An Essay on the Role of Government

The debate on the role of government in American life continues unabated, as well it should, since questioning this may well be the essence of what it means to be an American. I would like to explore what may be some fundamental principles, and some odd inconsistencies those bring to light.

The simplest statement may be that governments exist to achieve collectively those things we can not do ourselves. But this can not be correct. There are many ways we can achieve things collectively — through neighborhood associations, fraternal societies, non-profit organizations and corporations, to name a few.

What distinguishes government from these other organizations is the power to compel. If we accept the arguable proposition that the ideal state is one that maximizes the freedom of the individual, then granting an organization the power to compel is not done lightly.

I propose that there are two situations in which the collective be granted the power to compel individuals. The first is when benefits accrue to the many while the costs fall on a few. The second is when the benefits accrue to the few while the costs fall on the many.

Into the first category falls the provision of a national defense. It is completely impractical to protect from marauding invaders the homes of those who choose to support a national defense, while allowing others to be taken. In a state of complete freedom, an economically rational individual would conclude that it is in his best interest to let others pay for national defense since he will receive the benefit regardless. Since every individual will draw the same conclusion, no defense will be provided.

In fact, there is almost universal agreement that the provision of a national defense is the proper role of government. We may disagree vehemently about the size of the defense establishment or its form, but almost all agree that if there is to be a national defense, it is the role of government to provide it.

Note that forcing people to do something “for their own good” does not fall within this category. There needs to be a generally accepted “good” that one receives simply by being a member of society and individuals acting in their own self-interest would stymie the production of such good.

The second category is exemplified by “The Tragedy of the Commons”, first described in 1833 by a mathematical amateur named William Forster Lloyd but popularized by Garrett Hardin in Science in 1968. A farmer grazing sheep in a commons will calculate the if he adds an animal to his herd, he will reap the benefit, while the cost, in the form of reduced grass availability, is shared by all farmers using the commons. He will therefore add an animal, and another, and another. But every farmer will make the same decision. The end result is overgrazing and ruin for all.

A similar situation pertains to pollution. If I dump my waste into a stream, I gain the full benefit of having the waste hauled away, but the cost is shared with all of my downstream neighbors. As a rational economic being, why would I pay to clean up my own waste?

It would seem that, like national defense, this is a case where there would be universal agreement that the coercive power of government would come in handy, either by compelling people not to foist their waste off on others, or by taxing waste disposal at a rate commensurate with actual costs. It seems this situation is even more compelling than the case for nation defense, as it is not simply a case of recieveing a benefit without contributing toward its production, but of actually causing harm to others. Instead, the role of government in “environmental protection” is hotly disputed and is often set forth as the prime example of inappropriate interference by government in our lives.

How can this be? I can only think that throughout almost all of human history, natural processes in the environment detoxified human waste at approximately the rate at which it was created. And if one place got too polluted, we could always move somewhere else. Nature disposed of our waste for us then , and we expect it will continue to do so. To have our waste disposed of for free became a “natural right”.

There is yet another anomaly in our conception of government, and that involves the provision of a police force. One could argue that anyone wanting protection from the criminal element is free to hire their own body guards. If others choose not to provide for their own protection, who will suffer but themselves? Police forces have enormous coercive power. By what justification do we turn that power over to government?

Yet there is almost universal agreement that policing is a legitimate function of government. It is so universal, so accepted, so unquestioned it is difficult to discern the reason for this belief. It appears that the concept of the Economic Man is a gross simplification. Beyond pursuing our own economic advantage we have a sense offairness. The pursuit of one’s own ambitions must take place within a context of rules and everyone deserves to be protected from those who do not follow the rules. And we have more faith in a police force controlled by us collectively, than one controlled by an individual. In other words, we trust government to create an environment where we all have equal opportunity to succeed.

From this perspective the most diverse elements of the American political spectrum are not so different in philosophy. The FBI and Head Start have the same function: to provide an environment of equal opportunity. The discussion should be about what is effective, not about what is “American”.


About dougstinson

Doug Stinson enjoys pondering unexpected connections and sharing his discoveries. He is also a physicist, a photographer, a new product realization executive, and a student of history, the environment and religion. You can learn about his other creative ventures at
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One Response to An Essay on the Role of Government

  1. Interesting. I can remember a time when we Americans mostly agreed. That was back
    where there were three tv networks, families ate meals at the table together, and we didn’t even know what church (if any) our politicians went to on Sunday morning because it was considered impolite to talk about religion in politics.

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