Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Rights, morality and the size of government

The city of Wellington, where I live, is the capital of New Zealand and it is full of well-off public servants who think that bigger is better when it comes to government, and being of a libertarian persuasion myself, I find I am often called upon to explain my political views to friends and colleagues. In fairness, my views usually engender curiosity rather than outrage - they wonder how someone who is apparently rational and thoughtful could hold beliefs that are so obviously at odds with their own. They are even more surprised when I argue for minimalist government not from the familiar position of practicality (i.e. that the private sector could fulfil many of the current functions of government more effectively and efficiently than the government itself) but from a position of morality. They find this surprising because left-wing, big government supporters always think they have the moral high ground and it is disconcerting for them to find an opponent who undermines the very basis of their own beliefs.

The elemental moral argument against big government is that it requires the threat, and ultimately the use, of force against its own citizens. You could argue that it is not the size of government per se that requires the use of force, but it is hard to see how government could have grown to the size and broad role that is has today without resort to violence. The collection of taxes, for example, requires the threat and use of force and without taxes there can be no big state. If you believe as I do that the use of violence in human relations other than in self-defence is never moral, then you can't believe in big government.

My friends respond that the government needs the threat and use of force to prevent and stop violence. That is the moral contract of government, they argue - we give up the right to use violence to settle disputes ourselves and give the government a legal monopoly on its use in order to protect our rights. But the government doesn't need the unprovoked threat and use of violence to fulfil that moral contract. The moral role of government is the defence against, and prevention of, violence - not the initiation it.

Ah, my opponents say, if the government has a role in protecting rights then what about when those rights are in conflict? Doesn't the right to life mean someone has a right to food - and therefore government has a responsibility for ensuring everyone is fed?

True rights are never in conflict - if they are, then they are not rights. Rights are inherent to our humanity and they are universal. My rights cannot detract from your rights. Your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins.* The right to life simply means you have the right not to be killed by someone else - not that everyone has the responsibility to feed you. When the government takes on the responsibility of feeding those who can't feed themselves, it has to resort to violence to force others to pay for the feeding.

But, they cry, what about a baby? Yes, a parent who brings a baby into the world has a responsibility to care for that baby. The parent has made the choice to bring the baby into the world and the parental duty of care doesn't detract from the parent's rights any more so than a restaurant owner's right to run his business doesn't obviate his responsibility not to poison his customers. In other words, individual rights don't eliminate individual responsibilities.

Genuine rights sometimes appear to be in conflict and it is the role of the government, through the police, courts and armed forces, to mediate these conflicts by resorting to the objective facts and to moral rights. I have yet to find an example where it is demonstrable that genuine rights are in conflict when all the objective facts are revealed. Of course, sometimes the objective facts cannot be determined and the courts must decide between conflicting claims without full knowledge.

So, if the legitimate role of government is to mediate conflicts, how can it carry out even this limited role if it can't forcibly extract taxes? It has to convince sufficient numbers of people to contribute (through voluntary taxes or user charges) the money it needs to run government services. Such a system would almost certainly result in smaller, more efficient, more accountable and more moral government and that would be a very good thing.

* Variations of this saying have been attributed to different people but most commonly to Oliver Wendell Holmes.

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