Finding the balance

When I made my introductory post here at Nobody’s Business, I titled it “An Uncertain Libertarian.” The reason for my uncertainty was only briefly mentioned, largely implied, and had to do with the fear of an “overly” large government. As I wrote then, the question for my mind — and what caused me to call myself an “uncertain” libertarian — was “what does ‘overly’ mean?”

This is, after all, the burning question that all libertarians citizens have to face.

This is because the larger government becomes, the more power it has over our lives. And, as many have heard and anyone who pays attention even to their own selves will recognize, power has a tendency to corrupt. It’s probably hyperbole to state that in every case “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Some of you may think, “Power wouldn’t corrupt me. I would use power for good and not for bad. I’m just not built to desire power for power’s sake.”

You might be right. There are no doubt rare individuals who could be benevolent dictators, exercising power responsibly. After all, there are all kinds of people in the world.

But that’s not the norm.

Even if we had a benevolent dictator, though, who set up an all-powerful government apparatus which she intended would only help her people, she would have to fill the positions in that government with other people. Keeping in mind “the norm” and given the odds, some of those people would find themselves corrupted by the power they were given to wield.

No matter how benevolent the aims of government, when government has too much power, freedom suffers. Which means that people who yearn to be free suffer. Actual people. One of them could be you, I don’t know.

So freedom-loving people, people who wish to make their own choices for their lives, have an interest in making sure that governmental power is limited. For those who wish to live self-directed lives, government must be kept as small as possible.

I am not at all convinced that anarchism — which I take to be the situation where there is no government — is a workable system, particularly for large populations of humans. This is because, speaking of “defects,” there are too many of us who are defective. Biological beings being what they are, some number of us are born with brains that are incapable of functioning correctly, let alone intelligently. Others, through no fault of their own, are exposed to horrific early life experiences which warp their personalities and make them dangerous to others.

And then, of course, there are just the natural differences of opinion which can lead to violence, both on a “domestic” level — here I’m deliberately mirroring the language of the Founders who, recognizing this same problem, attempted to form a government of limited powers to deal with these issues — and externally, from foreign powers.

Government, therefore, serves some necessary purpose. And that purpose, by itself, is not evil. Government is necessary: not a necessary evil.

But in the absence of a more complete explanation about the role of government, “as small as possible” suffers the same defect as “overly.” What, pray tell, does “as small as possible” mean?

“Dark Phoenix” left a comment to my most recent article prior to this one (“There’s a war for that”). You don’t really have to click the link if you don’t want. Here’s what Dark Phoenix said:

Maybe I’m just blind, but I only see two options: either the government regulates things, or it’s left to the free market to decide. I’d say in the case of universal health care, the latter has failed miserably.

The problem isn’t so much blindness, as a matter of setting up a kind of false dilemma (a.k.a., “false choice”). This comes about because there is an implied belief that universal health care is a necessity and, because it’s a necessity, someone or something has to regulate it. Apparently, the “free market” — which doesn’t really exist — is seen as failing miserably because universal health care doesn’t exist.

I’m willing to admit that universal health care would probably be A Good Thing™ (although this is going to create another one of those “what does ________ mean?” problems, where the _______, in this case, is “universal”). Being A Good Thing™, though, is not the same as being A Necessary Thing™, requiring government intervention, implementation, and regulation if someone or something else like, oh, let’s say the non-existent “free market,” fails to provide it.

My being a multi-billionaire without a financial care in the world is A Good Thing™, too. (Trust me on this one.) That doesn’t mean that if someone or something fails to provide it, the government should step in and ensure that I am, in fact, a multi-billionaire without a financial care in the world.

So the problem — the reason I started my Nobody’s Business blogging career with “An uncertain libertarian” — is to figure out just what it is that government should do and what it should not. My “uncertain libertarian” status comes from the fact that I — perhaps like a lot of you — have always focused my attention on the latter, while virtually ignoring the former. I have taken it for granted, as Dark Phoenix did, that government should be responsible for certain things. I still take it for granted that government should be responsible for certain things.

I am slowly realizing that we don’t really need government to be responsible for as many things as I previously thought.

For example, in California right now there is a big debate over high-speed rail. High-speed rail is one of those things that I think would be A Good Thing™, like universal health care, or my being a multi-billionaire without a financial care in the world. If high speed rail existed, I have no doubt I’d probably use it — at least once or twice, and more often if it turned out to be as cool as I think it might.

But California is also suffering a huge budgetary crisis right now, just as is the rest of the country. And high-speed rail is expensive.

Is high-speed rail necessary? Is it the sort of thing, without which, Californians would suffer greatly? I think not. We’ve managed fairly well without it for as long as California has existed. And, in fact, going back as far as there have been people in the part of the world which is now called “California,” high-speed rail has been pretty much completely unnecessary.

Moreover, as I said, if it existed, I might use it once or twice and maybe more often. So why should I be forced to pay for every run that it makes? Again, a cheeseburger is A Good Thing™ — hell, a cheeseburger is A Really Good Thing™ — but that doesn’t mean the government should make me buy you all one! (You’ll be happy to know that I’m not asking the government to force you to buy me one, either.)

This, I begin to think, provides a yardstick for measuring the responsibility of government. Government should provide that which is necessary, and nothing more. Government should have just enough power to do that which is necessary, and nothing more.

I begin to find myself feeling less uncertain about my libertarianism.

About Rick Horowitz:
Rick is a criminal defense attorney with an office in Fresno, California. He also writes Probable Cause: The Legal Blog with the Really Low Standard of Review.
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  1. Tatiana
    Posted May 12, 2011 at 7:56 am | Permalink

    The biggest tragedy in America is the fact that citizens have the freedom to speak, yet most of them don’t speak up as often as necessary. America is run by fear and more fear has been stemming from government to the masses than fear of terrorism itself. Both are dangerous. Real fear should sit on the realization of freedom is a privilege not a right and as such, a nation’s citizens must care for the entire system, not just take from it. Freedom requires vigilance, as Thomas Jefferson said. Today’s media is a wonderful source of information with a downside of also being a distraction for the “norm” to escape into from a hard day’s work, where definitions of meaning and freedom are sold through politics, game shows and reality TV skewed for high ratings for advertising dollars — but more importantly, as a medium for political and social messages. Essentially, it’s the development of culture, of a nation’s life. In that “norm” reality it is easy to program a new generation of “norms”. But who wants to be a norm anyway? Exactly. Chicke shits, that’s who.

    Excellent post.

    On a side note, few people have ability to envision themsleves as a multi-billionaire versus a more common and “attainable” multi-millionaire, even just for fun. I call that A Kick-Ass Good Thing “(tm)”.

  2. Posted May 12, 2011 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    Doesn’t it all come down to what “necessary” means?

  3. Posted May 12, 2011 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    You could certainly make that argument. If you ask me, though, that starts to get into: it depends on what you mean when you say words, because while it does indeed come down to what “necessary” means, “necessary” is a little less of a value-laden term than “overly,” or “as small as possible.”

    I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that there will be disagreements over whether a particular thing is necessary or not. After all, part of how the expansionists completely eliminated constitutional limits was by re-defining the “necessary and proper” clause of the Constitution.

    Yet I continue to believe that it’s easier to make cogent arguments regarding what is and is not “necessary” than it is to make cogent arguments regarding the other terms I used.

  4. Posted May 12, 2011 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

    I would add another qualifier. Not only should government provide only that which is necessary, it should also provide only that which cannot be provided by other means.

    Using your high-speed rail example, Californians who want to travel between, say, San Francisco and Los Angeles, already have the options of driving, taking a bus, taking a plane, and taking low-speed rail. We could also throw in taking a cab, taking a boat down the coast, biking, hiking, and of course, suffering the consequences of not going to Los Angeles. The benefit of a high speed rail system is not everything that high speed rail would do, but only the extent to which high-speed rail is better than the best of those alternatives.

    So even if traveling from San Francisco to Los Angeles was deemed necessary, Californians may already be provided with ample means to do so without government intervention.