In a few days we celebrate Independence Day – our country’s 239th birthday. As we contemplate our nation’s founding, it’s worth stepping back and thinking a bit about some of the basics of government and politics.
Political leaders ought to have an underlying philosophy of government – a set of political principles -- against which to measure issues and guide decision-making.
I developed my personal philosophy of government by first asking a very fundamental question: Why do we have government?
Different people will come up with different answers to that question, but the answer I like best is this: We have government to do things collectively that would be difficult or impossible for individuals or private organizations to do themselves.
When people do things collectively, rules and organization are required or not much gets done. The rules and people and organization required to achieve common objectives are what constitute government.
It only makes sense to do some things collectively. It would be rather silly for each family to pave the bit of road in front of their home. The roadway between homes wouldn’t get done. So as a society we’ve said that, collectively, we’re going to build roads and water systems and basic infrastructure that no one could do alone.
We collectively provide police and fire protection and a military force to secure our nation. We’ve decided, in most cases, to work collectively to provide education for our children.
And, of course, today we’ve gone a much further than that with myriad government services, many of them questionable and costly. But in every instance we’ve decided, as a society, that we will do things collectively, rather than individually or as private businesses. And doing these myriad things collectively requires rules, regulations, laws, and complex government organizations.
A second key question to develop a personal political philosophy is this: What makes government different from other institutions?
Lots of private businesses and non-profits also do things collectively, and they also have rules and complex organizations. But government is different in a very profound and important way: It can legally wield the power of force and coercion.
That’s a crucial difference. That power of force and coercion sets government apart from all other institutions of society. I cannot confiscate your money and property, and you can’t confiscate mine. But government can. I cannot take away your freedom by throwing you in jail. But government can. Government can establish laws and enforce them with force -- by taking your property, your freedom and even your life.
So that’s rather scary. So the third question that takes me to my personal philosophy of government is very important: How do we restrain this awesome power of force and coercion that government enjoys, so that government is our servant, not our master?
The Founders of our country were very wise. They recognized that government is crucial to a well-functioning society, but they also were aware of the dangers of an all-powerful government. So, first, they built our nation on the premise, outlined in the Declaration of Independence, that the basic rights of humankind come from God, not government. That is simple, but very profound and very important. They also enshrined those God-given rights in the Bill of Rights, as the initial amendments to the Constitution.
Second, the Founders asserted that government’s awesome power of force and coercion – the very power to govern -- is derived from the people. That is also very profound and very important.
Thus, in our country, when it is operating as it should, citizens grant to government its powers. Citizens ultimately control government. We restrain government, in part, through elections, where we hopefully select upstanding citizens to represent us in government. If these leaders become too ambitious, or don’t represent the people well, they can be removed from office in the next election.
Besides designing a government that derives its power from the people, the Founders also created a government structure that makes it rather difficult and cumbersome for government to wield the power of force and coercion. They also made it difficult for any one individual or part of government to gain too much power or become dictatorial.
This was accomplished by dividing government power vertically among three branches of government, so that each branch naturally checks and balances the others.
Power was also divided horizontally among federal, state, and local governments. Unfortunately, thanks to court decisions, legislation and neglect, states have lost most of their power in the federal system and the federal government has become very large and dominant.
Government power was also checked and the passage of coercive laws was made cumbersome by requiring committee hearings, approval by separate legislative bodies, and the opportunity for vetoes by presidents, governors and mayors.
Thus, substantial restraints were placed upon this awesome power of force and coercion so that government moves slowly, carefully and deliberately. We purposefully make government cumbersome and inefficient to prevent power from being abused. We make government leaders accountable to the people, and we make it difficult for them to become too ambitious and wield too much power.
The Constitution, though interpreted differently by people with different political philosophies, remains the fundamental law and doctrine on which our nation is built.
And the debate over government’s use of force and coercion will never end. Most political campaigns are centered around how the various candidates propose to use government power. When candidates propose various programs, or tell how they stand on issues, what they are really doing is explaining how they will use this power of force and coercion.
Most legislative debates at national, state and local levels, on issues big and small, are centered on whether and how the power of force and coercion should be applied. The thousands of laws and regulations that govern our lives are all about the application of force and coercion.
So my personal political philosophy is that government is not evil. It can be used to do good and achieve important societal objectives. But we must always protect our God-given rights. And citizens, who grant to government its power, must ever be vigilant to prevent it from growing too large and too powerful. We must use elections, and the restraints built into the Constitution, to retain control of government, to make government our servant, rather than our master.
I believe we have allowed government to grow too large, and become too expensive. Right-sizing government will be painful and difficult, and must be done carefully to avoid dramatic disruption of people’s lives. But if we are to leave our children a legacy of freedom and opportunity for economic success, the growth and spending of government must be restrained or financial disaster lies ahead.
What is your philosophy of government? Have a happy Independence Day!