A Faulty Concept of Government

It feels a bit like giving in to provocation to respond to a July 6 column by the Newport Daily News’s Joe Baker, but the piece seems so indicative of a certain error in political philosophy that I’ve talked myself into thinking a response worthwhile. (A link, however, is not worthwhile, because the paper offers no means of directing readers anywhere near the actual piece in question.)
Even sympathetic readers should be able to spot the instances in which Mr. Baker’s approach shows signs of fundamental error by leading to conflicting conclusions separated by mere sentences. Note, for example, Baker’s description of the idyllic, simple times during which our government was formed. The government could be limited, he appears to be arguing, because a simple society doesn’t need a Big Brother. For one thing:

The population was smaller and organized into a series of communities in which it was hard for a criminal to hide…

But things went wrong when:

… shysters soon realized that this lack of government oversight allowed them to play hard and fast with the rules so they could make money.

But shouldn’t the “community” that once guarded against criminals have been able to spot the shysters? And in times of less mobility, wasn’t it easier for criminals to skip town and strike again? Of course, by “shysters,” one gets the impression that Baker’s not thinking crook, so much as businessman, which leads us to the other glaring incoherency in his piece:

Big corporations like a weak national government because it bolsters their hand when they want to puff up that bottom line. That’s why huge international companies try to restrict the input of local governments, which have much more to lose from whatever these companies want to do.

But if the objective of evil corporations is to thwart local governments, what better mechanism could there be than a strong national government? After all, corporations with interests in multiple states, are likely to have more incentive to sway the federal government in creative ways than local governments have understanding and influence with their national representatives.
The problem comes down to Baker’s basic understanding of government and its purpose:

Government keeps a system in place that provides order for the greater good of the nation as a whole and not for any one particular interest group.

As a practical matter, big government actually creates a focal point for the attention of the loathed “interest groups,” and the notion that it can be trusted to be a neutral arbiter is one that Baker would surely dispute in other contexts. As a philosophical matter, what those who share Baker’s politics tend to forget is that the community — and the nation — is something bigger than government. We government-haters think that societies are sufficiently complex to have undirected systems that serve the greater good more effectively and efficiently than central planners ever could.
Government is the entity, within the larger community, that we entrust with such tasks as require force, especially policing and war, but also some degree of check against the tyranny of the powerful, which is where public infrastructure comes in. There’s a balance to be struck, but in Joe’s world, we should begin by placing overriding trust in the entity who doesn’t have to ask for money, but can tax, and that doesn’t have to persuade against proscribed activities, but can arrest, jail, and even kill.
Do I really have to explain why that’s not a great idea?

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13 years ago

“Big corporations like a weak national government”
Oh, quite the contrary. Bureaucratic dinosaur mega-corporations like General Electric, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics, Raytheon, and Northrop Grumman would have died off decades ago if not for the steady stream of bazillion dollar federal defense contracts that have kept them in business, and the regulatory rent-seeking that has kept smaller competitors from entering the market. See also: pharmaceuticals, insurance, energy, etc.

Warrington Faust
Warrington Faust
13 years ago

“The population was smaller and organized into a series of communities in which it was hard for a criminal to hide…”
I think this is nostalgia for a time that never existed. I remember some discussion of this in a book entitled “Murder by Gaslight”.
In that era there was practically no means of identification. There were no driver’s licenses, photographs were rare, even the birth certificate hadn’t been invented. It was possible to simply assume a name and no one could easily challange it.
Americans travelled little, so if you went even 50 miles it was unlikely you would ever encounter anyone who knew you.

David P
David P
13 years ago

Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master. – George Washington

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