Role of Limited Government
in a Free Society

by Douglas Dunn

Copyright (c) 1998, 2004, 2013 Douglas Dunn / Word Wizards communications -- all rights reserved

Role of Limited Government in a Free Society
Index: Proactive/Reactive | Economic Regulation | Middle-Ground | Public/Private

Too often, we hear the differences between self-described progressives or conservatives as being a choice between more government or less government. The issue is not more government or less government. The issue is good government -- big enough to address the legitimate public policy issues that maintain public order, protect individuals and address shared needs of the community, while simultaneously respecting and protecting the privacy and individuality of our personal choices and lifestyles as individuals.

There are some who would demand "smaller government" and demand that government "get off the backs" of corporations and businesses and look the other way when they want to run roughshod over the rights of workers, consumers or cause damage to our shared environment or infrastructure. Yet many of these same people also call on the government to micromanage some of the most personal, intimate decisions of our private lives.

In contrast, there are those who do not want to see Big Intrusive Government (BIG) stick its public nose into private relationships (dictate who you can or can’t marry), private medical choices (reproduction, medical marijuana, end of life choices, stem cell therapies) or try to force religion (private) into the public square (socialized religion), or intrude in legitimate free-market comercial or business choices within a protective framework to ensure the rights of workers, consumers and to protect our shared infrastructure and environment.

Most of us can agree that there is a need for "we the people" to come together as "government" through our elected representatives (in a system designed to ensure that such representatives are chosen by real people and not bought off by corporate or other special interests) to address issues that affect the community as a whole, beyond what we are able to address privately or as individuals: matters of emergency disaster response, infrastructure, public order (both proactive [preventive] and reactive [solving problems after they occur]), and protecting the equality of opportunity for all citizens and protecting the interests of the powerless from being dominated by the powerful -- to protect consumers, workers, the disadvantaged, the marginalized and our shared environment from threats both domestic (via law enforcement and both our criminal and civil judicial systems) or foreign (via our brave military heroes). Oh, and many who hold such views would also agree that public policy also includes public health and safety, including health care as public policy, not for the profits of private corporations.

The key is the "balance between the extremes" -- government that is big enough to play its rightful role, but not so big it intrudes into matters of personal lifestyle preference.

When Hillary Clinton titled her best-selling book about protecting the interests of children "It Takes A Village," citing the words from an African proverb, she was immediately criticized by those who alleged that she was undermining the role of the family and transferring it to the government.

In reality, there is no contradiction between saying that "it takes a village to raise a child" and also asserting that raising children is not only a right but a responsibility of parents.

The family is primary and paramount. The "village" cannot take over the role of a functioning, helpful family. But what happens when families abdicate their responsibilities because they cannot or will not fulfill their appointed role? What about situations of child neglect or abandonment? Child abuse? Children who grow up with exposure to gangs, drugs, crime, violence and other conditions of endangerment?

If these conditions are allowed to fester in a child's life, it is the village that is going to become the victim when this child grows up and predictably follows a life of crime and destruction. If the village is going to pay the price for these problems, then the village damn well has an interest in preventing them.

In fact, it is the role of families to raise children. But families live in villages. And when the acts or omissions of families, and the people who live in them, cause an increase in public problems and increased social disorder, then the issue does become a public issue.

Jump to: Economic Regulation | Middle-Ground | Public/Private
Proactive or Reactive?
Once it becomes clear that the village does have a secondary, backup role when the family fails in its role, the question becomes one of how the village will carry out that role.

There are some who, in the name of "limited government," would assert that public policy should be minimal. They would assert that the government should do little, and merely intervene to settle disputes and maintain the public order -- i.e., arrest people who harm others or disturb the peace and remove them from society.

But is that really the least intrusive form of government, to wait until problems occur and then react to them with the full force and fury of government police power?

I would agree that the appropriate role of a "limited" government in a free society is to settle disputes and maintain the public order. The government does not have any business intruding into people's personal lives or any behavior or belief that does not affect other people absent their free and voluntary consent.

But I would not subscribe to the patently ridiculous idea that the only way to settle disputes and maintain order is to wait for problems and then react to them. If we agree that families should raise children and villages are only emergency backups, then we must agree that it is far less intrusive and oppressive to have public policies that are supportive of families and which proactively prevent problems from arising in the first place than to clean up the mess after tragedy has already struck.

Those who support a philosophy of "rugged individualism" would tell the victims of prejudice, abusive family environments, urban blight or natural disasters, "Too bad-- you're on your own," and deal with the resulting disorder reactively through the intimidating power of police, courts and jails.

Those who take a more proactive approach support such reactive measures, but only as a last resort. The first effort should be through effective public policy strategies to bolster education, job training, job development job placement and support services to help families become self-sufficient, including early childhood intervention, fully-funded Head Start programs, and ongoing activities for at-risk youths to provide alternatives to drugs and gangs as well as providing aid to help those afflicted by special problems such as physical or mental disabilities, natural disasters and other unexpected conditions before those situations escalate out of their purely personal experience to the point where they cause disruptive public disorder.

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Economic Regulation
In matters of economic regulation, the same principle applies. Individuals should be wholly free to make personal economic decisions, and government regulation should afford the least possible intrusion in protecting the public safety and order.

To some, this means a "hands-off" approach to government regulation of private business. They point to the time of Thomas Jefferson, who said, "That government is best which governs least."

In Thomas Jefferson's time, small government was appropriate in his small, decentralized agrarian society. When Jefferson was inaugurated in 1801, most people worked on farms. Cities as we know them today, and the complexity and technological interdependence of large urban systems simply did not exist.

In 1801, the largest city in the U.S. was New York, with a population of only 60,000; the second largest was Philadelphia with 30,000. They were called "cities" but by today's standards they were barely small towns. Please remember that in those days there was not the infrastructure, communications or technology to produce food on the farms, preserve (refrigerate) it and transport it to complex shopping centers. What were called "cities" weren't capable of sustaining large populations except in rare cases, where massive resources were marshaled to allow the existence of rare large cities such as London, Paris or Rome. Labor was needed on farms to produce food, which had to be delivered to the cities before it went bad. In Jefferson's time, most people had to live on or near the farms. Workers and employers knew each other. They all lived in the same small town and, because of limited mobility, often stayed in the same place for generations. There was less chance of workers being exploited by people whose family ties went way back, and less need for formal regulations. Their customers were fellow townsfolk. Consumer protection laws were unnecessary among neighbors. Complex government was not necessary, just as complex government is not needed on "Survivor Island" where there are a few people who can deal with simple issues simply and informally.

Similarly, there were no drugs and medicines or issues of industrial production or technology to deal with (the industrial revolution wouldn't come to the U.S. until the middle of the 19th century). People could go to the neighborhood grocer, who they knew personally, examine the produce and decide if it was a fair deal. People produced for and bought from other people they knew. With the advent of mechanized urban industrial production and technology, people produce for and buy from strangers, who may live in different continents. Consumers do not have the ability to look at a medicine, a processed food or a computer chip and determine if it is a good deal or even if it is what it says it is.

The evolution of modern cities on a widespread scale required advances in mass production, technology, electric power, transportation and mass communications. High-tech manufacturing and production methods not only made urbanization possible, but also changed the ways in which people interact.

Increased urban congestion brought new community problems which required solutions from the community, through representative government. Infrastructure was needed for transportation and communication. Technology allowed for mass production of goods, preservation of food and transportation to get products to market before they went bad. Protection for workers, consumers and the environment became a public policy issue. Urban congestion increased problems of law and order far beyond agrarian experience, and required increased law enforcement along with strategies to prevent such problems, including universal education, family services, and regulation of an interdependent economy. While conservatives criticize government spending on social programs, cutbacks in such preventive strategies have made crime and social problems worse, not better. Emphasis on law enforcement, courts and jails closes the barn after the horse is already out.

Today, we have issues of urban congestion that the people living in those small towns could only dream of (although they had visited London and Paris, where the industrial revolution had an earlier start, and which already had populations of hundreds of thousands). We offer today public education, law enforcement for urban problems, and proactive (front-end) social programs to reduce the need for reactive (back-end) police action.

Jefferson had two guiding principles: support for the common man and minimalist government. In his time he was right to see them as working together. We cannot guess what Jefferson would have done if he could have been transported in time to the development of the industrial revolution. Would he have stuck with his "hands off" belief in limited government? Or would he have supported protecting the working people and consumers with proactive strategies for preventing conditions from becoming issues of public order and safety? It is my opinion that his concern for the common man would have included consumers and factory workers and that he would have been leading the way to develop public policy that addresses public issues on a scope that simply didn't exist in his time.

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Middle-Ground Success
America has become the world's greatest social and economic success story because it has chosen to take the middle course between the extremes -- a balance that integrates both the individual and community aspects of human nature.

While left-wing Communists and Socialists want the "community" aspect to dominate, including ownership and operation of the means of production, and right-wing economic anarchists want "rugged individualism" to dominate as they dismantle the community's regulatory protections, the American success story has been built on a vigorous free-market capitalism with reasonable controls against excesses in either direction.

American moderates recognize the proven success of free-market capitalism and seek to enhance the "invisible hand." Just as conservatives know that sexual energy is the creative wellspring of all life, yet recognize the need for prudent limits in its exercise, so also moderate restraints in the unbridled excesses of raw capitalism enhance the economic life-energy of market forces. As a small business owner myself, and a strong supporter of free-market entrepreneurship, I both appreciate the contributions of the private sector and can accept the reasonable restraint imposed to protect legitimate public interests.

The balanced, middle-road approach preserves the right of private businesses to own and operate productive resources, and make whatever economic decisions and choices about business strategies they want ... as long as they do so within a minimal framework of regulations that says they can do whatever they want as long as they do not harm workers, consumers or the environment.

Without a framework of regulations, you would have no freedom to drive your car and get where you want to go, because the roadways would be so chaotic. Without a framework of regulations, it would be impossible to play any organized sporting event: rules and boundaries do not restrict the options for strategy and creativity and freedom to choose game plans for sports, they are what make it possible. Similarly, a properly balanced economic framework -- a regulated free market -- is what provides the strongest range of economic freedoms and choices.

There are some who complain that our nation is over-regulated. While examples of regulatory excess can certainly be found, and should be vigilantly guarded against, in fact it is often those who have enjoyed the greatest success in our regulated free market who are complaining the most! Those who complain most about government regulation generally suggest that the private sector is a better alternative. Yet the private sector as represented by corporate bureaucracy also abounds with examples of fraud, waste and mismanagement, which is why the comic strip "Dilbert," with all its satirical exaggeraions, strikes such a deep chord of responsiveness with American workers. To a great extent, the problem is not the dichotomy between public and private sectors, but that size itself often leads to bloat and inefficiency. We need the contributions of both public and private sectors and, in both, we need to remain vigilant against that which is counterproductive.

Economic regulations were instituted for a reason -- they were needed to protect workers and consumers and to get us out of cycles of recessions and depressions. While we need to guard against silly rules, it would be a big mistake to return to the days of an unregulated free market, without the protections for those who need it or, even worse, to privatize public policy matters such as public safety, education and (some would argue) health care. Well-intentioned efforts to deregulate the banking industry brought on one of the greatest financial emergencies in recent decades. Efforts to deregulate (or privatize) public utilities such as electricity and natural gas have seen supplies dwindle and prices (and private sector profits) skyrocket. Efforts to privatize public school initiatives (after years of cutting back classroom funds and then making accusations of "failed schools") are being touted that would just take money out of the public school system, weakening it even further, and move it into the arena of private sector profits without accountability as to teaching credentials, salaries, curricula and other safeguards that public schools must be responsive to.

In reality, things in the good ol' U.S.A. aren't so bad. Look around. We have problems, and we need to do better, but on the whole we live in the most peaceful and prosperous society on earth. Real "big government" is what they have in Cuba, China, Iran, Iraq and the old Soviet Union -- where the government does own and operate the economy and make decisions that affect people's daily lives. We see the opposite in India, Mexico or the Philippines: weak governments do not impose standardized regulations, and there is widespread poverty amidst a narrow concentration of wealth, environmental disasters, and neighborhoods where anyone can move in and open up a chemical plant next door to your house. Our country offers a free-enterprise system where people like me can own small businesses and make our own economic decisions, within a framework of rules to protect the rights of others.

Libertarian Harry Browne wrote a book called, "Why Government Doesn't Work." Is he somehow suggesting that corporate America is free of waste, fraud, or inefficiency? Has he ever read any of the "Dilbert" cartoons? While admittedly exaggerated, the humor resonates because it rings true with those who have confronted the silliness and bureaucracy of any large institutions. Just as in the private sector, the public sector also has its excesses and flaws that need to be identified and rooted out. Our nation is great but can be even better! But that has not prevented our regulated system of free enterprise from becoming the greatest economic powerhouse in all the world. To the negativist detractors I would ask: If America -- the greatest success story in the history of the planet -- is such a failure, why is "immigration" such a big problem? While most people remain content to stay in their own homelands, why are there so many others trying so hard to leave their homes and come here?

Jump to: Proactive/Reactive | Economic Regulation | Middle-Ground
Public vs. Private
The government should stay out of purely private personal matters such as individual religious beliefs (and rituals or practices that do not infringe the equal rights of others) or choices about lifestyle and sexuality that do not infringe the rights of voluntary, consensual partners.

There are some in our country who would like the government to regulate private choices, such as regulating sexual morals or telling imposing public policies about prayer or worship in public settings, yet want the government "off our backs" regarding matters of public policy such as the economy, how employers can treat their workers, and protecting consumers from industrial harm.

Copyright (c) 1998, 2004, 2013 Douglas Dunn / Word Wizards communications

Index: Proactive/Reactive | Economic Regulation | Middle-Ground | Public/Private

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