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Government: what’s it for?



A police cruiser in Los Angeles. Thin Blue Line in action. Two cops lost their lives in a cruiser like this one, just for being cops

Yesterday, House Minority Leader (and ex-Speaker) Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, cried poverty on the national budget to a CNN anchor. What she said sounds absurd. But not in the context of what Kirsten Powers of The Daily Beast called “a fundamental disagreement” about what government is for.

What the ex-Speaker said

The Washington Times has the key quote from Nancy Pelosi’s remarks on CNN’s State of the Union program yesterday:

The cupboard is bare. There’s no more cuts to make. It’s really important that people understand that.

The cupboard is bare? How do you begin to tell truth from hyperbole? Or abject absurdity? You can’t. “The cupboard is bare” is her opinion. One must ask where that opinion comes from.

It comes from her fundamental theory of government. So: what does that theory say? And is that reasonable? The questions are important for more reasons than one politician shooting her mouth off. This government might shut down within a week. If that must happen, the people have a right to know why.

Basic theory of government

OTher than police, what should governemnt do for people?

Police cruiser, Los Angeles Police Department. Photo: User cliff1066â,,¢/Flickr, CC BY 2.0 Generic License

Government exists to deliver services, or even goods, that some people deem “wholesome and necessary to the public good,” to quote Jefferson. So if any private group delivers a “necessary” good or service, the government has outsourced its responsibility. Advocates for government commonly say government should never so outsource, and should give those goods or services totally in-house.

So what goods or services are so vital that one can trust no one but government to deliver them? An anarchist would say none. Senator Harry W. Reid, D-Nev., called his opponents “anarchists” more than a week ago. That remark makes anarchy and anarchism relevant here. Anarchy means “lack of rule.” Under anarchy, government does not exist. Very few among the opponents of Senator Reid or Representative Pelosi actually want government to disappear.


So we all agree that government must do some things. We differ on what they are.

Government exists to manage force. “Government” and “force” go together. Three specific services involve using force, when necessary, to protect people from those who want to start using it, or to settle a dispute peaceably. Two services fall under the first heading. We call them “police” and “military.” Another service, called “court,” gives people a forum for settling a dispute without going to personal war. “Court” also exists to make sure “police” and “military” do not go beyond protection and into tyranny.

But the Nancy Pelosis and Harry Reids of the world want government to do more. So does Barack Obama. Remember his calling the Constitution “a charter of negative liberties?” What did he mean by that? Simply this: government, to him, must do more than protect people from robbery, invasion, and so on.

What services are compelling?

What happens when government provides any service to people? It forces everyone to pay for that service, whether they use it or not, and whether they want to provide it to anyone else or not. That is what “taxes, duties, imposts, and excises” are for. Surely such use of force needs – what was that catch phrase again? Oh, yes – a compelling interest. Compelling interest has a special meaning in law and especially Constitutional law. It means without it, government would fail of (to quote Jefferson again) “ensuring the safety and happiness” of the people.

A “compelling” good or service must be more than something a person “needs” to survive. Let’s focus on things people really need: a roof over the head, food on the table, water to drink, and defense against predators (including criminals and foreign invaders). The problem: when government delivers any good or service, people forget how to do it for themselves, or to trade with those who can do it for them. Any theory of government must weigh the benefit of making sure “everyone gets a fair share” against the risk of everyone depending on government (and being at a loss without it). That might not seem too great a risk to a Barack Obama. But the recent flood disasters in Colorado ought to show that risk clearly enough.  What happens when you cut off people who depend too much on you? People die, because they never learned to handle things themselves.


The late Ayn Rand showed why the force-management services are compelling services. She made a judgment: one must “place the retaliatory use of force under objective control.” The government of a modern nation-state holds the legal monopoly on the use of force within its borders. That has held since 1648 and the Peace of Westphalia that ended the Thirty Years’ War. To show why this must be so, Rand offered this example:

Suppose Mr. Smith, a customer of Government A, suspects that his next-door neighbor, Mr. Jones, a customer of Government B, has robbed him; a squad of Police A proceeds to Mr. Jones’ house and is met at the door by a squad of Police B, who declare that they do not accept the validity of Mr. Smith’s complaint and do not recognize the authority of Government A. What happens then? You take it from there.

An anarchist would answer: “But what are police, except ‘civilized’ gangs?” Fine. Then Messrs. Smith and Jones above just started a gang war with their dispute. That’s why overlapping police jurisdictions do not and cannot work. Nor can leaving policing up to private security guards. Some objective law and standard must rule, or gang warfare can break out any time.

(The only other way around that is to forbid force-in-retaliation, and simply declare that possession is all points of the law, not just ninety percent. Now try to make that stick.)

Does anything like that compelling interest exist for anything else modern government does? Or that an Obama, or a Reid, or a Pelosi would have it do? Not at all. In anything but force-in-retaliation, competition more than suffices. Competition makes sure that if a service is important enough, and anyone person who promised to deliver it fails, someone else can take his place. That holds whether the failure means not delivering it at all, or doing a bad job.

But a “progressive” wants to make government provide other goods or services “at last resort,” or even as a monopoly. The result is usually a bad job all around, and complacency that the service will “always be there.” Again, ask the flooded out people in Colorado how that’s working out.


So the real compelling interest is to encourage people to be as independent as they can be. That applies also to force-in-defense, which usually does not start a war as uncontrolled force-in-retaliation does. It also applies to ninety percent of what government does today. So when Nancy Pelosi says “the cupboard is bare,” then she should ask herself why the cupboard should even be that big. ARVE Error: need id and provider
ARVE Error: need id and provider


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Terry A. Hurlbut has been a student of politics, philosophy, and science for more than 35 years. He is a graduate of Yale College and has served as a physician-level laboratory administrator in a 250-bed community hospital. He also is a serious student of the Bible, is conversant in its two primary original languages, and has followed the creation-science movement closely since 1993.

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