Legitimate Purposes of Government

“Big government” is a popular bogeyman of the conservatives. Over the past 100 years or so, they have developed and perfected a rather elaborate ideology of “limited government”. They purport to base this on the thinking of Jefferson and others, dressing their ideology up in the language of “liberty”. Of course, the “liberty” they speak of is rather limited. It is the “liberty” of the businessman to maximize his profits – heedless of any larger social, economic or environmental consequences of his actions. In other areas of “liberty”, conservatives are rather less generous.

And of course, the conservative denies that any so-called “private” social or economic arrangements can be coercive. They deny disparities in freedom itself, depending on one’s economic conditions. They assert a curious faith that a propertyless, semi-literate resident of the inner city is just as “free” as the descendants of Prescott Bush. But of course, the “liberty” the conservative is talking about, is the “liberty” to defend one’s social position and privilege. Democratic government has an unfortunate tendency to empower the non-privileged, enabling them to mount a more credible challenge to the position of elites.

Indeed, that was precisely the promise of democracy. Democracy is inherently antagonistic to class and privilege. Because government in the hands of the whole of the people will inevitably establish laws, infrastructure like public education, and other institutions that prevent the dominance of elites. A telling example of this was Lyndon Johnson’s priority for civil rights legislation. In Johnson’s mind, voting rights were more important than the civil rights act. Johnson reasoned that insuring the voting rights of African-Americans would cause Strom Thurmond to “kiss every black ass in South Carolina.”

That same recognition no doubt accounts for southern resistance to black voting rights. Conservatives in general, have likewise figured out the threat posed by democracy to the position of elites. So they have developed an interpretation of the US constitution and of “limited government” in general in order to limit the power of the majority of the people to prevent abuses by economic elites. Thus, they focus on the “republican” nature of American government. They speak of the “tyranny of the majority” as being a primary purpose of the limitations contained in the U.S. constitution. Indeed, to hear the conservatives tell it, those limitations on the “tyranny of the majority” were specifically intended to protect the interests of the wealthy.

Such an interpretation would probably surprise Jefferson. As I have already pointed out elsewhere, Jefferson and his fellows were much more concerned about the oppression and inequality of the European social class structure, than they possibly could have been about the “tyranny” of democratic government. Such democratic government barely existed in 1776 – or 1787 for that matter. In fact, a number of Jefferson’s writings suggest a concern about the potential for great wealth to become an “abuse of natural right.”

Jefferson was very likely much more concerned about the power of a majority to tyrannize a weak, poor and defenseless minority. But this kind of minority is precisely the kind of minority conservatives care the least about. It is conservatives, after all, who join with southern white supremacists in decrying federal government “tyranny” in enforcing civil rights and voting rights legislation in the south. Indeed, Southern politicians specialized in decrying “tyranny of the majority” at the federal level – even as they practiced “tyranny of the majority” in their own states. In the mind of some southern racists [I’m southern, and I’ll lecture my misguided southern brothers, if I want to] “liberty” is the liberty to impose tyranny.

Instead, the conservative thinks of “liberty” as meaning protection of the “rights” of elites from the “mob”. He thinks of liberty in precisely the same terms the feudal nobility thought of it. “Liberty” under the Magna Carta, was the freedom of the barons to oppress their serfs. In modern terms, it is the “liberty” of corporations to exploit their employees – until they can find some third world coulees, who don’t demand things like running water.

Now some people would argue – persuasively – that if the United States Constitution allows anything, it allows the government to make laws and commit resources to promote economic prosperity in the country. What else are we to make of the powers delegated to the Congress, almost of which are related in some way to economics and commerce. Congress has the right to coin money, to establish post roads and other communication and transportation infrastructure, to build a navy – whose traditional purpose has always been to protect commercial shipping interests – to regulate bankruptcy, and of course to “regulate” interstate and foreign commerce. While the “general welfare” clause has been limited with respect to the power of congress to regulate, it has been interpreted to permit almost any expenditure of public money for infrastructure and other purposes.

Pursuant to this power, the Congress has built canals, levees, dams, railroads, highways, air traffic control systems, launched communications satellites. It has subsidized research and development into improvements to agriculture and scientific research of every kind imaginable. It has subsidized research and development into road surfacing materials, communication devices, airplanes, jet propulsion, radar, semi-conductors, computers, and the internet. Expenditures by the federal government into infrastructure and protection for American Industry go all the way back the Washington administration. So all of this infrastructure – for the purpose of promoting and encouraging commerce and prosperity are legitimate functions of government, right?

Not according to the conservatives. Some conservative extremists claim that the only legitimate function of government is to enforce contracts and property rights. Absolutely every other form of economic infrastructure should be provided by “the private sector”. According to these extremists, the purpose of government is to reinforce the private economic power of individuals – and to do nothing that might threaten or diminish that private power. How else to describe such a vision of government except with the word “feudalism”.

While there are certainly plenty of conservatives who will allow for rather more government, they all share a common interest in seeing the government work for the interests of private fortunes – and rarely, if ever, for the interests of anyone else. Their vision of “less government” exactly mirrors their general social philosophy that life is a ruthless competition, a race with “winners” and “losers”. The government’s job is to “stay out of the way” while the ruthlessly competitive enslave everyone around them. Then the government’s job is to enforce the existing social order, guaranteeing the privileges of the winners, and enforcing the obligations of the “losers”.

This is the vision of government you must refute. You establish – as a matter of “principle” – that government exists for the benefit of all of the people. That government has many legitimate functions – including specifically the creation of economic infrastructure. That government may impose many legitimate regulations on economic activity, particularly those regulations that promote and improve commerce. Finally, you must establish that the government – as a representative of the people at large – has a legitimate interest in preventing huge concentrations of private power and huge disparities in bargaining power among private citizens. Such concentrations and disparities are detrimental to the overall prosperity – read that “general welfare” – of society as a whole.

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