THE PURPOSES OF GOVERNMENT
By Roland Watson
Viewed simply, government exists to increase social efficiency. More importantly, though, its basic role is protection: to protect its "citizens." Traditionally, this was thought of only in terms of physical protection, of defense against other aggressive groups. In the modern world, though, the concept of protection has necessarily been expanded. Nowadays, with all of the social ills that exist, we require many forms of protection, including from:
- other groups, or nations, as in defense
- other powerful institutions
- the government itself
Indeed, while we of course still need a means of defense, including against both external and internal (criminal) aggressors, it seems clear that the greatest need for protection that we now have is from other institutions and from the abuses of the government itself, particularly its collusion with these other institutions.
Put in another framework, that of activism, we need the government as our ally in forcing these institutions not to incur (or to pay all of the charges if they do), unnecessary and inappropriate social and environmental costs. More than anything, we need protection from unethical corporations, from their greed, from their rapacious development and environmental destruction, and from their consumer, labor and advertising practices. (Protection of the environment should actually be viewed as a goal unto itself, not as a derivative aspect of protecting humans. In other words, governments should follow the highest principles.)
In addition, a very specific need is for protection from the consequences of new technology. Given current conditions and trends, particularly developments in genetic engineering, governments now need to be more proactive and forward thinking in their protective role than ever before. Although it is clearly of a different nature, the threat from genetic engineering is of the same order of magnitude as that of nuclear terrorism, and perhaps even to be feared more, because it is seemingly so intangible and unpredictable.
Unfortunately, particularly in this specific regard, governments are providing us with, at best, little defense. In most cases they have sided with the corporations in their exploitation of us and the planet. In the modern world, governments have forgotten, or are purposely avoiding, their primary function.
Even worse, what they have done is greatly expanded their role in many areas where we do not need their assistance at all. We do not need government involvement in any of the ways in which we satisfy our basic needs, including for education, housing, transportation, employment and health care. We can provide all of these ourselves. Our only need for government involvement in these areas is, again, with protection, as through setting and enforcing standards so that we are not at the mercy of unethical providers of transportation, housing, health care, etc.
(What I am referring to here are the sources or types of protection that we are not able, through lacking specialist knowledge, to provide ourselves, such as from unsafe or otherwise improper building construction, transportation vehicles, pharmaceuticals, etc. Admittedly, such services could be provided by fee-based independent contractors, and also, a personal deterrent does exist through after-the-fact litigation. But, until such contractors make these services widely available, we need a proactive regulatory deterrent as well.)
The main exception to the protective role of government is in the area of economic management. Governments issue currencies, and all of the consequences of their existence must be managed, through such institutions as Central Banks. Also, we need protection, as provided by bank regulators (the Federal Reserve) and such organizations as the Securities and Exchange Commission, from the misdeeds of the financial institutions that have been established in response to the creation of currencies.
Of course, as it stands now governments are involved in many of the other basic areas of our lives through their role as provider of such things as education, health care, etc. It seems clear that in the early stages of social development, government has a significant role to play in the construction of a social infrastructure, including utilities (roads, public transportation, communications, and energy), and schools and health care. It is the only institution capable of managing or overseeing such developments, at least in a well-planned way.
However, as the infrastructure is established and the society evolves, the government's role necessarily diminishes, and the separate parts of the infrastructure that it has helped build are now best served by being managed by other means: by being privatized.
But this evolution is not necessarily uniform: its timing and process will vary by the particular service. For instance, roads regularly remain the responsibility of the government, if only because of the breadth of the task of maintaining a national road network, and the problems associated with charging for their use. Energy, communications and public transportation utilities can often be privatized more quickly, although government frequently seeks to preserve a vested interest in them by arguing that it needs such an interest to maintain defense preparedness.
As to other services, including health care, public savings, education and, to some extent, housing, government maintains its direct involvement for other reasons. For example, for all of these, at least in democratic nations, government has as a goal the achievement of equality among its citizens. (We can recall the opening of the Declaration of Independence here.) And this, in practical terms, usually means that no individuals should be unable to satisfy their basic needs. These are effectively "social welfare" responsibilities, in recognition of the fact that societies that are based on economic free markets will not bring about this equality (or take a very long time in which to do so). And, as a society fails to achieve a high level of prosperity, enduring and stable prosperity, the requirement for government involvement in such things as social security, medical services for the poor and elderly, housing assistance, and the school system, will continue to exist.
Because of its social importance, the need for government involvement in the school system has additional complications. In the first instance, government wants to be involved in the school system, as it is the best venue to control the distribution of social form. Through such classes as "civics," and via other indirect means in the school environment (e.g., the wearing of uniforms), government can enforce any social standards and belief systems that it desires. Schools can be used to shape children into humanitarians and ecologists, or into fascists.
In addition, government has a role to play in the creation and enforcement of educational standards, because of the dramatic consequences for social equality that derive from educational inequality. And, it has to be commented in this regard that - worldwide - it has failed at this miserably. The children of the wealthy go to better schools, and the system of class structure and inequality is reinforced, not reduced.
But, it is very difficult to find a solution to this that is not oppressive, particularly on civil liberties including the freedoms of expression and association. We could, conceivably, close the private schools attended by the wealthy, and also the religious schools, and enforce some sort of standardization nation-wide, but such a "factory" approach would have all manner of risks. Rather, we want to create educational standards that are ambitious and progressive, and we want to give all families, not only the wealthy, the freedom to patronize the schools that best meet these standards. Only by doing this can we raise educational opportunities for the general public to a high level, and seed the potential for undermining the social inequality that derives from nepotism and inherited wealth. (A further evolution of the government's protective function, which also relates to the goal of equality, is that it should seek to redress discrimination. In addition to differences in educational opportunities, discrimination often underlies - and results from - such inequality.)
Of course, we can also add functions to our government. There is no need to be inflexible, and the desires of the people should be implemented. Some of the additional functions that have been described, such as the provision of basic services, are actually the present day remnants of such earlier requests. But, we should increase the role of government sparingly, and we should never forget that whatever we ask it to do, we are going to have to pay for it.
One obvious candidate for a non-protective function is the funding of basic science. As a species we have a great interest in scientific research, as it is one of our main routes to new understanding. However, as it stands now much scientific funding is provided by corporations, but this is always tilted to applications that have the potential to make a profit. University funding is another option, and it traditionally has been positive, seeking only to expand the frontiers of knowledge, but this is also under assault. Many university science departments now have corporate sponsors and partners (this is a new type of institutional collusion), meaning there is a direct or unstated bias towards commercially feasible projects. It would seem, given the great financial scale of much modern scientific experimentation (e.g., space exploration), that the only way to accomplish it such that it is not beholden to the profit motive is to ask the government to do it. Strong safeguards will be required, though, to counter efforts by corporations to influence this research.
As to what the government should not do, what should not be part of its purpose; it should not attempt to protect us from ourselves. We have a free will and we must retain the ability to use it as we choose, even if this involves danger. The government should not tell us how to live our lives. It should not treat us as children, by assuming the role of a highly restrictive parent.
Also, the government must be extremely sensitive to its innate tendency to resist criticism. Any time a society has rebels it should question why this is the case, rather than reflexively seek to eliminate them. The government must not become defensive and engage in the repression of dissidents. We do not need to be protected from our social critics; indeed, they are the forces that maintain social vitality and prevent stagnation.
Lastly, other than through providing a vehicle for their resolution, i.e., through courts and a body of law, the government should not participate in the resolution of social disputes. There will always be disagreements in a large, complex society, over this or that issue, and to the greatest extent possible they should be resolved in the arena of public opinion. The government should never side with one group over another (other than to counter discrimination). The people themselves must decide, through compromise and if necessary arbitration. But, for some issues people never will agree, or even agree to disagree, and this, although it may be an unsatisfying aspect of life, cannot be changed.
© Roland Watson 2016