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Role of a Just Government

Updated: Mar 17


How to make government fair

Books written on the proper role of government fill entire library shelves. One could study the wisdom of the world’s greatest political minds for a lifetime and never settle on a single idea.


But what if one lens could be applied to all governments to judge whether they are just or unjust? And what if that lens could be applied to businesses, clubs, and social gatherings all the way down to the smallest unit of society: a friendship between two individuals?


Such a lens would be unimaginably valuable. Yet, one has always existed, and it has a name: Agency.

Agency is the capacity of individuals to act independently

and to make their own choices.

What's rarely understood are the three conditions that must exist for there to be agency. These conditions apply equally to individuals as well as to entire societies:


  1. There must be choices.

  2. Choices must be known.

  3. The consequences of choices must be known before choices are made.


A man unaware of a choice doesn’t really have a choice, does he? A woman who faces a choice but has no idea of its consequences doesn’t have a choice, does she? She could choose, but the outcome would be determined by what lies hidden behind the curtain and not by her wishes, commitment, or investment.


There must be a reasonable expectation of outcome from our choices. When I cross a street with sufficient care and under appropriate conditions, I should have a reasonable expectation that I will get to the other side.

Compare the three conditions required for agency with the requirements for the governmental rule of law:


  1. Laws must exist.

  2. Laws must be publicly known.

  3. Laws must be enforced equally.


With a bit of squinting, it looks like agency and rule of law are similar. In fact, I propose they are different applications of the same principle.

Universal wants

I wager that all collective peoples who have lived or will live want the following three conditions in their lives:

General Wants

Agency

Rule of Law

Freedom

Freedom to choose how to live their lives

Choices

Laws

Hope

A reasonable expectation of what their lives may be like

Choices must be known

Laws must be publicly known

Order

A reasonable understanding of what they should do to achieve those expectations

Consequences of choices known in advance

Laws must be enforced equally

Yet, how many people live under these conditions? Why wouldn’t all governments seek to provide these conditions for their people?

Why lack of agency?

If good people worldwide want freedom, hope, and order, why are they unobtainable by most people across Earth’s history? I believe there are two general reasons for this, and neither reason is necessarily unjust:


  1. Having someone “take care of you” is appealing to many people.

  2. There is almost always someone in every group who seeks to “take care of the group.”


When you give people the authority to “take care of you,” your freedom is reduced. Again, this is not necessarily unjust.


  • When your wife has made dinner for you when you get home, your choice of what to eat for dinner is reduced.

  • When you work for a company, your choice of behavior and apparel at work is reduced.


Because the idea of “people helping each other” is widely understood, citizens tend to allow governmental powers to influence their lives to some degree.

Where should the line be drawn?

With every increase in governmental oversight comes a reduction in freedom. Can you think of an exception?


Where shall we draw the line between just and unjust governmental control? For example, in the United States, the Libertarian Party wants fewer laws, while the Democrat Party wants more laws. Which perspective is more just?

Where can a boundary be set between just and unjust governing?

I believe the entire purpose of any just government is expressed in the following sentence:

The purpose of any just government is

to help protect people from

unjust harm from other people.

Think about that sentence for as long as you can. Can you think of a just law that doesn’t fit the above definition? If you can, please email me at jeff@jjrlore.com.

Here are examples of laws that some people incorrectly believe are "victimless crime laws" that don't "help protect people from unjust harm from other people":


  • Seatbelt laws. Yes, they protect the wearer, but they also help reduce everyone's healthcare costs. An un-seatbelted person during a vehicle accident becomes a projectile that can harm other occupants in the vehicle.

  • Speed limit laws. Yes, they help protect the driver, but they also help protect people and property inside and outside the vehicle.

  • Minimum age smoking and alcohol laws protect minors from unjust influence from tobacco and alcoholic drink manufacturers.


Just laws can help protect a person from himself or herself, but only if the law also serves to protect other people or property. Notice that there is no law against watching too much TV, not holding a job, or eating too much, even though all such activities can harm individual health.

What motivates governments to overgovern?

There are at least two principal reasons for the tendency of governments to overgovern--to become progressively unjust. In nearly all cases where this occurs, government leaders either,


  1. Have good intentions, but do not make wise decisions, or,

  2. Want personal power more than they seek the welfare of their citizens.


If you know of a third reason, please email me at jeff@jjrlore.com.

It's the tendency of nearly all governments to overgovern, which is


Creating unjust laws or

acting against already

established just laws.


Examples of unjust governing

What are examples of unjust governing?


  • Financial bailouts to private companies/corporations

  • Applying laws, regulations, restrictions, and taxes unevenly

  • Wealth redistribution


How do financial bailouts help protect people from unjust harm from other people? They do the opposite. A bailout for Group A harms Group B by taking monies from Group B via taxation to help Group A when Group B never harmed Group A.

If Group B has, in fact, unjustly harmed Group A, then just laws should be enacted (or enforced if already enacted) to protect Group A from unjust harm from Group B.


Redistributing wealth from Group B to Group A is unjust if Group B’s wealth was obtained without unjustly harming Group A.


Subsidization

A case can be made for the limited subsidization of small startup companies. Such a policy promotes potential economic growth. However, subsidized large companies are unjust because the money must come from taxpayers without input on where their money goes. Subsidizing favored mature companies over other mature companies encourages a wide range of corporate and governmental corruption. Such corruption is currently occurring across most governments worldwide.


Subsidizing mature corporations reduces agency in two ways:


  • Monies taken from citizens against their will are given to businesses that don't represent citizens' interests.

  • Consequences of poor judgment are removed from businesses receiving the monies.


Popular fiction

Movies, television, and books often demonize corporations for their practices when it is the government's responsibility to oversee and regulate businesses for the purpose of disallowing destructive actions. Why does popular fiction rarely acknowledge the government's abdication of its duty to prohibit unjust business behaviors?


Redistribution

It's unjust for taxes to be taken from me and given to my neighbor if my means of obtaining my income doesn't harm my neighbor unjustly.


Just laws protect people from unjust harm from other people, while unjust laws benefit select groups of people or businesses while harming other groups of people or businesses.


Positive personal business attitude

I am learning to become a successful author, and my son is building a photography business. Neither of us can imagine wanting to receive a penny from the government to help our ventures succeed. We feel it is our responsibility to manage our financial affairs. If everyone had this attitude, the world's economies would be much healthier.

The proper role of government

Political leaders can serve their people well by doing the following:


  • Provide knowledge, teach, and inspire without filter or bias.

  • Act to help prevent unjust harm between people.

  • Get out of the way.


Nowadays, political leaders at all levels of government no longer teach principles. Rather, they offer promises and cast blame, neither of which benefits their people.

Going back over sixty years, here is a famous example of how U.S. leaders used to teach:

In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility—I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it—and the glow from that fire can truly light the world. And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.

John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address, 1961

In the above passage, did President Kennedy cast blame and offer promises, or did he inspire and teach?

Examples of just governing

What are examples of just governing? Article 1, Sections 8 through 10 of the U.S. Constitution provides twenty-nine powers to the Legislative branch of the U.S. government. In my opinion, none of these powers are outside of, or in conflict with, the following:

The purpose of any just government is

to help protect people from unjust harm

from other people.


Below are powers given to the U.S. Government by Sections 8 through 10 (bracketed words added for clarity):


  • To lay and collect taxes...for the common Defense and general Welfare...but all Duties, Imposts, and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States. [Yes, it uses the word uniform.]

  • To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes.

  • To establish a uniform Rule of Naturalization, and uniform Laws on Bankruptcies throughout the United States.

  • To provide for the punishment for counterfeiting the United States' securities and current coin.

  • To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the union, suppress Insurrections, and repel Invasions.

  • No Bill of Attainder [punishment without trial] or ex post facto [retroactive] Law shall be passed.

  • No Tax or Duty shall be laid on Articles exported from any State.


The word uniform is used three times in these examples. I’m confident that most people will agree that for a law to be just, it must be enforced uniformly.

States’ rights

Even a casual review of the first ten amendments of the U.S. Constitution will reveal that they are restrictions on the U.S. government, not restrictions on its citizens.


Of particular interest is the Tenth Amendment, which is written so clearly anyone can understand it:

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution,

nor prohibited by it to the States,

are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

-- Article X, U.S. Constitution

This means that the individual states, not the federal government, should control anything not specified by the U.S. Constitution.

States control many areas of our lives. State income tax varies between each state. The method of voting varies between states. Gun laws vary between states. Driving laws vary between states.

State freedoms are vital because if a state passes unjust laws, its citizens may move en masse to other states with fewer unjust laws. States’ rights create competition between states which provides an additional check on governmental oversight.


Imagine living in an area with 50 telephone companies, 50 power companies, 50 TV cable companies, and 50 internet companies. Imagine the choices! The minute one of them treats you badly, you switch to another that better values you as a customer.


Compare that to living in an area with only one telephone company, one power company, one TV cable company, and one internet company. That, metaphorically, is the U.S. Federal Government.


Moving from one state to another to avoid governmental overreach, neglect, or prejudice is difficult and involves great expense and sacrifice. But at least it's an option and source of hope. But with a too-powerful Federal government, where the laws in every state are the same, nothing is gained from moving from one state to another.


Roe vs. Wade

I am opposed to the 1973 Roe vs. Wade ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, but not because it involves abortion, but because it forces all fifty states to legalize something. While I am opposed to the widespread recreational use of alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, and pornography, I would never support a federal law prohibiting any of them (except for minors—but that's a different argument).

Individual states should be left to decide matters not specified by the U.S. Constitution. This perspective is in strict conformance with the Tenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which I shall repeat here:

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

-- Article X, U.S. Constitution

General Welfare

A common point of debate regarding the proper role of government centers on the phrase “general welfare,” which appears twice in the U.S. Constitution:

First in the Preamble:


“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 of the United States of America.”

Second in Article 1, Section 8:


The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defense and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;

The term “general welfare” means the general well-being, safety, health, peace, and morality of the citizens. It does not reference the current Federal Welfare system, which did not exist then.

“Promoting the general welfare” does not mean promoting the “specific welfare” of one group over the welfare of another.


Antitrust laws

U.S. Antitrust laws intend to protect consumers from predatory business practices by,


  • Prohibiting price-fixing (companies getting together and deciding a price for goods)

  • Restricting mergers of companies that would likely substantially lessen competition

  • Prohibiting the abuse of monopoly power


Most people don’t know that Antitrust laws do not protect one company from another. If I own a company that sells spoons and another company sells comparable spoons at a lesser price, Antitrust laws cannot come to my rescue.

It's also commonly misbelieved that Antitrust laws prohibit the existence of monopolies. However, the existence of monopolies is legal. It is only the abuse of monopolistic power that is illegal.

Price fixing Laws

Price fixing is where a number of companies agree to charge the same price for goods or services. The motive for price fixing is either to,


  • Undercut--by artificially lowering prices--a competitor outside the “group of companies”

  • Increase profit by artificially raising prices


In both cases, price fixing is an anti-competitive, anti-free market mechanism that allows multiple companies to abuse monopolistic power.

Why aren't governments better at fostering freedom, hope, and order?


Why don't governments use these principles more often if they are straightforward, easy to understand, and cost nothing to enact?


I believe it's because of corruption within governments. Uncorrupt and well-informed governments protect freedoms, while corrupt governments do not.


Why do our leaders no longer teach principles? I believe it is because they are gutless, corrupt, or both. Most governments today are more corrupt than their citizens realize.


No man chooses evil because it is evil;

he only mistakes it for happiness, the good he seeks.

Mary Shelley


Final comment

After writing this post, I came across the following quote, which says with only twenty-three words everything I've written today:

Government exists to protect us from each other. Where government has gone beyond

its limits is in deciding to protect us from ourselves.

Ronald Reagan

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