Sunday, April 22, 2012

What Should Government Do?

One recurring theme in American History is the question of what a government should do. Implied is also the question of what a government should not do. Senator Barry Goldwater addresses both questions when he writes that

Throughout history, government has proved to be the chief instrument for thwarting man's liberty. Government represents power in the hands of some men to control and regulate the lives of other men. And power, as Lord Acton said, corrupts men. "Absolute power," he added, "corrupts absolutely."

Power, explains Goldwater, need not take away a citizen's freedom. If government is properly limited, it can facilitate person's freedom.

State power, considered in the abstract, need not restrict freedom: but absolute state power always does. The legitimate functions of government are actually conducive to freedom. Maintaining internal order, keeping foreign foes at bay, administering justice, removing obstacles to the free interchange of goods — the exercise of these powers makes it possible for men to follow their chosen pursuits with maximum freedom. But note that the very instrument by which these desirable ends are achieved can be the instrument for achieving undesirable ends — that government can, instead of extending freedom, restrict freedom. And note, secondly, that the "can" quickly becomes "will" the moment the holders of government power are left to their own devices. This is because of the corrupting influence of power, the natural tendency of men who possess some power to take unto themselves more power. The tendency leads eventually to the acquisition of all power — whether in the hands of one or many makes little difference to the freedom of those left on the outside.

These thoughts, written by Senator Goldwater in 1960, echo back to the 1776 drafting of the Declaration of Independence, the 1787 adoption of the Constitution, and the 1789 Bill of Rights. Even further, these thoughts find their antecedents in the late 1600's, when John Locke was writing, and in the year 1215, when the Magna Carta was signed.

The framers of the Constitution had learned the lesson. They were not only students of history, but victims of it: they knew from vivid, personal experience that freedom depends on effective restraints against the accumulation of power in a single authority. And this is what the Constitution is: a system of restraints against the natural tendency of government to expand in the direction of absolutism. We all know the main components of the system. The first is the limitation of the federal government's authority to specific, delegated powers. The second, a corollary of the first, is the reservation to the States and the people of all power not delegated to the federal government. The third is a careful division of the federal government's power among three separate branches. The fourth is a prohibition against impetuous alteration of the system — namely, Article V's tortuous, but wise, amendment procedures.

What some people decry as "gridlock" is in fact a safeguard. It is a good thing that our government can't act quickly and easily, that two political parties can stalemate each other, that a president can veto Congress's action, that Congress can block a president's appointments, and that the Supreme Court can block either of them. If the government is doing nothing, that's the best-case scenario: nothing is often the best it can do.

If we can keep the government snarled in its own procedural difficulties, unable to take decisive actions - then that will keep us safe: a government unable to act is a government unable to take away our freedoms.