I suggest that the proper role of government
is to do three things:
- protect human life
- protect liberty
- protect individuals' freedom to pursue happiness
This suggestion is not new; it comes from the second and third sentences of the U.S. Declaration of Independence
. This fact does not make it correct, but hopefully mentioning it will give critics enough pause to consider the idea. What, then, does make them true? Trying to answer this question opens a huge can of worms, but there's no help for it if we want an answer. Let's dive in.
By "human life", I refer to the capacity for sentience
. This begins at some point after conception (at which time humans do not have brains) and it must end at brain death
(which may precede the death of other bodily tissues). By "liberty", I mean a state of affairs in which no one suffers an arbitrary or unjust threat of violence. By "happiness", I mean the fulfillment of a person's basic human needs
Obviously, human life is a necessary prerequisite to exercising any right (or, for that matter, for doing anything). The right to liberty can be justified by an appeal to fairness; this is something that everyone can have without dispossessing anyone else of the same. My definition of happiness is unusually narrow, but it does have the virtue of being (by definition) necessary.
For these reasons, I argue that the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are the fundamental political goods.
Why is government protection of these rights necessary? I believe that without government protection, human life, liberty and the freedom to pursue happiness cannot be assured. This is essentially a rejection of anarchism
. It seems to me that while an anarchist society is possible, it is also vulnerable to military domination from without. History seems to support this idea (eg anarchist Spain in the early 1900s), although of course a historical tendency is not a proof.
I probably should also mention what I think government is. I agree with Max Weber's description of government as that portion of society which possesses a monopoly on violence. This makes sense; in the end, the only way to enforce laws when people simply will not comply is to use violence against them (i.e. to arrest them).
What sorts of policies do these principles imply? It should go without saying (although unfortunately it doesn't) that if you accept the forgoing, then you must also agree that arresting, torturing and killing people without due process
must lie outside the proper role of government.
What about taxes
, social programs, infrastructure investment, corporate regulations
and gun control
? I argue that these sorts of things would only lie within the proper role of government if
they can be shown to be necessary
for the fulfillment of basic human needs. That's a tall order, but for specific laws it might be possible
What about outlawing things like contraception
or specific sexual techniques? Well... no, because they don't help protect life, liberty or the freedom to pursue happiness. What about imposing stiffer penalties for the motivation
one has for committing a crime? Again no, because that doesn't help protect life, liberty or the freedom to pursue happiness.