Inflation & Taxation: A Consideration of the Validity of Certain Government Actions

It can be challenging to critique government action. Although anybody can proclaim that they disapprove of a piece of legislation, determining a basis upon which to judge the validity of government behavior can be difficult. After all, since government creates the law, unless it breaks its own rules, evaluating the legality of government action is unhelpful.*

Besides analyzing the legality of government action, however, are there higher laws that would establish the morality of government action? Specifically, what gives government moral justification to perform actions that are legally and morally discouraged at the individual level? This is a complex philosophical issue which is beyond the scope of this blogpost. However, in the remainder of this post, I want to use these questions to analyze a couple of actions that are illegal and immoral at the individual level, but generally accepted when performed by the government.

Does the fact that an action is being performed by the government rather than the individual make it morally permissible? If not, how does one make the distinction between moral and immoral government action? While I am not necessarily going to answer these questions in this post, think about them as you consider the rest of this discussion.

Notes:

*[Admittedly, the U.S. government routinely violates constitutional law and I’m sure other governments behave similarly at times. However, although that would be an interesting topic for another discussion, I did not attempt to analyze the issue of the legality of government action in this blogpost. I merely wanted to mention this matter to set up the rest of my post.]

Inflation

Inflation is a widely accepted negative inevitability. Nobody really likes inflation but at the same time, nobody is really motivated to get rid of it. It is generally expected that it will continue to exist and is often attributed to greedy business systematically raising their prices. However, as historian and economist, Murray Rothbard, notes, “If businessmen are so avaricious as to jack up prices 10 percent per year, why do they stop there? Why do they wait; why don’t they raise prices by 50 percent, or double or triple them immediately? What holds them back?” (“For a New Liberty” page 217). The answer to Rothbard’s final question is that consumers hold back businesses from operating in this way. After all, businesses (generally) cannot force consumers to buy their goods, regardless of the price being charged. Therefore, this is not a convincing explanation for the existence of inflation.

So what does cause inflation? Well, without getting into the technical intricacies of monetary policy, the simple answer is that the government causes inflation by increasing the supply of money. This increase in the supply of money causes the value of existing dollars to decrease. Additionally, the increase in the supply of money held by consumers relaxes their budgetary constraints, increasing their demand for goods. This increased demand causes the higher prices that are generally associated with inflation.

To look at it another way, imagine a world that has only ten units of currency and ten widgets. Each widget is then worth one unit of currency. If someone were to magically create ten additional units of currency and no additional widgets, then the relative price of the widgets would double since the ratio of units of currency to widgets increased. Note that the increased supply of currency was not at all associated with an increase in production.

At an individual level, the creation of currency is known as counterfeiting and is illegal and immoral. After all, by increasing the supply of money, the counterfeiter gains wealth at the expense of others. At its root, counterfeiting is a form of theft in the sense that it devalues the currency held by others. In terms of the immorality of stealing value from others, the Old Testament decries the act of using false weights on numerous occasions as an act of stealing value from others (Leviticus 19:35-36, Deuteronomy 25:13-16, Ezekiel 45:9-10, Hosea 12:7-8, etc.) and counterfeiting is similarly morally reprehensible.

So what gives government the right to do what is illegal and immoral at the individual level? You might say that government has the “greater good” in mind when exercising inflationary policy, but government uses inflation for the same reasons that individuals counterfeit: to increase their wealth at the expense of others. If you believe in human depravity you will likely sympathize with Rothbard’s analysis of the issue, “Since the interest of the counterfeiter is to print as much money as he can get away with, so too will the State print as much money as it can get away with, just as it will employ the power to tax in the same way: to extract as much money as it can without raising too many howls of protest” (“For a New Liberty” page 222). An increased supply of money gives the government an easy method for increasing spending without increasing more obvious taxes and creating these sorts of “howls of protest.”

Thus, inflation is a convenient tax on individuals that will often go unnoticed and will surely not be attributed to government policy by the majority of the population. However, its negative effects are numerous, ranging from decreased savings account values to higher prices. Author R.C. Sproul Jr. sums this topic up nicely, “For a private individual the practice of printing bogus, worthless paper and putting it in circulation is a criminal act, yet it is legal for governments to do it. The practice of inflating the money supply with fiat currency is an act of national theft” (“Biblical Economics” page 105).

Taxation

As an accountant at a public accounting firm, I regularly think about taxes. And based on my interactions with individuals regarding taxation, I want to make two initial observations. First, nobody really likes paying their taxes. It’s a bit ironic that the same people who assert the importance of “contributing to society” will actually complain about doing their part. Second, those affected by high tax rates are actual people, not merely abstract corporations. Seeing a person, with an actual name and a family and a life lose >30% of his/her income is sobering. I want to be clear that the negative effects of taxation on individuals are real, not mere theories or abstractions. (Let me now move beyond this initial appeal to emotion.)

Many of you are likely familiar with the common phrase “taxation is theft.” And although I tend to agree with the sentiments of this phrase, it is a concise but inadequate description of the ideas at hand, which, without further explanation, often causes confusion and/or frustration. That being said, let me explain my thoughts.

Imagine I am a mob boss. I come to your house and demand money from you. Of course (unless you were feeling generous), you would likely turn me away because I have no claim to your money. But I happen to disagree, pointing out that I am actually providing you with a service. In return for your money, I will provide protection and if I do not receive your money, you will “likely” undergo some sort of harm. You would describe this behavior as extortion since you did not ask for my protective services and will be punished for failing to accept and pay for these services. Thus, this type of forced payment is both illegal and immoral at the individual level.*

Nonetheless, this type of extortion is analogous to what government does through taxation. Now you might disagree with me and say that taxes are the cost of living in a free society.** Think of all the public services that one benefits from by paying taxes. However, similar to the situation in the previous paragraph, what if I do not want any of these public services? I still have to pay all of my taxes or face government punishment. What if I only appreciate some public services and would like to only support those services that I need? I still have to pay all of my taxes or face government punishment. Thus, taxation is coercive by definition. On this issue Rothbard notes, “Anyone who persists in thinking of taxation as in some sense a ‘voluntary’ payment can see what happens if he chooses not to pay” (“For a New Liberty” page 62).

(Beyond the blatant issue of the coercive nature of taxation, there are more specific problems with the current tax system. The income tax in and of itself provides a disincentive to work, as more labor leads to a higher tax bill. That’s not even considering the moral issues of taxing the same dollar over and over again. Furthermore, the tax collection process forces employers to act as unpaid tax collectors and forces individuals to work at no pay (or to pay accountants) to verify the correctness of their tax bills. You might not think to describe this process as involuntary servitude, but since millions of individuals are forced to provide labor without any corresponding compensation, it is difficult to accurately describe it otherwise.)

Notes:

*[Since extortion is very similar to theft, I would hope that you wouldn’t question the immorality of it. However, if you need specific examples of the Biblical condemnation of extortion, consider Ezekiel 22 where God denounces Israelites for committing extortion numerous times (vs. 7, 12, 29).]

**[Although, it is interesting to note that individuals do not choose what society they are born into. You might not want to live in a free society, and would prefer to live in a freer society where you don’t have to pay for services you don’t want. Ironically, this is the point where the free society becomes considerably less free and you are thrown into prison, which is quite the opposite of free.]

Conclusion

In the end, you might argue with the points laid out so far by saying that inflation and taxation are inherently different from individual theft because they are performed by the government. This statement would bring us back to one of the questions posed earlier: what gives government moral justification to perform actions that are legally and morally discouraged at the individual level? As science fiction writer Robert Heinlein asked, “Under what circumstances is it moral for a group to do that which is not moral for a member of that group to do alone?” (“Turn Neither to the Right Nor to the Left” page 159).

Without getting too deep into answering this question, it seems that if inflation and taxation are forms of theft, then justification of either of these government actions means affirming that theft is only wrong when performed by certain people. Now, you might dodge this issue by stating that without inflation or taxation, government would not have the funds to run properly. And, while that statement may be true, that is a utilitarian argument that ignores the underlying moral issues. Ultimately, we should not advocate “what works” if “what works” is clearly morally wrong.

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Hopefully, I did not offend too many people with the radical ideas presented here. All in all, I am merely trying to think through many of these issues and formulate a consistent view of government and morality. If you heartily disagree with what I said or were intrigued by this new perspective, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Feel free to leave a comment or send me an email.

For further reading on these topics, check out “For a New Liberty” by Murray Rothbard,  “Biblical Economics” by R.C. Sproul Jr., and “Turn Neither to the Right Nor to the Left” by D. Eric Schansberg.

 

Paternalism, Utility, & Choice

When you were a child, it is likely that your parents told you to behave in certain ways “for your own good.” Out of concern for your safety, they directed you to avoid playing in the streets and sticking your fingers in electrical sockets. Out of concern for your future relationships, they instructed you to avoid unruly behavior at the dinner table and to learn basic manners.

As you grew up and became an adult, maybe the thought of living in a world without this sort of benevolent, careful direction intimidated you? Let me ease your mind and inform you that the friendly federal government is more than willing to take on some of these parental burdens and instruct you on the best possible way to live.

Since you are not able or motivated to adequately plan for your future, you should be encouraged that the Social Security system exists to involuntarily take a portion of your earnings and put it aside for your retirement. Since you may or may not care about preserving your life, you should be relieved that laws exist to force you to wear seatbelts while driving. Since you are quite likely to blow all of your money on lotteries or other betting activities, you should rejoice that the government severely restricts gambling. Since you could seriously damage your health through the use of certain drugs, you should be encouraged that the government has outlawed all sorts of narcotics.*

This sort of behavior on the part of the government is known as paternalism, which can be defined as the practice of subordinating individuals for their own best interest.

According to many economists, however, it is assumed that individuals are rational and already able to make decisions based on their own interests, without additional direction. Individuals maximize their utility (basically their satisfaction, happiness, etc.) by making choices based on a particular set of unique tastes and preferences. This view assumes the following:

a) individuals act based on their self-interests and try to maximize their utility
b) each individual has unique preferences, which means that optimal decisions vary depending on the person involved
b) because of these unique preferences, utility is maximized via choice
d) because of the previous three assumptions, individuals (as opposed to outside forces such as the government) are best able to maximize their own utility**

These assumptions lead to a number of questions/concerns regarding the paternalistic behavior of government.

  1. If people are already motivated to look out for their own interests, why does government need to step in and command individuals to behave “for their own good?” It seems that most people value their lives and would use seatbelts and/or drive carefully without government mandates. Similarly, if saving money for retirement is a wise, self-beneficial thing to do, it seems that most people would do this on their own. If people chose not to put money aside for retirement, this would reflect unique utility-maximizing preferences on the part of the individuals involved. Maybe these people do not expect to live into retirement, see no purpose in saving money for the future, and thus, have a very different idea on how to maximize utility than the government. This leads to the next question.
  2. Assuming the government’s view of an individual’s “best interest” is different than the individual’s view, what qualifies the government to make this distinction? Do we believe that a small, elected group of people have somehow been enlightened to know how millions of others should live for their own good? For example, drinking a large soda will likely have negative effects on my health in the future. But maybe I value the present benefits of this decision over the future costs. The government is free to say that my decision is unwise and inform me of the consequences of my action, but can they legitimately say that my decision to drink a large soft drink is not out of my own interest? Can they truly say that I would be happier foregoing the soda in order to (potentially) live a longer, healthier life?
  3. If individuals maximize their utility through choice, how do inflexible mandates really allow individuals to act “for their own good?” If unique preferences and situations dictate differing decision-making criteria, how do one-size-fits-all commands allow individuals to maximize their utility? Let’s say that preventing an addict from gambling actually works. Due to legal restrictions, this person no longer wastes his/her money and makes more prudent financial decisions. What about the person who has the self-control to place a few bets here or there without causing complete financial ruin? The inexact, unnuanced nature of the law forces all people to behave in ways that might benefit some, while simultaneously hurting others.
  4. Do these paternalistic laws actually work to benefit people?
    – I will probably never see any of the Social Security tax that is being withheld from my paycheck. In terms of aiding me in planning for my retirement, the mere non-existence of the Social Security system, which is a drain on my income, would be incredibly beneficial. If I did not have to pay into such a broken system, I would have additional money to set aside for the future, invest, and earn interest.
    – On another note, do seatbelt laws actually help promote safety? Research has shown that these laws have no effect on driver safety and have a negative effect on pedestrian safety.
    – In terms of gambling, it seems that if I’m determined to blow my paycheck, I have many other opportunities besides betting. That’s not even considering the moral inconsistencies that come into the picture when outlawing certain types of gambling, while only allowing government-regulated gambling activities. If the government is truly concerned about the dangers of gambling addiction, why do they even allow any forms of gambling?
    – It seems that even if the answers to the first three questions necessitate government involvement, the actual results of these paternalistic laws show that this type of intervention has been far from effective.
  5. Does government actually have the right to order people to act “for their own good?” This is a complex question, which would take a considerable amount of time to answer fully. To briefly deal with it, I would argue that people have a right to use their life and property how they see fit and government infringement on these rights necessitates substantial justification, in order to be deemed appropriate (if ever). Furthermore, small paternalistic steps to micromanage and shape certain aspects society can lead to increased government power and future abuses and injustices. Along these lines, economist and historian, Murry Rothbard, argues that paternalism “leads straight down the logical garden path to [a] totalitarian cage, where people are prohibited from eating candy and are forced to eat yogurt ‘for their own good'” (from “For A New Liberty,” page 136). As noted earlier, one’s own good (from an economic standpoint) can be quite subjective and by allowing the government to legislate utility-maximization, we create numerous opportunities for tyrannical, unnecessary legislation.

Let me conclude by clarifying that I am not advocating moral relativism of any sort. I believe that moral absolutes exist regardless of personal feelings. However, analyzing actions from a moral perspective is different than analyzing them based on the amount of personal utility derived from the action. A murderer can derive significant satisfaction from a blatantly immoral action, making it easy to label this action as immoral, but impossible to say that this individual failed to maximize self-interest.***

And even if a person makes a decision without fully realizing some of the benefits or costs, it makes much more sense to use persuasive means than coercive means to attempt to alter behavior. For if a person is rational and an action will truly be self-beneficial, why would that person need to be forced to perform the action?

This gets to the heart of paternalistic legislation, which revolves around the government’s arrogant assumption that individuals cannot make rational, self-beneficial decisions for themselves. To end where this post began, good parents order their children to do things for their own benefit when they are young. But as these children grow up and become adults, parents tend to take on advisory roles, rather than purely authoritarian positions, allowing their children to make their own decision. The federal government, on the other hand, does not affirm individual rationality and capability and continues to treat individuals as children, even into adulthood.

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Hopefully, this post made you think a little bit. I did not intend to fully deal with all of the topics mentioned, but rather, give a brief overview of a few issues that I have been thinking about lately. Whether you support government paternalism or agree with my critiques, I’d love to hear what you have to say. Feel free to send me an email or leave a comment below. Thanks!

NOTES:

*Some of the laws mentioned here may have other non-paternalistic motives behind them. For example, prohibitions on drug use may be motivated by protecting society or limited some of the negative externalities created by drug use (i.e violence). However, in this post, I am limiting my analysis to the area of paternalism. Therefore, any analysis of these other issues/motivations will have to be dealt with at a later time.

**I’ll try to illustrate these four assumptions using a real world situation. When going to an ice cream parlor individuals act based on their self-interests and try to maximize their utility by choosing their favorite flavor of ice cream. If you’ve been craving cookies and cream ice cream, it makes sense that you would choose that flavor. Additionally, each individual has unique preferences, which means that optimal decisions vary depending on the person involved. So although you might desire cookies and cream, not everybody will share that preference. Therefore, because of these unique preferences, utility is maximized via choice. If you are not able to choose the flavor that you prefer, chances are you will be unhappy, or at least less happy than you would have been if you were allowed to choose. Because of the previous three assumptions, individuals (as opposed to outside forces) are best able to maximize their own utility. If your friend has to pick your ice cream for you, he/she may not choose the flavor that you prefer. Even worse, if someone who doesn’t know you chooses the flavor for you, you are even more likely to be disappointed by the ice cream selection. The worst situation, however, would be someone, without intimate knowledge of the individuals involved, choosing one flavor that everybody has to consume.

***Hopefully it is clear that when I refer to individuals acting “for their own good,” I am referring to an economic weighing of benefits and costs that vary depending on the individual and the situation. This is not to discount the existence of moral/spiritual absolutes which would declare certain actions “good” and other actions “bad.” And if, in the cases discussed, the government were legislating purely based on these moral absolutes, that would be one thing (and that would lead to questions about government’s role in legislating morality, etc.). However, this post is limited to analyzing legislation that forces individuals to act “for their own good.”

My Political Ideological Journey Part #5: College Years, Economics, and Libertarianism

I went into college with a fairly skeptical view of the state. My high school readings had lead me to conclude both that the federal government was often inefficient and that government’s intended role was very limited. However, I knew almost nothing about economics.

During my first semester of college, I took an introductory economics class which confirmed my views of the inefficiency of most government action. Analysis of topics such as the minimum wage, rent controls, and import tariffs showed me that government intervention tends to hurt more than it helps. On the other hand, the free market tends to allow people to express their choices and satisfy their particular wants in a more efficient manner.

After that first semester, I went a couple years without really thinking about political issues. However, the presidential primaries in the spring of 2016 forced me to consider the voting process and criteria for supporting presidential candidates. I wrestled with whether or not to vote for the lesser of two evils and what minimum requirements a candidate should meet in order to garner my support.

During the fall of 2016, I took a Microeconomic Theory course, which gave me a much deeper understanding of economics and public policy. Taught by Dr. Eric Schansberg, this course examined numerous public policy issues from unions to Obamacare, from taxi medallions to protectionism. Dr. Schansberg was fairly outspoken about his libertarian beliefs and was critical of both political parties, which intrigued me. His deep understanding of economics made me want to further understand his political theory.

The winter directly following that semester I read his book “Turn Neither to the Right Nor to the Left,” which establishes a Christian lens through which to analyze public policy. I’d never really been exposed to a comprehensive, consistent, and thoughtful view of government and public policy from a Christian perspective and this book greatly furthered my political ideological progression.

While this book was helpful in offering an alternative view to the common narratives espoused by our two main political parties, I felt like I needed to learn more about libertarianism. Up to this point, I had generally had a soft spot for libertarians. Sure they were radical and cooky at times, but I admired their consistency and their willingness to take their ideas to their logical conclusions. This lead me into a deep exploration of libertarianism as a political theory.

Thankfully, very early on I stumbled across the site Reformed Libertarian, which reconciles the libertarian political theory with the Christian worldview. This was important to me because I did not want my political beliefs to somehow supplant my Christian worldview. Rather, I desperately desired (and still desire) to hold a political ideology that is consistent, both logically and with the Christian worldview. This site was extremely helpful, both in dealing with common questions/issues regarding libertarian thought and in recommending introductory books to read.

Since then I’ve been reading a lot of books to try to better understand libertarianism (specifically of the the voluntaryist/propertarian variety). I wouldn’t say that I have it all figured by any means. There’s still a whole lot that I want to learn and better understand. I’m not even 100% sure where I stand politically at the moment since even the term “libertarian” has a lot of negative connotations and associations. That being said, I’m definitely ideologically moving towards libertarianism, if defined correctly. A number of my future posts will likely deal with some of these political ideas I’ve been thinking about and reading about.

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As usual, I’d love to hear your thoughts/questions/concerns on this topic. Like I said before, my goal is to hold to a consistent political ideology, both logically and with the Christian worldview. Therefore, I am excited to hear critiques or questions that will push me towards greater consistency and intellectual soundness. I hope to find a balance between being open to change my views in the face of well-reasoned arguments, and being passionate and articulate in explaining the views that I currently hold. Thank you for reading this post and I appreciate any comments that you might choose to leave for me!

My Political Ideological Journey Part #4: The Taming of the Shrew

Apparently, my distaste for the government continued into my junior year in high school. I recently found this gem of a paper that I wrote for my British Literature class. Written as a style imitation of one of Kate’s monologues in “The Taming of the Shrew,” it discusses how the current form of government is overinvolved in the affairs of individuals.

Here’s the original monologue:

“Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee
And for thy maintenance; commits his body
To painful labor both by sea and land,
To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,
Whilst thou li’st warm at home, secure and safe;
And craves no other tribute at thy hands
But love, fair looks, and true obedience–
Too little payment for so great a debt.
Such duty as the subject owes the prince,
Even such a woman oweth to her husband;
And when she is froward, peevish, sullen, sour,
And not obedient to his honest will,
What is she but a foul contending rebel
And graceless traitor to her loving lord?”

And here’s my style imitation:

“Thy government is thy protector, thy accountant, and thy doctor,
Thy authority, thy sovereign; one that manages life for thee
And for thy well-being; commits its programs
To watch thee, make decisions for thee
Whilst thou liest content at home, secure and safe;
It craves a great tribute from thy hands
Money, votes, and perfect submission
But this is a little payment for so great a debt
Such duty as the puppet owes the puppeteer,
Even such the citizen oweth to his government;
And when he is not silent, thinks for himself, wants to spend his own money,
And is not obedient to the government’s perfect will
What is he but a foul contending revolutionary,
And an idealistic traitor to his loving regime?”

Honestly, I’m surprised that I didn’t receive more backlash from my teacher and the other students in this class. I guess it probably seemed insincere and humorous, rather than an actual critique of our government. And I may have actually written it that way (I can’t remember my exact rationale), but looking back it is interesting that I was thinking some of these types of thoughts way back then.

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As usual, feel free to leave a comment or send me an email. I’d love to hear what you have to say. Thanks for reading!

My Political Ideological Journey Part #3: Less is More

During my sophomore year of high school, I was part of the journalism class, which wrote our school paper. I recently found this opinion piece that I wrote, which discusses government overreach and the need to limit government. Obviously, it’s not a perfect piece, but it’s a good snapshot of where I stood ideologically at this point in time.

Government: Less is More

By Jonathan Wright

Ronald Reagan once said, “Government does not solve problems; it subsidizes them.” Our government is doing just this in our current economic recession. Unfortunately, when our country enters a hard economic time, many people assume that the federal government is the solution.

President Obama told us when we entered this recession, “At this moment only government can provide the short-term boost necessary to lift us from a recession this deep and severe. Only government can break the vicious cycles that are crippling our economy.”

This is actually quite untrue. Our government is layered, so the farther you get from the individual, the less knowledge about his personal needs there are. For example a city government knows more about its citizens’ needs than a state government, which in turn knows more about its citizens than the federal government. So to give the federal government the power to make these major decisions is hurting individual liberty. And the way it is handling problems is showing us that it is incompetent to get us out of the recession.

The government’s actions have made the economy worse, not better. It chose to attempt to help the economy through extensive spending and expansion of government power and it’s hurting our economy. We were told that the stimulus package would help our job situation, that it would keep the unemployment rate below 8 percent, and that without the stimulus the unemployment rate would be between 8 and 9 percent. Well as of the spring of 2010 the unemployment rate was right around 10.2 percent.

Also, Earl Devaney, head of the Recovery Act Accountability and Transparency Board, said, “The experts, the people who work in the fraud arena, say there will [be] significant fraud, around 7 percent lost to fraud in most cases. So if you do the math on $787 billion, not that I have, and you get $55.1 billion.” Fifty-five billion dollars will be lost due to fraud!

Let’s think for a minute. Does increasing the national debt help the economy? It looks as though the federal government’s plan is only succeeding in increasing our national debt. Think about this: would it help a household in financial troubles to spend more and increase its debt? Right now the government is spending tons of money on programs that aren’t even helping our economy.

Irresponsibility on the part of our government with its actions and money is part of the reason we even entered this economic ordeal. Due to mismanagement of two government sponsored enterprises, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, our housing market is in shambles. Government regulators encouraged them to increase the level of lending to low-income buyers. This escalated into a situation where these two companies were making more loans to people who had bad credit. People began to buy houses that they couldn’t afford with almost nothing as a down payment. Home prices rose dramatically and the housing bubble inflated. Without these programs, the government’s push, and of course people making irresponsible choices, this would never have happened.

So in the case of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government intervened and tried to make things better, but in reality made things worse. The issue comes down to what kind of matters the government should get involved in and how much it should get involved in things. Not only is our government managing the housing market, but it is making decisions for us like in the cases of Healthcare Reform and Social Security.

Article X of the Bill of Rights says, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” This article states that whatever the Constitution doesn’t give the federal government power to do should be left to the state governments or the people. Our government needs to cut spending and intrusion in people’s personal lives. The Constitution doesn’t give the government power to make decisions for people, and it needs to stay away from things that are not in its jurisdiction.

This article primarily critiques the federal government from an efficiency and constitutionality perspective, which is useful to some degree, however, I think looking at the role of government and the underlying moral issues is a little bit more beneficial. (Also, at the moment I don’t think I would reference Ronald Reagan as the standard for limiting government power. But that’s a topic for another day.)

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I’d love to hear what you think of this post. Thanks for reading and feel free to leave a comment or send me an email.

My Political Ideological Journey Part #2: Civil Disobedience

Another book that shaped my initial thoughts on government was “Civil Disobedience” by Henry David Thoreau. Now I definitely disagree with Thoreau on a number of points, but I appreciate the fact that he implies a higher standard of justice than human law.

“Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right […] Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made agents of injustice” (Page 4).

While this quote could be taken as an argument for moral relativism (and maybe that was the intent?), I think it is helpful in noting that the law does not always equal justice and that there are higher standards (the conscience, according to Thoreau), which should enable us to critique the justice and validity of various laws.

In terms of the role of government, Thoreau practically argues “that government is best which governs least,” but ideally “that government is best which governs not at all” (Page 3). It’s unclear if Thoreau is legitimately advocating anarchy, but it seems clear that, at the least, he is advocating an extremely limited government. The more limited, the better, according to him.

Thoreau is also helpful in explaining that there is a point where citizens must be willing to resist and fight against government injustices. He writes, “Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once? ” (Page 11). And while he would probably advocate a greater level civil disobedience than I would, I think this is an important issue to consider. Most principled individuals would say that if government did “X” or outlawed “Y,” they would have to disobey. It’s interesting, therefore, to think through where that line should be drawn and what level of injustice or tyranny would necessitate civil disobedience.

While I definitely don’t agree with Thoreau on every point, this book was helpful and formative in the process of my political ideological journey.

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I’d love to hear your thoughts on Thoreau’s ideology and my interpretations of his ideas. As usual, leave a comment or send me an email, if you’d like. Thanks for reading!

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!