There is a great deal of confusion among the American people regarding a fundamental political question, and that is: "What is government?" Many Americans misconceive government as something other than an institution of the enforcement of laws and the protection of citizens. They believe government can be their adviser, caretaker, and provider. To paraphrase Orwell, they feel that government is a big brother who is looking out for them.
The lack of understanding regarding government's proper role is the single greatest cause of political problems in the United States. It is the ultimate root of freedom's destruction and it has allowed the government to grow virtually unchallenged.
So what is government? Governments are designed to govern, not provide services. Fundamentally, they are institutions of coercion.
This brings us to a related question" "What is the proper role of government?"
Essential safety is the mandate of a legitimate government. Police, and military protection are needed for people to go about their business without fear of personal harm or property confiscation. There are good arguments on behalf of the privatization of some safety services such as fire protection. The market more effectively penalizes those businesses that are inefficient, ineffective, or inept, than elections or government bureaucrats can.
Most bureaucrats are sheltered from the results of elections and are shielded by the coercive power of the government itself, which is one reason they are typically so complacent. They are also subsidized by a government that is charged with the power to tax, which has become the power to confiscate property arbitrarily. Without fear of job termination or the pressure of competing in a market for customers, it is easy for a human being to become lax in his job and dismissive of others.
Another proper sphere of government is the maintenance of law and order. The court system is the proper venue to try individual cases and redress the harm of particular individuals. When the government intervenes to prevent harm from ever happening to anyone through regulations, it can impose heavy burdens on society. The random occurrences of misfortune or the happenstance of some individuals harming other individuals is a condition of human existence that can be used as a pretext for oppressive systemic regulations in the name of "safety." The level of precautions the government can impose on society is virtually endless; this is how the government takes the mandate of providing "safety"or "security" and uses it to penetrate every sphere of human life.
Related to the provision of safety is the issue of government as an insurer. The government now insures bank deposits, mortgages, and now intends to insure health. Just like the government's insurance of mortgages led to rampant risk-taking in investments, and eventually to a crash, the government insurance of health will lead to a disregard for one's health, an incalculable demand for health services, subsequent rationing, and calls for restrictions of liberty such as eliminating food choices, the types of transportation one can use (due to emissions and "air quality"), and so forth. The amount of intervention the government can justify using the premise of providing healthcare, and even more insidiously, preventing health problems, is limited only by a politician's imagination.
What is the recourse for the citizen who desires public services, given a world where the government is relegated to the sole status of an institution of coercion to enforce laws and provide protection? The answer is spontaneous self-organization to address local interests and to solve local problems.
One of the founders of the nation, Benjamin Franklin, is the paragon of this approach to satisfying social wants and desires. Public libraries were started by Franklin as a voluntary book exchange in Philadelphia for those who desired to put their books to good use and to acquire new knowledge and literary tastes. Eventually he commissioned the pooling of resources to found a subscription library. Franklin organized a postal service, the cleaning of roads, insurance against fire loss, and fire fighting. These services did not need to be mandated by a central government along with the confiscation of property to pay for them. There was no "public good" except what particular people in a particular locality ascertained them to be. Self-interested men and women organized these services themselves without the need for public coercion, given that they are living human beings cognizant of their own needs.
Over time, the pressure on the nation to incorporate and harmonize led to the construction of large national works projects; the subsidization of agriculture, transportation, and communications companies; the obliteration of state's rights; the increase in the federal government's power of taxation and power of the purse, which it uses to manipulate states and localities; and the growth of government for the sake of growing government. Government has become an industry unto itself, and is not only leading to inefficiency and waste economically, for reasons above-stated, it has begun to dictate to us what our wants and needs are, and to take on spheres of responsibility that are not only outside of its proper purview, but by their very nature are beyond the ability of the government to control. Every individual's health cannot be preserved by government, despite the imploring tones of the proponents of a single, inescapable healthcare system. All animal species cannot be saved from extinction by virtue of our simply caring about them. And the climate cannot be modulated, not only because of its vast complexity, but because we simply lack the power to affect climate, let alone prevent it from changing.
The effect of allowing government to impede on our ability as citizens to self-organize to address our own wants and needs is a decline in the greatness of the nation by necessity. A great nation must be composed of great men; one cannot have a passive, apathetic, demanding citizenry insistent on entitlements without a corresponding offset in the productivity of the working class to provide for them, at the opportunity cost of taxes, overhead administration, lost man-hours that could be better spent by people actually providing for themselves. The best and most efficient government is the one where the people govern themselves.
Let us finally draw on Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America as a call to us citizens to consider the absolutely crucial matter of the nature and role of government, for it guides our thinking on what we should ask of it, and what we can expect from it.
When the opponents of democracy assert that a single individual performs the duties which he undertakes much better than the government of the community, it appears to me that they are perfectly right. The government of an individual, supposing an equality of instruction on either side, is more consistent, more persevering, and more accurate than that of a multitude, and it is much better qualified judiciously to discriminate the characters of the men it employs. If any deny what I advance, they have certainly never seen a democratic government, or have formed their opinion upon very partial evidence. It is true that even when local circumstances and the disposition of the people allow democratic institutions to subsist, they never display a regular and methodical system of government. Democratic liberty is far from accomplishing all the projects it undertakes, with the skill of an adroit despotism. It frequently abandons them before they have borne their fruits, or risks them when the consequences may prove dangerous; but in the end it produces more than any absolute government, and if it do fewer things well, it does a greater number of things. Under its sway the transactions of the public administration are not nearly so important as what is done by private exertion. Democracy does not confer the most skilful kind of government upon the people, but it produces that which the most skilful governments are frequently unable to awaken, namely, an all-pervading and restless activity, a superabundant force, and an energy which is inseparable from it, and which may, under favorable circumstances, beget the most amazing benefits. These are the true advantages of democracy.
In the present age, when the destinies of Christendom seem to be in suspense, some hasten to assail democracy as its foe whilst it is yet in its early growth; and others are ready with their vows of adoration for this new deity which is springing forth from chaos: but both parties are very imperfectly acquainted with the object of their hatred or of their desires; they strike in the dark, and distribute their blows by mere chance.
We must first understand what the purport of society and the aim of government is held to be. If it be your intention to confer a certain elevation upon the human mind, and to teach it to regard the things of this world with generous feelings, to inspire men with a scorn of mere temporal advantage, to give birth to living convictions, and to keep alive the spirit of honorable devotedness; if you hold it to be a good thing to refine the habits, to embellish the manners, to cultivate the arts of a nation, and to promote the love of poetry, of beauty, and of renown; if you would constitute a people not unfitted to act with power upon all other nations, nor unprepared for those high enterprises which, whatever be the result of its efforts, will leave a name forever famous in time – if you believe such to be the principal object of society, you must avoid the government of democracy, which would be a very uncertain guide to the end you have in view.
But if you hold it to be expedient to divert the moral and intellectual activity of man to the production of comfort, and to the acquirement of the necessaries of life; if a clear understanding be more profitable to man than genius; if your object be not to stimulate the virtues of heroism, but to create habits of peace; if you had rather witness vices than crimes and are content to meet with fewer noble deeds, provided offences be diminished in the same proportion; if, instead of living in the midst of a brilliant state of society, you are contented to have prosperity around you; if, in short, you are of opinion that the principal object of a Government is not to confer the greatest possible share of power and of glory upon the body of the nation, but to ensure the greatest degree of enjoyment and the least degree of misery to each of the individuals who compose it – if such be your desires, you can have no surer means of satisfying them than by equalizing the conditions of men, and establishing democratic institutions.
But if the time be passed at which such a choice was possible, and if some superhuman power impel us towards one or the other of these two governments without consulting our wishes, let us at least endeavor to make the best of that which is allotted to us; and let us so inquire into its good and its evil propensities as to be able to foster the former and repress the latter to the utmost.