Thursday, April 1, 2010

Taking Stock

No, this is not intended as an April Fool's post, although it very well may indict me as one. A brief rant on how I see it as of April 1, 2010:

The "science" of human politics (and economics for that matter) is a great temptation, since the idea that organizing people in a certain way can make life easier, more secure, more fair, or more personally satisfying is enticing. But while they can be an interesting and even useful topic of discussion, political theories (especially those that claim to be consistent or universal) lead to false visions of society. Actually, I like the analogy of a mirage, a vision supported by little other than hot air.

Human government takes this one step further by exercising its authority on the basis of those flawed political/economic theories. Particularly, the role of government has shifted quite a bit along the spectrum from an authority which governs the actions of the governed to an authority which acts on behalf of the governed. Collective government action is enticing for the same reasons that politics in general are, but it is another mirage, and a dangerous one. I hold that the increased collective action of government into society can negatively impact individual identity and action, both practically and spiritually.

Beyond the debate over public versus private action, and their relative efficiencies and strengths, consideration of the impact of policy on the individual, their purpose, responsibility, and even freedom, is to a regrettable degree neglected.

The right question to ask is not always what can government do, but what should government do?


Anonymous said...

"the role of government has shifted quite a bit along the spectrum from an authority which governs the actions of the governed to an authority which acts on behalf of the governed"

Astute observation, and your closing question is quite accurate. It is also why we have such spirited debates. Perhaps there is very little concrete right and wrong in the way that government should or can do, and so that is why we discuss the spaces in between.

Of course, since we don't all agree on what is right and what is wrong, it makes them even more interesting.

John said...

I'm going to play devil's advocate here. Government first arose because people needed protection, and the strong (who would become the ruler) protected them. Later on, we depended on the governments to ensure we had food and other services. So, I argue that the original governments were founded to provide for us and protect us.

I would argue that various events, including the Renaissance and possibly the Enlightenment, pointed out the benefits of a society where individuals were allowed to explore their full potential. Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations is, essentially, an extended essay on why governments should not control the economy.

Justus Hommes said...

John, I was speaking in terms of recent history with regards to the US government, but point taken.

I would, however, largely disagree with your assessment of Smith's Wealth of Nations. First, I don't think you can call anything over 1200 pages long an essay, however extended. More importantly, Smith was less building a case for any position than he was observing the economy of his day, and how this tied into his previous observations and work in the area of moral sentiments. As I have written on this blog previously, Smith's thought is more nuanced than most give him credit for, his words have been much distorted and used out of context. Smith used the term "invisible hand" only once, and it was a common expression of the day, not a defining element, theory, explanation or summary of Smith's ideals. He was critical of entities that, through government-granted privilege or limited liability, separated the interests of the owners from the interests of the workers, which is pretty much SOP in today's economy. The term capitalism hadn't been invented while Smith was alive, and he despised the term laissez-faire. Overall, he did see order coming out of chaos in the action of individuals, but made plain that both businesses and governments distorted the natural market between people.

John said...

My one sentence reference to The Wealth of Nations was not intended to disparage a man or work I respect.

In light of why governments came to be, I don't think you can separate the question of what government can do from what government should do. Leaders will always do what they think is best for some combination of their citizenry and their own interests. The only limit on what governemnts should do is what governments are empowered to do. Meanwhile, the same value that would limit government power influences what action is appropriate for government to take.

For instance, in China, the government can respond to a protest by killing the protestors, and the regime is able to survive. In the United States, perhaps the same approach would work well, but we don't empower our government in that way. Thus, we often engage the protestors in open discussion and that process preserves our republic. Of course, this is a simplification, but it reflects my point. That is, unless you meant something different by your questionn.