What Ought Government to Do (and Not Do)?: Why We Need to Read John Locke
A couple of days ago I argued that we find ourselves in a political situation akin to that of John Locke, who had to argue against the unquestioned power of unaccountable kings. Similarly, today hardly anyone in a position of political prominence reliably makes principled arguments against the omnipresent and often unaccountable powers of government. True, the political parties do divide over questions of the size or the rate of growth of government, but (at least before the Tea Party movement) the vast majority of Republicans shy away from any real effort to reverse the intrusion of government into our lives over the last 100 years. Remember President George W. Bush’s 2004 campaign promise to reform social security? Or—and it pains me to say it—President Reagan’s promise to abolish the Department of Education (elevated to a cabinet post by Carter) in 1980? Thus, having Republicans in office (even as great a president as Reagan) often means slowing things down a little for four or eight years until another F.D.R., Johnson, or Obama gets into office and does fulfill his aggressive campaign promises. No permanent victories in reestablishing the Constitutional order envisioned by the Founders seem to take place in the modern era.
This is why I think there is no better tonic for our age than going back to arguably the most influential political philosopher on the American Founders, John Locke. To prompt people to think about what governments ought to do, rather than what they always did in order to increase their power, Locke invited readers to consider what motives would have prompted men to enter into civil society and establish a government in the first place. He was not the first to imagine a “state of nature,” of course. Yet in contrast to Hobbes, Locke portrayed men as mostly reasonable and capable human beings made in the image of their creator. They acquire property on their own and don’t have to be “helped” in order to realize their basic needs. Men in a state of nature have freedom.
So why enter into government? Well, admittedly there are a few bad guys (probably not everyone as in Hobbes’s brutal world) who will take the property you have acquired and possibly your life. These “inconveniences” in the state of nature bring men into civil society in order to form compacts that establish a political system and the rule of law. But that does not mean government gets to do anything and everything. For who would trade the freedom to order his actions and dispose of his possessions as he sees fit found in the state of nature for the condition of being subject to arbitrary rule? Only a madman would make such a trade.
Government, then, should be limited in scope: “Political power then I take to be a Right of making Laws with Penalties of Death, and consequently all less Penalties, for the Regulating and Preserving of Property, and of employing the force of the Community, in the Execution of such Laws, and in the defence of the Common-wealth from Foreign Injury, and all this only for the Public Good.” [emphasis added] So that’s it. Political power is designed to protect our property and our lives from enemies foreign or domestic.
We could go into great detail about what governments did in the 17th and 18th centuries other than what Locke prescribed. From American history we know that they exercised a heavy hand in trade. Kings often went to war for their own glory. And the state usually ran the church. In other words, government largely controlled not just commerce but also what people thought and believed.
Locke’s considerable narrowing of the scope of government is famously echoed in the Declaration of Independence with these words: “That to secure these rights [Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness], Governments are instituted among Men.” Securing rights is what government is supposed to do. Whenever government exceeds the scope of its original compact or commission, people’s liberty is in danger. Now it is true that a people may consent to employ government to do any number of things which seem legitimate. But watch out! The oldest trick in the democratic playbook is for a larger group of people to get together and consent to take the smaller group’s property.
The Lockean idea of limited government compels us to ask the question: what is government for—and what is it not for? Allowing for the fact that there may be any number of functions for government at the state and local levels (via the Founders’ invention of federalism), what ought the federal government to do and what ought it not to do? Voters on the Right need to be specific about what their candidates should do (and undo) once elected lest vague promises of reduced government spending go nowhere and further electoral victories be wasted.
So I shall start. I think that—as stated in Article I, section 8 of the Constitution—the United States should have a strong and well-trained military. That is one part of the federal government that works. I also think that—both on Constitutional grounds and because everything the feds do in the realm of education is horrendous—the Department of Education should be abolished.
Any other suggestions?