An Argument For Government

Think for a moment about a major national issue like the budget deficit. It arises when the federal government spends more than it takes in. Because the cause is so easily identified, it would seem that the problem could just as easily be cured: Reduce spending, raise taxes, or both. But, as everyone knows, problems are not solved that simply in the real world, where such solutions invariably entail costs as well as benefits to specific groups. The elderly do not want Social Security and Medicare, two of the largest items in the budget, cut. But at the same time, nearly all workers oppose higher taxes. Therefore, when it comes to reducing the budget deficit, everyone wants someone else to bear the burden. Former Senator Russell Long of Louisiana reportedly claimed that his constituents always told him, "Don't tax me. Don't tax my friend. Tax the person behind the tree."

And so it is with all public controversies: They are essentially fights over who wins and who loses. Politics is conflict and without conflict there is no politics. Harold Lasswell, an eminent political scientist, perhaps said it best when he defined politics as "who gets what, when, how." Governments exist to regulate conflict; they prevent us from destroying ourselves as we struggle to work out our differences. Thomas Hobbes, a seventeenth-century English philosopher, believed that individuals left to pursue their selfish interests would ultimately destroy one another: a condition he called war of "every man against every man."

In order to escape this chaos, Hobbes argued, people had to surrender their independence to a sovereign power (that is, a government). Even though Hobbes wrote nearly 400 years ago during a period of enormous social and political upheaval, his ideas remain applicable today. Regardless of whether we think government should be large or small, powerful or weak, we can at least agree that some arrangement is needed to manage conflict. Moreover, individuals resort to violence all the time to settle their quarrels. Yet only government has a legal right to do so. Indeed, one might distinguish government from other social institutions by its legitimate monopoly on the use of force to resolve disputes among its subjects or between them and itself. Apart from keeping us from cutting each other's throats, government also has the responsibility to do things that individuals acting on their own could not or would not do for themselves and their communities. In these days of intercontinental ballistic missiles, how can the head of a household alone ensure the family's safety? How can parents using only their wits and muscles educate their children, provide them with parks, playgrounds, schools, and zoos? How can they recruit, train, manage, and pay teachers, fire fighters, postmasters, soldiers, and trash collectors? How, in short, can people construct a viable society unless they cooperate to produce the thousands and thousands of goods and services that they need to lead safe and productive lives? As the example below suggests, government seems both inevitable and desirable.


Like farmers everywhere, planters in Obion County, Tennessee, want to maximize their profits. One of the most profitable crops in the 1970s and 1980s were soybeans, and, attracted by the high prices they brought, farmers abandoned livestock, turned under pasture lands, and planted beans by the thousands of acres, even on hillsides and in marshes, areas normally left uncultivated. Unfortunately, as the farmers in this western Tennessee county discovered to their dismay, what is in an individual's immediate self-interest often leads to collective harm in the long run. Here, the problem was the soybean itself. Its shallow root system breaks up the soil, leaving it vulnerable to wind and water erosion. After years of overplanting the land slowly but inevitably dies, and when it is gone, it profits no one. This phenomenon wreaked havoc in Obion County where each year prime farm land washed down the Mississippi River at the rate of 100 tons per acre. Soil conservationists worried that unless something was done the region would soon turn into a dust bowl. "Unless something was done"--therein lies the farmers' dilemma. Faced, on the one hand, with soaring operating costs and crushing mortgage payments, they find it hard to look beyond this year's crop. On the other hand, the need for conservation is obvious. Garret Hardin called this dilemma "the tragedy of the commons." An individual farmer would prefer to shift the cost of preserving the soil to others by having them plant fewer soybeans thus raising the price and decreasing erosion. But of course all farmers feel this way, and so none of them stops. It is tragic because "each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase [soybean production, for example] without limit--in a world that is limited." The pursuit of private gain, as rational as it may be for an individual, ultimately leads to catastrophe. Is there a solution? Only if individuals give up some of their freedom and act collectively through an agency that has the authority to control at least some of their behavior. A government is just such an agency. The Department of Agriculture, for instance, can require farmers to do things they would not do on their own: hold land out of production, stop planting on hills, rotate crops, plow in contours, and use smaller harvesters. Or it can spend money to reclaim land. Or both. Whatever the case, the goal is to achieve a common objective that is beyond the means and will of the individual farmers to attain.

Government, then, is an instrument of collective action. It helps citizens reach common ends. Although one may disagree about what needs to be done or who should do it, government is frequently the logical, and sometimes the only, choice. Furthermore, once an activity has been placed in the public domain, government, and government alone, has the authority to carry it out with force if necessary. In the language of political science this power has been called the "authoritative allocation of values for a society," but the Preamble to the American Constitution puts it more simply:

We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
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