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01 May 2009

The Role of Government Examined Powers of a Proper Government

Previous Installments:
The Proper Role of Government, by Ezra Taft Benson
-- read the full text.
My commentary as I study his article:
Part I (Foundational Principles, Origin of Rights)
Part II (Separation of Church and State)
Part III (Source of Governmental Power)
Part IV (Powers of a Proper Government)
Part V (Government = Force)
Part VI (The US Constitution)
Part VII (Local Government)
Part VIII (Legalized Plunder)

Picking up where I left off last time:

This means, then, that the proper function of government is limited only to those spheres of activity within which the individual citizen has the right to act. By deriving its just powers from the governed, government becomes primarily a mechanism for defense against bodily harm, theft and involuntary servitude. It cannot claim the power to redistribute the wealth or force reluctant citizens to perform acts of charity against their will. Government is created by man. No man possesses such power to delegate. The creature cannot exceed the creator.

In general terms, therefore, the proper role of government includes such defensive activities, as maintaining national military and local police forces for protection against loss of life, loss of property, and loss of liberty at the hands of either foreign despots or domestic criminals.

I really like this. Particularly the first paragraph. I like how he's said it in so few words, I like the clarity of the idea, I like the freedom that it encompasses. Government as a defense against these few things. Not a nanny, not an all-powerful protector/enforcer. Not a benevolent "uncle" passing out favors to the deserving, but a mechanism for the common defense. In addition, this statement, particularly when coupled with the example of the horse he gave earlier (discussed in Part III), also make a clear and easy litmus test. Could I, personally, do it to my neighbor? If I cannot, in good conscience, compel my neighbor to do something, I have no business asking my Congressmen to compel them. I cannot delegate power I don't have! No matter how noble the cause, if it fails this test it does not fall into the "proper roll of government." Every single one of the welfare programs, social security programs, even educational programs, fail this test. Many of the things the government does are well-meaning things that, should the government step aside, would need to be taken up by private citizens, businesses, and charities. Saying the government's involvement is wrong is not the same as saying that the programs have no merit and should not be replaced with some private endeavor! However. We have, over time, allowed our government to become far more than it ever should have been and it's not just. It's not good for those who are forced to give, and it's not good for those who feel entitled to the handouts either.

It also includes those powers necessarily incidental to the protective functions such as:

(1) The maintenance of courts where those charged with crimes may be tried and where disputes between citizens may be impartially settled.

(2) The establishment of a monetary system and a standard of weights and measures so that courts may render money judgments, taxing authorities may levy taxes, and citizens may have a uniform standard to use in their business dealings.

My attitude toward government is succinctly expressed by the following provision taken from the Alabama Constitution:

“That the sole object and only legitimate end of government is to protect the citizen in the enjoyment of life, liberty, and property, and when the government assumes other functions it is usurpation and oppression.” (Art. 1, Sec. 35)

I think that Alabama was onto something when they included that in their state constitution! It is plain to me that the majority of the government programs currently available are "usurpation and oppression," though many of them have what I would agree are good and worthy goals. But is it really right to send my neighbor to jail for refusal to participate in a collection to provide health care to needy children or any number of other worthy causes? And what if that neighbor happens to have an child in need of medical attention themselves? Is it just to insist that rather than taking care of their own, they must still contribute "their share" to the general fund for nameless children? Is it really even a charitable contribution? It makes me think of what Brother Oaks said at our last conference:

The worldly aspiration of our day is to get something for nothing. The ancient evil of greed shows its face in the assertion of entitlement: I am entitled to this or that because of who I am—a son or a daughter, a citizen, a victim, or a member of some other group. Entitlement is generally selfish. It demands much, and it gives little or nothing. Its very concept causes us to seek to elevate ourselves above those around us. This separates us from the divine, evenhanded standard of reward that when anyone obtains any blessing from God, it is by obedience to the law on which that blessing is predicated (see D&C 130:21).

Entitlements, as they are called, take up a huge portion of the federal budget. Nobody wants to talk about cutting entitlements. It's uncivilized and heartless to even consider it. But I can't think of how entitlements would be defensive. They seem to fall much more into the forced "charity," or wealth re-distribution. When you bring wealth re-distribution down to a neighborhood level, it's theft, plain and simple. If I take money from one neighbor to finance another neighbor's education, medical needs, or housing, I would be charged with theft. Yet we recently elected a president who openly talked about wealth re-distribution as an important part of his presidency. And, true to his word, he is re-distributing. But it's the government, so nobody calls it theft.

(It's a little off topic, but I think there is another thing to consider when pondering the value of the social programs administered by the government. It is generally agreed that when selecting a charity it is wise to find a well-administered charity so that the donation will have the maximum impact on the cause with the minimum spent on the administration of the charity. I know that the Federal Government would never make it in a side-by-side comparison of efficiency and effectiveness! Government inefficiency is legendary! Given the option, I would much prefer to make my social "donations," currently confiscated as a tax, to organizations that I was comfortable with the goals and administration thereof. Many many of the uses taxes are put to are things that I would never consent to have my name associated with were it voluntary. Planned Parenthood's easy abortions, funded in significant part with public monies, comes to mind as a quick example. And I would never choose an organization with as much waste as the government.)

An important test I use in passing judgment upon an act of government is this: If it were up to me as an individual to punish my neighbor for violating a given law, would it offend my conscience to do so? Since my conscience will never permit me to physically punish my fellow man unless he has done something evil, or unless he has failed to do something which I have a moral right to require of him to do, I will never knowingly authorize my agent, the government to do this on my behalf.

I realize that when I give my consent to the adoption of a law, I specifically instruct the police – the government – to take either the life, liberty, or property of anyone who disobeys that law. Furthermore, I tell them that if anyone resists the enforcement of the law, they are to use any means necessary – yes, even putting the lawbreaker to death or putting him in jail – to overcome such resistance. These are extreme measures but unless laws are enforced, anarchy results.

I think that one of the most difficult things about having freedom is that your neighbors, even the ones you don't get along with, the ones who value different things, also have that same freedom. Many of the laws we now live with come from someone saying, "it isn't decent, they shouldn't be allowed to ______." But in order to secure freedom for ourselves and our posterity, we have to allow that maybe the things that are important to me are not important to my neighbor. People need to be free to choose for themselves. I think this is one of the most difficult tests of our commitment to freedom. When we authorize the government to pass a law, we ought to be very sure that it is a just law. It must pass the test: "Could I punish my neighbor for non-compliance, were it my responsibility to do so?"

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