Sunday, June 26, 2011

Defining Government

Now that we have a basic understanding of good and bad, it's time we turn our attention to government. What is government? Why do we need it? What should government have control over?

Looking up the word "governmnet" in a dictionary actually yields very little in the way of a definition. To understand what government is, we have to understand why we want/need it. Based on what we know about morality, and in particular about when it is moral to take immoral action, it should be at least intuitive if not obvious that the role of government is to protect us from the force of others, since the force of others infringes on the choices we can make in order to protect our own life. We know that force is the only way that force can be met, so we can define government as a monopoly on force.

When we create a government, we are creating a body that has the absolute jurisdiction in the realm of force. We are choosing to put limits on our ability to take forceful action against others in the hopes that the threat of force from this larger, stronger body; government; will provide a deterrent against other people taking forceful action against us. Feudalism came about as a result of people afraid for their lives seeking the protection of nobles with money, and so to has every government come about as a means of protection from threats. These threats can come from individuals within your clan as well as from outside your clan, so government must have the capacity to protect against both.

It would seem that giving a government absolute jurisdiction over the use of force would be counterproductive or maybe paradoxical, since force is exactly what you want to avoid, and in a world where there is only one government, where you have no choice as to what government you want to live under, this may be true. In the modern world, however, you do have choice. You have the capacity to choose what system of force you would like to live under, which in the long run creates competition between countries for citizens. And if there are no moral governments in the world, you have the right to band together and create one, like Americans did with the Revolutionary War.

So yes, the government is allowed to force you to pay your taxes by point of the gun, because you are choosing to live in the United States under the tax laws we have established here. If you don't like it, you can change it or leave. Me personally, I prefer to stay and pay taxes, although if our taxes went up to 60% or something like that, I may need to reevaluate. The government needs to collect taxes, because this is how it pays for itself, how it is able to create a monopoly on force that is stronger than any individual.

Protecting us from direct threats to our life is not the only role of government. Government also needs to protect us from indirect threats to our life, namely, threats to our ability to choose, and threats from others who are morally justified in taking immoral action, like the guy who takes a hospital hostage in order to get his son a heart transplant. It does this by mitigating externalities. In other words, government manipulates incentive structures in order to encourage positive externalities and discourage negative externalities. Externalities can come in the form of people driving drunk and hurting people driving sober, which may require cops out on weekends to catch drunk drivers, or nuclear waste from a power plant, which require regulation around their disposal to prevent nearby towns from getting sick. Where regulation is required, taxes on those goods and services need to be levied to pay for that regulation.

There are some cases in which the only way to mitigate the externalities properly is with the deterrent of the threat of force. This is where laws come in. Since it is impossible to put a price on life, murder is one example of this. However, when a law does more harm than good, i.e. costs more than its benefit (drug laws for example), this is an immoral law. Most things that are illegal today should probably be legal but regulated, which is why we so badly need Amendment #28.

Occasionally though, there are things that are so essential to life that not giving them away for free to the people who cannot afford them can create a situation in which that person becomes ethically justified in taking immoral action. In these cases, the only way to protect its citizens from the use of force is to cover the costs. I'll talk more about this in the future.

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