My Political Ideological Journey Part #1: The Role of Government and the Basis of Government Authority

(Note: this is the first of a handful of posts that cover my evolving interests and thoughts regarding political theory.)

As far as I can remember, my interesting in political theory began in high school. The pivotal book that directed me towards considering the role of government was “The Second Treatise of Government” by John Locke. Looking back at this book, there’s quite a bit that Locke states which I disagree with. However, this book does a good job of guiding its readers to consider the appropriate role of government and the basis upon which government derives its authority.

Locke introduces this topic by saying, “To understand political power right, and derive it from its original, we must consider what state all men are naturally in, and that is, a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man” (Chapter 2, Section 4). Locke begins by asking his readers to consider the state of the world prior to the introduction of government. After all, government is not an eternal entity and had to be created at some point. If nothing else, this thought experiment guides Locke’s readers to contemplate why people would institute government, which would imply its original purpose and role.

Continuing, Locke argues that government was formulated based on voluntary individual decisions, motivated by self-preservation (Chapter 15, Section 171):

Political power is that power which every man having in the state of nature has given up into the hands of the society, and therein to the governors whom the society has set over itself, with this express or tacit trust, that it shall be employed for their good and the preservation of their property. Now this power, which every man has in the state of Nature, and which he parts with to the society in all such cases where the society can secure him, is to use such means for the preserving of his own property as he thinks good and Nature allows him; and to punish the breach of the law of Nature in others so as (according to the best of his reason) may most conduce to the preservation of himself and the rest of mankind; so that the end and measure of this power, when in every man’s hands, in the state of Nature, being the preservation of all of his society- that is, all mankind in general- it can have no other end or measure, when in the hands of the magistrate, but to preserve the members of that society in their lives, liberties, and possessions, and so cannot be an absolute, arbitrary power over their lives and fortunes, which are as much as possible to be preserved; but a power to make laws, and annex such penalties to them as may tend to the preservation of the whole, by cutting off those parts, and those only, which are so corrupt that they threaten the sound and healthy, without which no severity is lawful. And this power has its original only from compact and agreement and the mutual consent of those who make up the community.”

Locke, in this quote, argues that government’s power is derived from the voluntary submission of individuals. Implicit in this argument are two key points. First, a state of governance is a contractual position, which allows individuals to leave government authority at any point in time. Second, government’s only purpose is the protection of individual life and property. These were both key factors in my viewpoint of the role of government and greatly shaped my thinking going forward. Like I mentioned before, I have some issues with a few of his ideas. That being said, this book was helpful in getting me to think about political theory and the role of government.

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I’d love to hear what you think of this post and my early thoughts on the role of government. Feel free to leave a comment or send me an email. Thanks for reading!

The Frying Pan Fable Follow-Up

Imagine you are in your house when suddenly you hear an intruder. Fearing for the safety of your family, you rush over to your closet and start loading your Tommy gun. As you are preparing your weapon, you have a random thought: “This Tommy gun is pretty effective for self-defense, but I think I might just use my trusty frying pan instead. Sure I’ll have to get closer to the intruder and put my life at considerable risk, but I just like my frying pan a whole lot.” Throwing your Tommy gun aside, you pick up your frying pan and go to defend your house.

Last week I made the point that created items generally work best when put to use according to their intended design. Additionally, this opening illustration highlights another key point about roles: when you utilize something beyond its intended role, you often usurp the designed function of something else. 

In terms of the role of government, this is an important concept to understand. When weighing benefits and costs, we must realize that as the role of government expands, the roles of other societal forces shrink. Just as the frying pan rendered the Tommy gun useless when its role expanded unnecessarily, so government enlargement can hinder the effective and intended functions of other societal institutions. This can be seen in two specific areas: social welfare and economic regulation. (I will merely touch on these issues as an illustration of the above point. A fuller discussion of either topic will have to be put off until a later date.)

Social Welfare

Most people would likely agree that it is important to help the poor and the less fortunate. And through welfare, the federal government is very involved in attempting to achieve this goal. However, as government gets involved in these poverty-reduction endeavors, it pushes out other more appropriate institutions, such as the church. Tony Evan notes, “The primary job of caring for those in need was never intended to be a function of government. Can you imagine Paul going to Caesar and asking for a federal grant to fix the problems of poverty within the church in Jerusalem?” (“Turn Neither to the Right Nor to the Left” page 241).

The Bible calls believers to look out for the interests of others (Phil. 2:4, 1 Cor. 10:24), and to materially give to those in need (Rom. 12:13, James 2:15-16). Thus, through the church, we have an institution that is designed for dealing with poverty.  Government welfare, on the other hand, is patently inefficient and unable to make noticeable improvements in terms of poverty reduction, because government was not designed to eliminate or alleviate poverty. Marvin Olasky describes our current welfare system as “the ultimate bureaucracy –an anonymous public supporting anonymous machinery supporting anonymous clients” (“Turn Neither to the Right Nor to the Left” page 208). As follows, the government suffers from a lack of knowledge about individuals and a (potential) lack of motivation to actually help the poor improve their productivity and get off of welfare.*

In summary, the government was never designed to financially provide for the poor. And by acting outside of its role, it inhibits the normal functioning of other effective private institutions, such as the church.

(There’s much more that could be said about the relative efficiencies of private versus public charity, improving private poverty relief, and the morality of government income redistribution. These topics are beyond the scope of this post, but if you’re interested in learning more, I would recommend two books: “Poor Policy: How Government Harms the Poor” by D. Eric Schansberg and “The Tragedy of American Compassion” by Marvin Olasky.)

Economic Regulation

While government economic interference is a very broad topic, the main point that I want to highlight is that government interference in the economy via interventions, such as price controls, usurps the effective and intended function of the price system.

What is the price system, you ask? Economist Robert Murphy explains the role of prices, “A market price is the balance between how eager you are to buy something and how reluctant the producer is to sell it. If something has a high price tag, it’s because it is scarce; if it has a low price tag, it’s because ‘they’re a dime a dozen.’ In short, market prices are not arbitrary” (“The Politically Incorrect Guide to Capitalism” page 9). Among other purposes, the price system has at least two important and related functions in the market: signaling and coordinating.

Prices act as signals to market participants, demonstrating the value that market participants place on the goods in question. Additionally, prices enable individuals to calculate profit and loss, which direct the actions of entrepreneurs. Economist Gene Callahan describes the market process as, “the ceaseless striving of entrepreneurs to locate price discrepancies and profit from them, thus adjusting production to the wishes of consumers” (“Economics For Real People” page 159). Thus, the price system signals to entrepreneurs areas of unsatisfied consumer wants and to intervene to provide the requested good or service. Without a price system, entrepreneurs would be unable to determine which new enterprises might be viable and profitable.

Prices also function to ration goods and services. Rather than allocating goods to consumers based on preference, nepotism, or some other form of discrimination, the price system allocates goods based on the consumer’s willingness to pay. Callahan again states, “the market guides scarce resources toward their most important uses through the voluntary rationing of the price system,” as “the new, higher price of the good motivates people to use less of it” (“Economics For Real People” page 199).

In summary, the price system is fluid and able to react to changes in supply and demand. Economist F.A. Hayek noted, “Fundamentally, in a system in which knowledge of the relevant facts is dispersed among many people, prices can act to coordinate the separate actions of different people” (“Economics For Real People” page 163). Prices serve to alleviate the problem of insufficient knowledge of market factors and to coordinate supply and demand.

Central planning supplants the role of the price system, but cannot allocate goods nearly as efficiently. After all, no individual or group of individuals could possibly track the changing preferences of millions of consumers and producers like the price system can. Furthermore, interferences like price controls distort the signaling function of the price system, disallowing consumers from “voting” for certain goods through their spending practices.  Murphy again notes, “When the government interferes with prices, it cripples the ability of free people to make intelligent economic decisions, just as surely as if politicians interfered with phone lines, e-mail, or other means of communication” (“The Politically Incorrect Guide to Capitalism” page 10). This behavior by the government has the negative effect of causing unnatural shortages and surpluses.

These shortages in particular lead to a rationing problem. If the government sets an artificially low price, the quantity demanded will increase, but the quantity supplied will decrease, leading to a shortage. In a free market setting the price would rise, rationing the good in question based on consumers’ willingness to pay. However, the price control disallows the price from rising, which forces the government to ration the good in question based upon some other criteria besides willingness to pay.

In conclusion, the government was never designed to direct the intricate adjustments of the market. And when it acts outside of its role, it inhibits the normal functioning of an effective societal force: the price system.

Conclusion

My intent was to briefly touch on two areas of public policy as a means of showing some of the unintended consequences of expanding the function of government. I didn’t want to go into considerable depth in terms of discussing the role of government, nor did I want to write extensively on these policy issues. Those will have to be topics for another day. However, hopefully this helped you think through the intended function of government and some of the unintended consequences of government expansion.

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If you have thoughts about how government expansion can detrimentally affect other societal institutions, feel free to leave a comment or send me an email. Additionally, if you want to specifically discuss the role of government or either of these policy issues, you’re welcome to leave a comment. Again, thank you so much for reading this blog!

 

*(You might ask why government and the church can’t work together to deal with the issue of poverty? Does government involvement in welfare necessarily supplant the role of the church? That’s a good question and I’ll try to touch on it briefly. I would say that government’s attempt to alleviate poverty through the welfare system not only have negligible positive effects, but often actually have considerable negative effects. Examples of these effects would be: incentivizing recipients to stay on welfare (a culture of dependency), incentivizing recipients to not establish marriages, and coercively taking money from individuals to fund the welfare system.  Hypothetically, if the government were able to alter this system entirely, it might be able to work with the church. But the bureaucratic, budget-maximizing nature of the government makes it difficult for me to envision an efficient government-operated welfare system. Further, the question of roles becomes important (as I’ve tried to stress throughout these posts). Is it within government’s intended function to deal with poverty?)

The Frying Pan Fable: On Asking the Wrong Questions

Frying pans are really great for cooking things, after all, that is what they are designed for. From scrambled eggs to sautéed vegetables, there are numerous types of foods that can be prepared in a frying pan. However, besides this obvious use, a frying pan can be utilized for a variety of other tasks. If someone breaks into your house, a frying pan can be used as a self-defense tool. If you are concerned about small objects falling on your head, a frying pan could be used as a helmet.

Despite these alternative uses, frying pans are generally just used for cooking. Why is that? What prevents people from seeing frying pans as multipurpose tools and using frying pans for all sorts of tasks? Well, besides the fact that frying pans are not all that good at accomplishing these other tasks, people use frying pans for cooking because they were designed for that task. I could try to use my lawn mower as a fan or my shoes as soup bowls, but these items were not designed for those jobs and would do a poor job.

Economist Gene Callahan illustrates this idea that different tools have different roles and different levels of effectiveness, “Simply because a sledgehammer does a good job breaking up stones does not mean that it’s the right tool for slicing tomatoes” (“Economics For Real People” page 35)

The majority of fabricated items in this world were created with particular purposes in mind. That’s not to say there is no place for experimenting with alternative uses or making do with limited resources. However, I think I’m correct in saying that, generally, things work best when they are put to use according to their design. If I am holding a vacuum cleaner and wondering how to use it, I should ask for what it was designed for. On a bigger scale, if I am wondering how I should live, I should attempt to find out what I was created for.

This leads into the main purpose of this blog post, which is about how to evaluate government. I spent to preceding paragraphs making the point that things in life should (generally) be utilized according to their design. Why do we not apply this same framework to government? Why do we not spend more time considering the proper role of government? From handling education to regulating the food industry clearly government is capable of many things. But, like using the frying pan for self-defense, some of these tasks might be outside of the realm of its design. To evaluate government in terms of capability, or even its propensity to act according to my personal values is to ask the wrong questions. Rather, we should step back and attempt to determine the proper role and purpose of government. From there we can evaluate aspects of government action, such as effectiveness, from a more stable foundation.

When thinking about government involvement in healthcare, for example, I could start by thinking about the effectiveness of government regulated healthcare. Additionally, I might consider my personal feelings on the matter. However, if I don’t start by considering whether or not regulation of healthcare is within the realm of government’s role, I will have missed the fundamental issue.

I would challenge everybody reading this post to think hard about government’s role. Think through why government exists and what purposes it achieves. From there try to determine if the policies that you support agree with this foundational framework. Hopefully, this exercise will enable you to have a more consistent and thoughtful view of government.

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As usual, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Feel free to leave a comment or shoot me an email. Thanks for reading!