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“Society is produced by our wants, and government by wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the last a punisher. Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil.” – Thomas Paine
Yesterday a Ricochet contributor was arguing Washington could do better than gridlock. My first thought was that while it could, it did better than gridlock only rarely. That is because, as Thomas Paine notes, government is generally a negative.
It is often a necessary negative. We want our military to stop other nations from invading us (a negative use of the military) not to conquer territory (a positive use of the military). We want the law to restrain society’s predators from preying on others (a negative). We (rightfully) resent the law when it attempts to modify personal behavior. The best rights are negative rights (freedom of speech, freedom to bear arms, freedom from government intrusion), while positive rights (the right to receive free stuff) quickly devolves into beggar-your-neighbor games.
Can government do positive well? Occasionally, but only rarely. That is because legislators usually fail to consider potential unintended consequences. As Don Marquis once observed, “When the government gets an idea, they usually get it all wrong.” (And he wrote this back in the 1920s.)
A good dose of gridlock for the next two years should have many salutatory effects. It will allow the economy to roar on. It will keep the government from giving us more stuff we neither need nor want (but have to pay for). It may even make people realize their happiness does not come from Washington DC. (That last one is probably too much to hope for.)Published in