The question “What is the point of government?” likely strikes you either as an obvious question or an absurd and pointless question, depending upon your philosophical beliefs. I assume either you think it’s a question always worth asking or a question never worth asking. Count me in the former camp. I believe asking “what is the point of government?” is a question that every generation should ask, because the answer may have changed or improved since the last time a society seriously asked the question. I think it’s bad to just assume all of us know what the point of government is – if government can be said to have a point – especially at a time when longstanding institutions in many liberal democracies are eroding or are under attack from people who think government should be smaller or, increasingly, by those who seek to turn government into a tool to benefit a specific few.
Should Government Exist?
But before we ask “what is the point of government?” there is a deeper, more fundamental question that I, unfortunately, have to ask, “should government exist?” I don’t want to ask this question because I know the answer. Moreover, I know there’s a different answer, that provided by anarchists, which is “No.” Worse, there is a spectrum of answers that consist of “Yes, but only to do X.” I reject both the claim that government shouldn’t exist and government should only exist in a very limited form. So before I try to answer what I think the point of government is in the 21st century, I would like to tell you why I think this question is stupid.
The first reason is a mostly theoretical reason. To my knowledge, this theory has never been adequately tested within the social sciences, in part because it would be rather impossible to test. This theory is the poorly named “Iron Law of Oligarchy”; the idea that any organization will create hierarchical positions of power as a matter of course. In essence, the claim is that any time human beings get together in an organization to achieve a common purpose, that organization will require some form of specialization. In turn, that specialization always creates new power relationships between those who have specialized and those who have not specialized, and between those who have specialized in certain areas and those who have specialized in other areas – these new power relationships are in addition to those which already exist between any human beings. If we view society as a very loose organization, government would be a large area of specialization with many smaller specializations within it.
But the more important reason that it’s stupid to ask whether or not government should exist over and over and over again is that government is a historical fact. The vast majority of organized human societies have had some form of government. (Every organized society I’m aware of which has been suggested as a society which has not had any kind of government has been debunked. But I say “vast majority” because I am not aware of all human societies, of course.) Every agrarian society which has ever existed has had some form of government. Every industrial society which has ever existed has had some form of government. Every post-industrial society which has ever existed has had some form of very large government. Yes, it’s a logical fallacy to decide that just because something has never happened it can never happen, but I prefer to live in the realm of the plausible, not merely the possible. Government is a historical fact. It is a reality that is unavoidable. And it is all the more unavoidable in complicated post-industrial societies in which millions of people reside.
Because government is a historical fact, it’s more important to figure out how it can best serve us than it is writing screeds about how it shouldn’t exist. Right?
Liberal, Representative Democracy is Best… I Mean, Least Bad
In addition to knowing that government is a historical fact, we also know the rough form government should take, and that is liberal representative democracy. By “liberal” I mean a government that has protections against individuals (a “bill of right”) and institutional checks against power (i.e. “checks and balances”). By “democracy” I mean a system in which the people vote. And by “representative” I mean a system in which people vote for leaders instead of directly for legislation or decisions.
We know our society will have leaders. We need a liberal society to prevent those leaders from abusing their power. Without laws and norms to govern society’s leaders, we are relying entirely on the character of those leaders to behave in ways we would prefer. That doesn’t work. (The histories of monarchy, oligarchy and dictatorship are not pretty.) Laws and norms are better than no laws and norms.
We also know that power corrupts. When give the opportunity to do something unethical or immoral but with great personal benefits and few consequences, many if not most people will act unethically, as a certain President is proving at the moment. Laws and norms are all well and good, but if there’s no method for penalizing bad behaviour, there’s no point in the laws and norms. Term limits are better than no lifetime appointments. (This is not true in all cases, as it depends upon the role in government. For example, I would personally argue that too many public officials are elected in the United States.)
Finally, we know that large groups of people often make very poor decisions. Our limited rationality is even more limited when we are strongly influenced by the behaviour of others. (The “Wisdom of Crowds” refers to group knowledge, not group behaviour.) Human beings cannot be trusted to collectively look after individuals or minorities. Representative democracy is better than direct democracy because it’s less likely to punish minorities and individuals. Not unlikely, just less likely. (Everything is imperfect.)
In addition to being the least bad form of government, I think it’s very likely that we will continue to have this form of government in “The West.” It might not feel like it right now, during this nationalist wave, but wholesale changes in the nature of government are really quite rare. In Canada, where, I live, it seems highly unlikely we’d return to a more traditional monarchy, or become a dictatorship. The only potential government change I can see is a climate change-motivated one: a dictatorship or oligarchy due to environmental necessity. I cannot imagine Canada switching forms of government – from a liberal representative democracy to something else – for any other reason (at the moment).
So we know we have to have a government. And we know, roughly, what type of government it should be. Neither of these things tells us what the government should do.
What Should Government Do?
I feel like there are roughly two attitudes towards the purpose of government in North America at the moment:
- the government should do as much as possible
- the government should do as little as possible.
Those are gross simplifications but it feels, to me, as one of the primary divides between so-called progressives and so-called conservatives. Progressives view government as a tool to solve many problems, some of them may even view it as a tool to solve most problems or a majority of problems. Conservatives tend to view government as a hindrance, a nuisance, as a lot of red tape. I don’t find either of these views particularly compelling or helpful, which is one of the reasons I felt compelled to write this piece on a very tired subject.
Those who espouse a minimalist government are living in a fantasy land where they can return to a time when governments were much smaller. Not only would this not be desirable – I can elaborate on why it wouldn’t be desirable in the comments – but I don’t see how it’s possible. Governments are the largest organizations in just about every country in the world. Taking any one of those apart would have all sorts of drastic,unforeseen consequences. Even if it were a real-world possibility. (Why is it impossible? Dismantling an organization that employs thousands or hundreds of thousands or millions of people, depending upon the country, is maybe possible during a war and during societal collapse but laying off thousands of people is never good.) It’s just not something plausible. It shouldn’t be worthy of discussion, despite how much time it occupies in the American news media. (It’s worth noting that, for all the talk of smaller government in the United States, it is only the Trump administration that has seemed to do anything to shrink the actual size of the federal government. And really, they’re doing nothing to increase the size of it, more than anything.)
These government minimalists espouse a version of government that only protects us from physical harm. This view of government, in addition to being entirely unrealistic for the 21st century, is also incredibly unsatisfactory. As a former libertarian, I can tell you that there are theoretical flaws in libertarian philosophy the moment you admit the real world into that philosophy. It’s a philosophy that rejects reality in favour of supposed theoretical elegance. For example, Robert Nozick tells us we’re supposed to be completely satisfied with getting monetary compensation for physical violence committed against us. That shows a profound lack of understanding of how people truly are.
Those who view government as a tool to solve as many problems as possible don’t seem to be aware of history either. They seem to have forgotten the horrible legacy of states which try to run the lives of their citizens, or they dismiss the legacies as specific to particular places or historical moments. But when governments try to do everything or nearly everything, we end up with China or we end up with the USSR, or we end up with Cuba or Venezuela, despite any good intentions – because of those good intentions, in fact. Locating all or most of the power in a society in the state apparatus is very, very dangerous for the people living in that society. The USSR is an extreme case – well, Cambodia is likely the most extreme case – but there is a spectrum of results when society cedes all or most power to the government, and that spectrum is a range of bad options.
I prefer to view government as a fact of human life, especially human life in the 21st century, and the extent of government to also be factual. I.e. I live in Canada which is a “welfare state,” a government in a capitalist economy, somewhere between the minimalist government which only protects my physical person from external threats and a government that runs every aspect of my life. I regard this middle ground as much closer to the ideal. Yes, that’s mostly because this form of government is what I’m used to, and this entire exercise can be criticized as a rationalization of the circumstances I am used to. Hegel went to elaborate lengths to justify the Prussian monarchical welfare state. Rawls went to elaborate lengths to justify the Johnsonian Great Society. How is what I am doing any different?
I cannot prove to you this isn’t just an elaborate rationalization, of course, but I want to claim it isn’t. I think a welfare state is a safe middle ground between extremes of government intervention or the lack thereof. But the form the welfare state takes can be improved. And that is something we can actually change.
Humans famously have a “hierarchy” of needs. It strikes me that governments, especially large, rich governments, should serve those basic needs every human being has before they serve other needs. The original and most famous version of this hierarchy has long been criticized, but I think we can agree on the basics: food, water, shelter and sleep.
As rich societies with “welfare states,” we do a rather terrible job at providing the basic needs for our citizens. People starve to death. There are approximately 200,000 homeless people in Canada – depending upon your definition – a country of about 36 million. That’s a small percentage of the population but it is a lot of actual, real people. As a society, we can afford to provide for these people.
Moreover, there is some evidence that suggests that it’s actually more cost effective to provide basic needs than not to provide them. Emergency services would be cheaper and far less taxed if there were no homeless people, for example. Though I don’t believe in the “government should be efficient” claim, if you do find that line compelling, you should support the government providing basic needs because the provision of those basic needs should make government cheaper in the long run (if we ignore institutional creep).
Morality has no place in government. (This is not to say that there is no place for ethics in government. Trying to have the most ethical government is extremely important.) Morality gets in the way of evidence. The idea that human beings need privation to build character has no basis in fact. We like the idea because it appeals to something innate in us, which is just a bias, something to be overcome, not celebrated. The moral argument against the provision of basic needs – the argument that is most commonly used to claim government shouldn’t provide for these needs – is not based in any reality, it is just a legacy of human fallibility.
The point of government in the 21st century should be to provide the basic needs of all residents, be that food, shelter or physical security. If a government were to actually prioritize these things first – say, a living wage plus emergency services and a small army – it would likely cost a lot less and intervene a lot less than the super state conservatives fear, and it would be more effective at preventing problems than this same super state that some progressives seem to desire. (This role for government ignores the regulatory aspect of government, which is extremely important, but which might be considerably improved if there was less moral monitoring happening.)
We shouldn’t be advocating for smaller government. We shouldn’t be advocating for lower taxes. We shouldn’t be advocating for government provision of private goods in cases where the market is sufficient. Before we do any of that, we should all be able to agree that government provide the basic needs to everyone in our society. It’s better for all of us. And what else would be the point?