In contemporary political discussion, it’s not uncommon to hear someone assert their belief for a certain role that government should assume. This occurs on both the left and the right, and manifests itself through a wide range of positions including the beliefs that guns should be restricted, hate speech should be illegal, certain drugs should be illegal, and that the government should fund healthcare, schooling, or anything for that matter. Should the government provide free healthcare for all? To answer that question, we must first ask what the purpose of government is.
Unlike many libertarians who lean anarcho-capitalist, I do believe government has a beneficial, even necessary role in society, and as a Christian, I cannot accept the position of anarcho-capitalism, however appealing it may seem.
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God
If government is going to exist, however, it is important that we properly define the purpose of government, so as to avoid a tyrannical authoritarian state. So, what is the purpose of government? This question has been explored thoroughly in classical liberal philosophy and by Enlightenment-era philosophers including Frederic Bastiat, John Locke, Charles de Montesquieu, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. I believe it to be most eloquently phrased by Thomas Jefferson and the Second Continental Congress.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
The Declaration of Independence
While the formulation was slightly altered in the Declaration, the basic idea is that governments exists to protect the natural rights of life, liberty, and property, that they derive their power from the people, and that any government that does not protect these rights, is no longer suited for authority. The topic of natural rights is a whole other discussion within itself, but the condensed argument is that because every human has the divine spark of God within himself or herself, having been created in God’s image, they have the fundamental and natural right to self-ownership, and by extension life, liberty, and property. Because you own yourself, you own your labor, and because you own your labor, you own the fruit of your labor, hence the right to property. It’s important to remember that human rights are given by God, not by the government, because if the government had the power to grant rights, they would have the power to take them away. This is the danger of politicians like Bernie Sanders claiming that people have a right to healthcare or a college education, and the fact that they manipulate the nature of their position for political and monetary gain is disgusting.
Having established that government solely exists to protect life, liberty, and property, it becomes quite easy to decipher whether a particular government policy should be instituted. Should marijuana be legal? Nay, let’s make it more extreme: should cocaine be legal? I’m sure many would agree that it should as if it were common sense, but does an individual snorting cocaine violate anyone else’s rights? No, it does not. In fact, one could argue that it’s protected under the natural right of liberty. The conclusion remains the same: the government has no business restricting how an individual should live their life if the rights of another are not being violated.
Let’s apply this principle to the discussion of abortion. Does the performance of an abortion violate anyone’s rights? Many pro-choice advocates, including some libertarians, argue that the government has no business telling a woman what she can or cannot do with her body. From this point, the discussion becomes less philosophical and more scientific – debating the point at which life begins. I argue that the only consistent position strongly supported by empirical data is the position that life begins at conception. If we accept this to be true, it becomes clear that abortion is a violation of the child’s natural right to life, which the government is responsible to protect. Therefore, abortion should be illegal.
Another subject that can be considered controversial is that of government provision for certain services. There are so many departments funded by the government, that I hesitate to begin listing them off. Let’s consider a subject that I find particularly appalling for various reasons: public schooling. Does public schooling protect anyone’s rights? Clearly not. However, some might couterargue that it doesn’t violate anyone’s rights either, and is therefore harmless. Perhaps it doesn’t directly violate any rights, but how are you going to fund the schools? Through taxation. What is taxation? The government seizing the property of the individual without consent. Not only is this outside the realm in which the government is supposed to operate, but it’s the exact opposite of what the government is supposed to do. Instead of protecting the individuals’s natural right to property, the government has blatantly violated that right for the sake of providing ridiculous services such as public schools. There are dozens practical reasons why policies such as free healthcare, government education, and welfare don’t work, but the libertarian philosophical argument is that they violate the rights of the individual, and the government therefore should refrain from such immorality.
The government exists to protect the life, liberty, and property, of the people. Anything that crosses those boundaries is outside the purview of the government, and the idea that the government should restrict an individual’s behavior that doesn’t violate anyone else’s rights simply because you don’t approve leans dangerously close to fascism. Activities like murder and theft obviously do violate another’s rights, and should therefore be illegal. (This is where I fundamentally disagree with the anarcho-capitalists.) Smoking marijuana, however, does not violate anyone else’s rights, and should therefore be completely legal for recreational use. Even seemingly harmless policies like a minimum wage are fundamentally a violation of the employer’s rights to liberty and property.
Should a practice be outlawed?
Does said practice violate anyone else’s rights?
If not, the government should not make it illegal.
Should the government provide a program or service?
Does said program or service protect the rights of the people?
If not, does it violate the rights of the people?
If so, the government clearly has no business involving itself in said program or service.
If we do not clearly define the purpose of our government, we risk giving it too much power, and opening the door to authoritarian tyranny.
P.S. Just because I believe the government shouldn’t restrict a practice, doesn’t mean I approve of the practice, it simply means that I don’t think people should be thrown in a cage because they do something I don’t approve of.