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)
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.
As John Locke explained many years ago:
“The end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom. For in all the states of created beings, capable of laws, where there is no law there is no freedom. For liberty is to be free from restraint and violence from others, which cannot be where there is no law; and is not, as we are told, ‘a liberty for every man to do what he lists.’ For who could be free, when every other man’s humour might domineer over him? But a liberty to dispose and order freely as he lists his person, actions, possessions, and his whole property within the allowance of those laws under which he is, and therein not to be subject to the arbitrary will of another, but freely follow his own.” (Two Treatises of Civil Government, II, 57: P.P.N.S., p.101)
I believe we Americans should use extreme care before lending our support to any proposed government program. We should fully recognize that government is no plaything. As George Washington warned, “Government is not reason, it is not eloquence – it is force! Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master!” (The Red Carpet, p.142) It is an instrument of force and unless our conscience is clear that we would not hesitate to put a man to death, put him in jail or forcibly deprive him of his property for failing to obey a given law, we should oppose it.
That Locke quote is dense, and Benson is using it to illustrate his point, so I'm starting there.
"Where there is no law there is no freedom."
What happens without law? I think that Benson pointed out a good example earlier in his essay in the "lawless west." The absence of law is anarchy, and the examples of anarchy that I am familiar with are scenes of bloodshed and violence where might makes right. If you can protect your family from the individuals or mobs that want whatever it is you have, it's likely to be a big job. There's not a lot of choice: you can spend your time and energy and resources protecting life and property, or you can loose your life and property. It's not a pleasant scene, so men create laws. When laws are functioning properly it leaves people with the time and resources to pursue things other than bare survival. In short, it brings freedom, "a liberty for every man to do what he [pleases]". Law allows us to be free from the whims of our aggressive neighbors; free to choose what we will do with our lives.
However, every time we pass a law, we have to weigh the benefits of the law against the assault anyone who refuses to comply will experience. In some cases, this is a very easy thing to do: murdering is obviously wrong and clearly should be punished. Recently there has been a lot of talk about nationalizing health care. This would, in effect, pass a law saying that we all must contribute to pay for our neighbor's medical bills. The person who feels this is wrong, who refuses to contribute, would certainly be sent to prison for tax evasion. Is it right to send someone to prison because they don't want to pay a stranger's medical bills? I don't think that I could be the one enforcing that! I don't think that my conscience would allow me to do it. I follow my Congressmen's feeds on govtrack.us, and one of them was recently working on anti-trust legislation. Anti-trust legislation is another thing that I'm leery of: if a company is too big, too successful, we should take it, break it up, and require that parts be sold? Could I do it to my neighbor? Only if he were doing unethical things with his large company. And then I would want to prosecute the bad ethics, not break up the company and give it to someone else. Success, it seems to me, should not be a crime. It's an interesting litmus test to apply to the bills that are proposed: could I enforce this upon a reluctant neighbor? Have I the "moral right" to do so?
I think that George Washington knew what he was talking about! “Government is not reason, it is not eloquence – it is force! Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master!” Reading what the Headmistress has to say about the treatment of the FLDS in connection with the Yearning For Zion ranch in Texas is convincing testimony to that. (I've been keeping half an eye on this blog for her gathering and analysis of FLDS news for more than a year now. She's also got some really interesting stuff about CPS in general, not just their treatment of the FLDS. CPS is rather scary! My favorites are now back quite a ways in her archive.)
The idea of opposing most government programs leaves a lot of people worried about what will happen to the poor, the uninsured, the homeless, and the helpless children who have no say in the conditions their parents choose. To say that it is not the place of government to care for the needy is not to say that the needy are on their own! On the contrary, requiring the government to stay out of these matters leaves greater private resource available for charitable causes. Causes which will be better served by the more efficient private efforts than they ever could have been by inefficient, corrupt government programs.
However, the main point of this section of Benson's article is that it is morally wrong expect our representatives - our government - to do that which we would be morally wrong to do ourselves.