by Steve Lancaster 4/28/14
On one issue libertarians and conservatives can agree with little rancor is that freedom is our birthright, and the basic rights are inalienable. An ordinary person making an honest income, living his life without interfering in the business of others is also an ideal that both would agree is not utopian. The vast majority of people around the world seek to live in this manner. The political question is what, if anything, obligation does the individual have to the government?
If you owe a debt it is an obligation to pay, but your creditor in most of the west, does not send thugs to arrest you and incarcerate you for nonpayment, there are financial consequences. Government does have that power. This power is set in law and if you break the law the government can require you at gunpoint to do as the law demands. This right to use force is the police power and is the one thing that makes government unlike other institutions. The political question is how much, and when are these powers to be used on a free people?
We learn as children that force is bad and teamwork is good. These are formative truths that our parents and peers impress on us. They are taken as the basic necessities for living a good life and by extension the foundation for good government.
It is here that libertarian and conservative often differ. The essence of libertarian philosophy is that given that an interaction between two or more people does not involve force or fraud; then free people should not be impeded from engaging in voluntary informed business. In personal behavior it comes down to do not deceive or defraud. Every ethical system, and religion in the world would hold such a person as admirable human.
Although, government is comprised of humans, it is different. Only government has the possession of police power and the lawful right to exercise that power. How that power is used and for what purposes is the heart of considerable debate, however there are three areas libertarian, conservative and progressive can agree.
The first is to keep people from injuring each other. Government accomplishes this end with criminal and tort law.
The second is to allow people to enter into enforceable voluntary agreement or contract.
Lastly, the area that libertarian and conservative often disagree and that the progressives have captured as their singular accomplishment is public good. For the progressive every action of government is a public good and therefore permitted, for the strictest libertarian there is no such thing as public good. All taxation is theft and no effort should be financed through compulsion. The classical liberal position is that government does do some things on behalf of the entire community and thus, makes individuals comply with law and may use the police power to enforce those laws. The definition of an authentic public good becomes the source of discussion.
Progressives have defined public good down to the point that its meaning encompasses anything they want it to. Consider how the power of the federal government has expanded under the commerce clause, section 8, article I of the Constitution. Is it any wonder that libertarians and many conservatives almost reflexively say no to government expansion in this area?
We can and should ask if a proposed public good, local or national:
1. Is the idea asking my neighbor to pay for a government service he does not want?
2. Is the idea asking my neighbor to pay for a government service that benefits a selected individual or group of individuals above others?
Law enforcement and national defense are unequivocally public good and a part of the legitimate functions of government, however, that does not mean that police departments should be nationalized. The principle of subsidiarity need apply; allowing the government to be taken to the lowest level possible. In law enforcement city and county must be the agencies closest to the citizen, not the FBI or some other alphabet agency.
The purpose of government is to protect citizens from the initiation of force by other people and provide a framework in which they can engage in informed exchanges. Outside of this government may act to accomplish public goods strictly defined under Fifth Amendment and allowing for the principle of subsidiarity to the lowest level possible.