This essay is the first in a series, designed to question and debate the role and size of modern government.
Say you were setting up your own government. You’d want the best and brightest to work there, wouldn’t you? You’d want idealistic, gung-ho worker bees, rabid to effect change and make the world a better place. You’d want people who understood how awful oppression is; how important it is to allow people to make their own place in the world without others holding them back; how vital a safety net can be for those who are down on their luck. Should any bad apples manage to sneak their way in, you’d excise them as quickly as possible, scourging their very presence from your hallowed halls, and immediately return to the ongoing efforts to protect the innocent and the weak. Makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? The shame of it all is that it doesn’t work. Not well, and not for very long.
How can that be? You ask incredulously. We would have top men and women busting their guts out there in the trenches every day, working as hard as they could to bring justice to the weak. The only thing that could possibly stand in their way would be the apologists for the greedy corporations and other special interests. If we could just get those suckers out of office, everything would be hunky-dory. Sorry, but it doesn’t work that way. Even if all of the opposition were to be replaced by right-thinking worker bees, Utopia would never, could never, result from such a system. Instead, believe it or not, the structure would inevitably fail, and topple from its own weight. That’s the nature of the beast.
Believe me, I’d love it if larger government were the way to go. If all I had to do to secure my place in society were to pay some money to some nameless bureaucrats, who would make sure that all of my rights were protected; that I would be free to vote, to live and work wherever I felt like; and to marry or have sex with whomever I pleased; and no one would bother me–what could be better? I would feel safe in the streets and in my home, without ever having to personally enforce any laws, rules, or regulations. All I would have to do when annoyed or frightened would be to call for assistance and wait for help to arrive, which it would in plenty of time, before anything awful would happen. And if I should fall ill, or lose my job, I would be taken care of. Utopia, right?
Unfortunately, in the essence of the solution lies the kernel of the problem. All along, those worker bees would have been striving on my behalf, and on the behalf of all of the other citizens, protecting rights, and dishing out rules and regulations to keep everyone safe. Every time they would’ve gotten wind of some injustice, they’d have scouted around for the perfect solution, drafting proposals to ensure that it never occurs again. While this may seem to be the perfect system, there are many reasons that it is unsustainable.
In the first place, even though it may seem to be counter-intuitive, rights are a tricky thing. Almost everyone can agree on the biggies: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But even here we start to run into trouble right away. We can’t even agree on when life begins, so how can we decide what protecting life means? Even for something so fundamental, protection of one person’s right to life by its very nature means an infringement of another person’s liberty. We have suddenly gone from idealistically protecting everyone to balancing the rights of individual people. We’re only on the first two, major, fundamental, human rights, and those worker bees are already being restricted. Their idealism must inevitably begin to bow to compromise. We’ve already started to exchange our government of ideals for one of practicality. Our Utopia is slipping away, and we haven’t made it past the first mark.
One problem with protecting rights, even fundamental rights like life and liberty, is that they mean different things to different people, and government is a one-size-fits-all animal. Even small government, even local government, is too large to adjust to individual circumstances. And the higher up the scale we go, the worse it gets. Countries are not made up of citizens, that amorphous blob of conformity, they are made up of individuals. And this country has over 300 million of those individuals. Stop and think about that for a minute. 300 million! Can we even wrap our heads around such a large number? And yet, every day, government employees are busy crafting rules and regulations that are purported to protect each and every one of those people, to be fair to all of those individuals. Meanwhile, each one of those 300 million people has his own life story, prejudices, wants, needs, and desires. No regulation can cater to each one of those.
Each individual has his own lumps and bumps and personality. Unfortunately, government doesn’t do lumps, bumps, or personality. Government works best with smooth–laws created to protect an average citizen. And despite claims to the contrary, the average Joe doesn’t exist. Laws can only approximate justice for all, which means that they actually create injustice for some. And the more laws that are on the books the more lumps that are lopped off, the more bumps that are broken, and the less that personalities prosper.
So it turns out that idealism and government don’t necessarily play well together. That doesn’t mean that we should give up, right? We can always just try for the greatest good for the greatest number. If the rights of some people get squashed along the way, well, at least we can hope that it’s not too many people, and not too much of the fundamental rights. That’s just the price that we have to pay for the overall protection of the state. And since the state doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon, discussion about its role is a valuable thing. Which is fine, so long as we realize that any discussions from here on out cannot rely on unfettered idealism. That concept has no place in the debate over the size, scope, or purpose of government. That being understood, we can move on the next point.
NEXT TIME: THE EVOLUTION OF RIGHTS