Archive for April, 2008

 Wild Kingdom

One of the reasons we bought our house was because of the huge backyard and the creek that runs across our property. We’ve already seen a lot of wildlife out there, including racoons, hawks, and turtles. But now we have one more reason to love the woods behind our house. Despite the proximity to a major highway, there is a small family of deer that has apparently taken up residence there.

 The Long Tail of Government

I’m currently reading Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail. It’s a very interesting book concerning how the internet has changed everything. Not just the number of books or CDs that you can order online, but all of retail economics. Its influence extends to all entertainment media, and, eventually, politics and government. I was struck by this quote in particular on page 64:

“It’s one thing to see a movie or listen to music and think ‘genius’ — that some gifted person and exalted apparatus has put together this unique work of art we appreciate. However, once you know what’s behind the curtain, you being to realize that it could be *you*.”

It is precisely this paradigm shift that will lead to the Second American Revolution. As more and more Americans realize that there is nothing special about our system of government, or, indeed, the individuals that run it, they will become less and less satisfied with its operation and begin to explore the possibilities (all over again) of governing themselves.

Why shouldn’t we? Do we honestly believe that there is “some gifted person” or some “exalted apparatus” that is in control of us all? Many of us do believe this. Many more simply wish that it is true, and try not to think too much about it for fear that we will completely lose faith in our government. But have you ever been to the DMV office? Or your city government? Have you stood in long lines and cursed the inefficiency of those bureaucrats behind the counter? Have you personally witnessed their blatant stupidity and/or rudeness? Where is this gifted person that is supposedly running the show? Is he in the back office, sequestered from the people so that our mediocrity does not dilute his genius? Where is this exalted apparatus? Does it reside in some central office far away from the rabble? Clearly the answer is no. We have precisely the government we deserve. It is horrendous. It is exquisitely inefficient. And it is breathtaking in its scope. But there is a growing number of people out there for whom it is no longer tolerable, and they are capable and talented enough to replace it with other things that work better, or simply just work.

 What is the Purpose of Government?

During an election year, people who would otherwise not be involved are suddenly more in tune with politics. Their thoughts turn to the candidates, and the coverage of their campaigns. They may even engage in debate about the issues of the day. But one issue is seldom ever discussed, and since it forms a foundation for virtually every other political issue, it deserves careful attention: what is the purpose of government?

A candidate or a politician may ask questions like, why can’t our government offer the people a particular service? The answer in most cases is that it certainly can – our government is extremely powerful, after all. But they never bother asking the question of whether or not it should. They don’t ask the question because they don’t want to hear that the answer is usually no. Telling a politician no means taking away some of the good will of their constituents who would have been helped if this particular service were enacted. It means taking away some of their power, and that is not something that most politicians enjoy.

As the abolitionist Wendell Phillips is quoted as saying, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty–power is ever stealing from the many to the few.” Our Constitution was designed to sharply limit the powers of our government to protect our liberties. But without an eternally vigilant populace to constantly ask the government if it should be providing a particular service, ambitious politicians are free to continue slowly increasing the government’s power (and by extension their own), while at the same time slowly eroding our liberties.

So while we are evaluating the candidates this election season, participating in the democratic process that has made our country so unique, it is important for us all to remain vigilant and to view the candidates with skepticism and suspicion. That is not to say that we should all be paranoid. But we also should not be afraid to pointedly ask our candidates, what is the purpose of government? Likewise, they should not be afraid to answer such a question. They may try to avoid it because they simply don’t know the answer. Or they may be afraid that their answer will be different from what we are expecting to hear. In any case, a candidate that avoids answering this question does not deserve our trust.

So what answer should we expect? We need look no further than our very own Declaration of Independence to define the purpose of our government: to secure our unalienable rights. No more, no less. A candidate or politician that is ignorant of this fact, or not in agreement with it, does not deserve our support. Quite the contrary, they deserve our scorn and derision for attempting to take away our liberties in order to make themselves more powerful.

But even more importantly, a candidate must have an understanding of the rights that government is intended to protect. We should be equally wary of a candidate or politician whose aim it is to create new rights for us where previously none existed. Government cannot create rights, and a politician who promises to do so should be the primary target of our eternal vigilance. The purpose of government, and the purpose of the people we elect to represent us, is to protect the things we have, not to give us things we don’t.