Friday, March 09, 2007

Who Needs Government?

Kevin Drum reports on the end of the tax revolt which suggests that we can start worrying less about how well our Democratic principals will fare in upcoming elections as we are not wedded to tax cuts at all cost. However, I think that our message still will need a lot of work and that we will remain vulnerable unless we have a more complete and coherent concept of what government should and should not do, what should be taxed and what limits exist on taxation and spending. The message also needs to be one that can be clearly articulated to the general public and then one that does get so articulated. It is my impression that over the past several decades while the Republican assertion that Democrats were in favor of unlimited taxation and spending were completely unfair and false, no one on the Democratic side was able to do a very good job of explaining why they were unfair and false. I'd like to take a stab at the general idea by starting in this post with the titular question, who needs government?

During the past several decades it became a staple of all political arguments that the poor are most desperately in need of government assistance. This has come to be accepted by both the left and the right. Now it is certainly the case that the many programs provided by the government have been a great aid to the poor, many people are much better off today thanks in part to this assistance. It is true that poverty has been greatly reduced via federal aid and that many places enjoy prosperity today that would be quite impoverished in the absence of one form of governmental aid or another. I would argue that for all this benefit the poor are by no means the greatest beneficiary of federal assistance by any economic measure and that is without doubt true over history. For all that the poor have been aided the primary function of government is to provide a general climate of stability and peace in which people can go about there business and in which they may accumulate wealth in safety and security. Government at all levels serves first as a guarantor of the security of one's person and property. Given this, it is now, and has always been, those who accumulate property and wealth in great store who are most in need of government. Without the security that can only be provided by means of some sort of government or other, the accumulation of wealth in any great quantity is impossible. Even if you consider the whole length of human history and the entire surface of the planet you will find no people, no society, no culture who has ever accumulated an large measure of wealth without the protection of a government. At the turn of our time keeping from BC to AD it was not the Germanic tribes absent a strong government who enjoyed great wealth while the Romans suffered in poverty oppressed by their government, likewise the Mongol tribes and Chinese empire, or in medieval times the Scottish highlanders and English merchants. Government is the only institution that can provide the security needed to have large accumulations of wealth.

The reasons for seeing this are not just historical. A careful examination of our current society will show as well the profound need that the very wealthy have in government. Consider that the small shopkeeper can reasonably expect to keep his employees from stealing his money or goods with personal oversight, the threat of firing and his personal wrath. The small shopkeeper does not often have need of the police, the courts or government for this purpose. A great institution such as a major bank cannot, however, get by in the same manner. Bank of America would soon be a valueless shell should its CEO be forced to rely only on personal oversight, the threat of firing and his personal wrath to keep executive VPs from transferring millions to the Cayman Islands and then disappearing. An institution such as this must have the FBI, the federal Justice Department and the federal penal system to back up and insure the security of its assets. The same applies as well to any corporation that must entrust its employees with substantial assets. Corporations, and other accumulators of wealth, depend upon the ability to secure their trademark from use by others, yet that security can only be effectively provided by a government. How much is the wealth in Microsoft, or Viacom, or Time/Warner, or Disney, or how many others dependent upon the federal government securing their copyrights? Would the very wealthy have any chance of keeping their wealth without the government providing police and military protection services? How much does Exxon/Mobile depend upon the government of the United States to secure their physical assets overseas? I have more examples but I think I've made my point.

Given that accumulating wealth and property is only possible where government exists, I maintain that it is those who have accumulated wealth and property who are in true need of that institution. For all that the rest of us would be worse off without an effective government, those with great store of property would be devastated. The poor and the middle class have benefited greatly from the assistance provided by the US government there is no doubt of that, and that benefit has grown greatly over the last century, in particular for the poorest members of our society. And indeed anyone who holds any amount of property, however modest, has some need to rely upon the security provided by government to protect it. As true as that is, the greatest beneficiaries of the actions of the United States government have, without doubt, been the wealthiest among us.

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