Monday, October 27, 2008

The role of a government

An essay (перевод на русс. — здесь) by Claude Frédéric Bastiat (1801–1850) about the purpose of the government (eloquently described by Thomas Jefferson before, in the Declaration of Independence) and dangers of government’s abuse of its powers — done not through obvious oppressive tyranny but through gradual, stealthy increase of its “responsibilities” and involvement in private individuals’ decision-making. An excerpt from the introduction:
Bastiat believed that all human beings possessed the G-d–given, natural rights of “individuality, liberty, property.” “This is man,” he wrote. These “three gifts from G-d precede all human legislation.” But even in his time—writing in the late 1840s—Bastiat was alarmed over how the law had been “perverted” into an instrument of what he called legal plunder. […]

The great French champion of liberty also forecast the corruption of education by the state. Those who held “government-endowed teaching positions,” he wrote, would rarely criticize legal plunder lest their government endowments be ended. [Is it any wonder that their students are brainwashed and consider any alternative opinion evil and immoral? — A.]

The system of legal plunder would also greatly exaggerate the importance of politics in society. That would be a most unhealthy development as it would encourage even more citizens to seek to improve their own well-being not by producing goods and services for the marketplace but by plundering their fellow citizens through politics.
Forget the introduction, however. I just read the first five pages of the essay itself, and I want to quote nearly everything (see the end of the post for a short quote). So, click the link above, skip to the beginning of the essay and start reading — the language is sweet, and the reason is clear.

* * *

The idea that governments must be actively involved in the free life of citizens is extremely pervasive. Most people believe that without the government manipulating something all the time, there would be no progress of civilization. When something goes wrong, people ask, “Why doesn’t the government do something?” The government officials themselves see a need to be constantly regulating and monitoring something — otherwise, people who have elected them will think they are slacking off. It reminds me of Seinfeld’s George Costanza who needed to look annoyed, concerned and busy all the time to make his boss think he is doing something.

Indeed, the word itself, “government”, suggests that its role is to constantly “govern”, direct progress. Yet, an intelligent and educated student of history immediately recognizes that the majority of developments leading to progress and improvement in standard of living were done through private efforts of free enterprise (≡ striving for success) and personal innovation, not through some wise Central Committee’s “governing”.

What government is necessary for is protection of one’s rights, and when a situation exists in the society when one group or individual violates another group’s or individual’s rights, the government must step in. The government is that boundary that separates freedom from chaos. Anything more leads to reduction of freedom, progress, prosperity, and all the virtuous goals that proponents of strong, big, regulationist, centralized government espouse. When the government oversteps limitations of its responsibilities (something which, according to Obama, it has not done enough), it does exactly what it was designed to prevent — violation of the rights of one group for the benefit of another. Except, it harms the other group in the process as well.

According to Pirkei Avos (3:2), “Rabbi Chanina, the deputy of the Kohanim, said: ‘Pray for the welfare of the government. If it were not for the fear of the government, each man would eat his neighbor alive!’” That’s it. He did not say: “If it were not for the government, all progress and improvement of welfare would stop”.

Nor does this refer to a free-market situation, where rich exploit the poor, but for the fear of government’s intervention. In a free market, people come to an exchange of goods and services that benefits them maximally, according to their mutual agreement. If a situation exists, in which one party does not maximize interests of another (without hurting its own), a competitor will arise that will do so, drawing business, capital and market influence from the “exploiter”.

A free-market society, then, acts as a self-regulating eco-system, where energy is drawn to the area, where its use can be maximized for everyone’s benefit. The Theory of Evolution states as much: one does not need a centralized controller for progress to happen. (Of course, somebody needs to allow the laws of Nature themselves to exist, and this “somebody” is but hidden in the ecosystem — but, that’s another story. In economics, just as in — lehavdil — Halacha, one must look at the revealed aspect.)

In the case of Torah-based theocratic society, the situation is different: a government is necessary for interpretation of Oral Law to fit the needs of the changing times — yet, the authority to do is given directly by G-d. The authority of secular government, on the other hand, is vested in the rights its people delegated to it, and no person can delegate to the government a right to rob another citizen on his behalf; he doesn’t have such a right a priori. Or, to quote Bastiat:

It is not because men have made laws, that personality, liberty, and property exist. On the contrary, it is because personality, liberty, and property exist beforehand, that men make laws. What, then, is law? As I have said elsewhere, it is the collective organization of the individual right to lawful defense.

Nature, or rather G-d, has bestowed upon every one of us the right to defend his person, his liberty, and his property, since these are the three constituent or preserving elements of life; elements, each of which is rendered complete by the others, and that cannot be understood without them. For what are our faculties, but the extension of our personality? and what is property, but an extension of our faculties?

If every man has the right of defending, even by force, his person, his liberty, and his property, a number of men have the right to combine together to extend, to organize a common force to provide regularly for this defense. Collective right, then, has its principle, its reason for existing, its lawfulness, in individual right; and the common force cannot rationally have any other end, or any other mission, than that of the isolated forces for which it is substituted. Thus, as the force of an individual cannot lawfully touch the person, the liberty, or the property of another individual — for the same reason, the common force cannot lawfully be used to destroy the person, the liberty, or the property of individuals or of classes.

For this perversion of force would be, in one case as in the other, in contradiction to our premises. For who will dare to say that force has been given to us, not to defend our rights, but to annihilate the equal rights of our brethren? And if this be not true of every individual force, acting independently, how can it be true of the collective force, which is only the organized union of isolated forces?

Nothing, therefore, can be more evident than this: The law is the organization of the natural right of lawful defense; it is the substitution of collective for individual forces, for the purpose of acting in the sphere in which they have a right to act, of doing what they have a right to do, to secure persons, liberties, and properties, and to maintain each in its right, so as to cause justice to reign over all.

And if a people established upon this basis were to exist, it seems to me that order would prevail among them in their acts as well as in their ideas. It seems to me that such a people would have the most simple, the most economical, the least oppressive, the least to be felt, the most restrained, the most just, and, consequently, the most stable Government that could be imagined, whatever its political form might be.

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