I’ve asked conservatives to describe the purpose of government. After the usual spate of smart-assed answers (e.g. “nothing” or “taxing us to death”) they usually fall silent. They don’t know.
The answer is so obviously correct that it sounds like a trick question.
The purpose of government is to govern.
What doesn’t it mean, “to govern?”
We have a company here in town named Woodward Governor, and it has that name because one of its first products, over a century ago, was a “governor” for steam engines. A “governor” is a regulator. It keeps the engine from running too fast.
The purpose of government is to regulate.
Government traditionally regulates on at least three levels:
- individual behavior,
- business behavior,
- the Commons.
We’re all familiar with the governing of individual behavior in the list of “Thou Shalt Nots” we consider requirements of civilization. Prohibitions against murder, theft, false witness, and the like.
But there is really nothing fixed about this. The governing of a Catholic monastic life, for instance, is based on a Rule that tells individuals when to get up in the morning and when to go to bed at night, when to eat, when (and how) to pray, when (or whether) to speak. The governing of peasants in Medieval Europe had restrictions on meeting the eyes of someone of higher rank; in ancient Hawaiian society, it wasn’t meeting eyes, but stepping on the shadow of a higher-ranked person. In ancient Rome and Greece, individuals were required to make sacrifices to the local gods. In Inquisition Spain, attending the local auto da fey was mandatory.
Most US Americans — including most self-proclaimed conservatives — favor a liberal (or libertarian) view toward government regulation of individuals: they don’t want the government telling them what they can and cannot do.
Not all Americans favor this liberal/libertarian view. Some want go back to the Puritan Colonies, which had very tight religious control over individual behavior, sometimes only a little short of Catholic monastic rule. These people say that our “liberal” government is a “libertine” government that allows people to do too much. They have a long laundry list of “immoral” behaviors they want prohibited by law, and another long list of “moral” behaviors to be required. Some of this comes from the political left, but by far the bulk of it comes from the political right, particularly the religious right. They often snark about Sodom and Gomorrah.
I’m definitely liberal/libertarian on this aspect of government, though I’m not an extremist: your rights, as they say, end where my nose begins.
Still, unless someone can show the harm in it, I don’t care what other people do. I don’t care what they smoke or ingest, or with whom they have sex, or how. I don’t care what rituals they perform in their basement or their backyard or the city parks, or what gods they worship. I don’t care if they curse up a blue streak, or dance, or play cards, or drink.
This is, in fact, a liberal attitude toward government regulation of individuals, at least as I understand it. And I do embrace that ideal.
Business regulation makes trade safe, predictable, and profitable. A lot of Tea-Party Libertarians idolize “free” markets, and claim that all government regulation of business practice is harmful: they consider themselves safe from criticism because they claim that government regulation is everywhere, therefore there are no real free markets for them to use as examples of how the uninhibited market is supposed to work.
This is nonsense. There are plenty of truly free markets, and they illustrate exactly why government regulation is beneficial to business, not harmful. Consider the heroin trade. Consider any other black market. Governments do not regulate black markets, because they aren’t supposed to exist. They are entirely “free” markets.
It’s illustrative to note how a truly free market functions.
- It’s a cash-and-carry proposition. Both parties bring their goods or money to the meeting, and when they walk away, it’s over. No money-back guarantees. No lawsuits. No complaining that the goods were shoddy, or the money was counterfeit. The only recourse to being cheated is personal vendetta.
- Parties need their own quality inspectors who know the goods, or they stand to be cheated. The bigger the trade, the greater the need.
- Parties need their own “muscle” to protect themselves as they come to market, and as they leave, and during the trade. The bigger the trade, the greater the need.
- The natural tendency of the marketplace is to form vendor cartels, which collude on price and quality rather than compete. Individual suppliers who step out of line with the cartel are killed, or have their business ruined by violent means.
Personal trust between buyer and seller, based on the desire for repeat business, can level out some of this risk. But nothing removes the need for security, since both parties bring valuables with them — going to market is a good way to get robbed. If you’re buying or selling potatoes, a strong son with a big stick is probably all you need. If you’re buying or selling precious artwork, you’re going to need armed guards.
The formation of the great Medieval markets of Troyes show how government regulation benefits business: the local Lords got together and provided soldiers to protect vendors and customers, established a common currency, and settled on a common system of weights and measures. They paid for all this with a market tax. As a direct result, the marketplace expanded hugely, because people knew what they were buying, what they were paying, and that bandits weren’t going to ride in and take all the goods and the money.
I also like to use the example of Prohibition in the 1920’s. With the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, the government removed itself from regulating the alcohol market — instead, it prohibited the market. This resulted in a huge black market for alcohol, which was quickly consolidated by cartels headed by “businessmen” like Al Capone. Competitors were shot or brutally murdered, sometimes accompanied by collateral damage and public panic. Prices were high, product quality was low — local spirits were often made carelessly and contained poisons like methanol and formaldehyde. That all ended when the Twenty-First Amendment repealed the Eighteenth, the government began to regulate the alcohol market, and Al Capone gave way to Almadén.
When people talk about business regulation today, they get confused, and for a good reason.
Certain segments of society — mostly the bankers and investment classes — have sold everyone on the idea of “deregulation” through the Republican party. That political branding has caused this deregulation agenda to be confused with traditional pro-business conservatism. These folks harp on the so-called “overregulation” of the workplace in some states like California (which admittedly gets silly) and have raised a huge stink about how this makes US business non-competitive in the global markets.
But fixing workplace regulation was never any part of the deregulation agenda. This has been bait-and-switch from the start. A snow job. A fraud.
The real target of deregulation was the post-Depression banking laws like Glass-Steagall, which tightly regulated the banks and prevented the banking class from gambling with other people’s money as it did prior to the market crash of 1929. While the silly workplace laws in California have remained largely untouched by deregulation, Glass-Steagall was successfully abolished (1999, Republican-controlled Congress), and the bankers immediately began the gambling that led to the housing and derivatives bubble, followed by the Great Recession of 2008.
The deregulators have further confused the issue by saying that corporations are people. This is the stupidest statement I’ve heard to date: an offense to reason, common sense, and the English language. Businesses have no inherent right to exist, and they have no natural liberties to protect. Like governments, businesses exist solely with the consent of the people.
I’m strongly pro-regulation on the business side. Here’s the question I ask to cut through pro-business whining and double-talk: “Are you telling me that you can’t make a profit without hurting people?”
Because if that’s true — if they can’t make a profit without hurting people — they ought to go out of business, if for no other reason than to clear the way for a more competent business. But more often than not, the answer is, “Well, yes, we can make a profit, it just isn’t very much.” Well, boo-hoo.
This attitude apparently makes me a liberal.
Regulation of the Commons, or the commonwealth, is a concept tangled up almost beyond redemption. I think this is because we’ve been so diligently packaging and selling off our Commons, and there is so little left.
Let’s start with something we haven’t sold off yet: military defense.
Yes, sweethearts, military defense is part of the Commons. Everyone pays for it, whether they think it’s necessary or not. Compulsory military service is a civic duty, when needed. Everyone benefits equally from having it.
From each according to ability (taxes, service), to each according to need (wherever we are attacked). Wait… isn’t that what the Communists used to say? Our agreement with our own military is Communist?!?
In a sense, yes. Ironic, isn’t it?
But this isn’t really “communist” — the Russians didn’t invent the idea — it’s simply the way all healthy families and churches and communities are run. It’s also a big part of any healthy nation.
The Commons are the responsibilities and benefits of citizenship, as well as the resources we hold collectively in trust for ourselves and for future generations.
Here are some important basic characteristics of the commonwealth:
- It is paid for by all citizens, typically through taxes or compulsory service.
- It is available to all citizens for, at most, a token cost.
- Its management and regulation is one of the necessary functions of government.
When you privatize the Commons, it is no longer the Commons. It is just another commodity to be sold to the highest bidder. We’ve been racing down the path of privatizing everything. Some people insist this is good and moral.
I disagree. I disagree almost completely. I disagree almost violently. I’ll be exploring this in subsequent articles.
Apparently, however, thinking that we have a responsibility to conserve the Commons — surely that’s a conservative idea? — makes me a liberal.
So I favor a government which is light on regulating individual behavior, heavy (and fair, and consistent) on regulating business, which puts people before corporate profits, and which conserves and manages its commonwealth carefully.
I am opposed to a government which is heavy on regulating individual behavior, light on regulating business, puts corporate profits before people, and which packages and sells off its commonwealth to the highest bidder for short-term gains.
This apparently makes me a liberal. (?!!?)