of the larger aims of the United States. Despite its uncertain constitutionality, it hasn’t been significantly questioned since.