What is the proper role of Government – limitations, boundaries? Where do you draw this philosophy from? (link)
My philosophy of government is drawn basically from the founding fathers, and thus by extensions philosopher such as Locke and Montesquieu and the Judeo-Christian world view in which developed the ideas behind the founding of the United States. I do believe that the country they founded is not only the greatest the world has seen, and but is in many ways unique.
No other country has the unique combination of core values that are so key to this country that they appear on our currency: Liberty, In God we Trust, and E Pluribus Unum. Sadly, as I describe in Preserving Democracy, all three are now under assault and are in danger of being replaced by a different set of values.
While all of these values are important, perhaps for this particular discussion, the most important is liberty. The desire for liberty drove both the revolution and the formation of the county. Having broken free of an oppressive government the founding fathers were so loathed to set up another one, that their first attempted failed. The government created with the Articles of Confederation was simply too weak to be effective. But their second attempt with the Constitution was a success.
With the Constitution they set up a more powerful Federal Government, but one that was still limited, for it powers were strictly enumerated. But even with this many, such as Patrick Henry, were concerned, and the new Constitution was only passed with the promise that it would be amended to safeguard the liberty of the people, which it was with what we now know as the Bill of Rights.
From this it is clear that the founders saw government as a threat to liberty and something to be limited. Power was a corrupting influence and safeguards were put in place with a series of checks and balances.
Power rested with the people, and people should be free. When the power of the government is needed, the first recourse should be to the local government, where people can have the largest say. Only when local government cannot handle an issue, should higher levels of government be called upon, first the county, then the State, and only as a last resort the Federal Government. Thus when I was younger it was not uncommon to hear some say “Don’t make a federal issue out of it.” Now it seems everything is a federal issue.
Because of this separation of powers, and the multiple layers of government, there is no single clear cut answer to the question of the “the proper role of Government.” To maintain liberty, the first choice for governance is the individual. A free people making choices for themselves. But not all choices effect just the individual and people should also have some say about the community in which they live, and this is where government comes in. Still it is important to remember that these two aims are in conflict, for virtually every act of government is a limitation on freedom in one fashion or another.
To some extent this conflict can be limited by relying on local government, which should have greater latitude, than the state, which should have greater latitude than federal. If someone does not like the laws of their community they at least have the possibility of moving to location that has laws more to their liking, and thus some liberty is maintained as people are free to choose what community they live in. For state laws, the ability to move becomes much more difficult. For federal laws, it becomes very difficult indeed.
Thus for example, prostitution is illegal in most of the country. However it is legal in a few communities in Nevada. If there was a bill to legalize prostitution in my city or state, I would oppose it. However, I do not believe there should be a federal law on prostitution one way or the other. If Carson City, NV wants legal prostitution, that should be up to the citizens of Carson City.
At all levels the primary role of Government is to protect public safety, be that from crime at the local level to international threats at the federal. The other major function is to provide the infrastructure and framework in which people can live from roads to sewers. Finally there is a need to provide the framework in which commerce can take place.
As I describe in detail in Preserving Democracy there are two main approaches to the latter one based on central planning and control, the other based on choice and competition. I believe the former is not only doomed to fail but threatens liberty. The bigger the plan, and the more centralized the planning, the less choice and freedom people will have. As a result the approach taken by government should be one that tries where possible, to encourage choice and competition, one that leaves people free to make the choices they think are best for them.
Such a view does not eliminate the need for government. For example, one way to expand the choices people have is to see that they get a good education and thus there is a role for government in education. The planning and control approach wants to centralize education decisions to the state and even federal level whereas the choice and competition approach want do decentralize educations decisions down to the parents. The former wants to assign your child to a school, the latter lets you choose which schools is best for your child either though charter schools, or though vouchers.