Oct. 20, 2010
It’s not asked in presidential debates, in political town halls, in the leftist media, in the rightist media, in Wall Street demonstrations, in academia, or in polite conversation.
Yet it is the most important political question.
It is a question that reveals more about one’s political beliefs than any other--more than questions about such specific issues as taxes, immigration, welfare, medical care and foreign policy. And, although it seems simple and perhaps sophomoric at first blush, it actually leads to more intellectual thought than esoteric discussions about such topics as positive and negative rights, public versus private goods, individualism versus collectivism, socialism versus capitalism, and the philosophies of the great political and moral philosophers, most of whom were crackpots and failures in their personal lives and relationships.
Ready? Here it is:
When do you think the government should use force against its own people and others?
This is a very important and relevant question because government is force. Without the power to use the force of law backed up by the force of taxes, backed up by the force of guns and prison or worse, government would be ignored and there would be anarchy or perhaps subjugation by a foreign power.
All political systems depend on force, whether dictatorships, monarchies, democracies, or constitutional republics. Whether laws are passed by a dictator, a king, a majority, or a plurality, they rely on enforcement; that is, the application of force.
Most Americans don’t think in terms of force and coercion, probably due to the government having a monopoly over compulsory K-12 education. Take the seemingly innocuous example of anti-smoking legislation. When citizens vote to outlaw smoking in private restaurants and bars, they don’t stop to think that they are voting to use force backed up by government guns against smokers and property owners. Instead, they think, often sanctimoniously, that they are simply voting to safeguard the health of patrons, workers, and society at large. The second way of thinking has a much nicer ring to it.
As a result, it is not the first impulse of people, whether Democrat or Republican, to ask: Can we accomplish the XYZ social or economic goal without using force to coerce people to comply? Oftentimes, the answer would have been yes if they had asked and thought about it. But because they didn’t ask and think about it, their first impulse is to use compulsion.
The Occupy Wall Street demonstrations are a good example. Rightly demonstrating against the way that politicians and the Federal Reserve used force against citizens to bail out their banking cronies, the demonstrators simultaneously and wrongly and hypocritically demand that the government use force against others to pay for the things they want, such as free college tuition and free medical care.
Medical care is another example. When ObamaCare was being debated, the question was not asked, Can we solve the problem of the uninsured, the problem of free riders, and the problem of escalating costs without forcing people into a one-size-fits-all system, without forcing some people to pay for other people’s care and insurance, and without forcibly confiscating the income and freedom of doctors?
Having studied and written about this question extensively, I believe that the answer is not only yes, but that better outcomes would be achieved by not using force. This is not the place to explain my position in detail, but, in brief, it is about the government repealing laws and programs that get in the way of medical care/insurance being offered and/or provided by religious, charitable, professional and fraternal associations and organizations.
Yes, I know all of the counterarguments from left-liberals and progressives, including the argument that it is embarrassing and humiliating for the poor and disadvantaged to have to ask others for help. Whether or not this thinking is nonsense--and I believe it is--it doesn’t address the feelings of those who are forced under the existing social-welfare state to foot the bill. Coercion causes resentment.
Other than a few anarchists who don’t want any form of government, most people would agree that an appropriate use of government force is to protect life, property and liberty from being taken by bad guys. Even with this, there is considerable disagreement about where to draw lines, whether preemptive force is okay, what the punishment should be for lawbreakers, and how much should be spent in providing protection. These questions alone would keep politicians busy and feeling important.
Unfortunately, because the great question about force isn’t asked, the use of government force has expanded so far beyond basic protection that it can be found in just about every aspect of our lives, due to politicians, bureaucrats, special interests, do-gooders, social engineers, busybodies and jingoists wanting to remake the world into their image or get something at other people’s expense.
And then they wonder why the nation is broke and our politics are so poisoned.
Mencken’s Ghost is the nom de plume of an Arizona writer who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.