Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Government; a framework for discussing its role

Given that this blog is dedicated to the theme of politics, there will be a lot of discussion pertaining to what the government or the state should or should not do.  I believe it is paramount to establish a framework for assessing what is the basic purpose for the existence of government.  Broadly, what is the role of government in society?  What are its basic responsibilities?

As far as I have been able to distill it down myself, the core responsibilities of government are:
1) to protect its people from those who would harm them
2) to provide setting which promotes the the thriving of its people
3) to complete its responsibilities as efficiently as possible
I cannot think of anything I expect or desire from government that does not fall within one of these three categories.  Therefor, until or unless I am convinced otherwise, this is the measuring stick I will use to assess policies or laws.

This is not a US-centered claim. I believe that all forms of government throughout the world attempt to fulfill these responsibilities, and though some choose to aspire to effectiveness over efficiency.  The main difference between government types or political affiliations is the vision of the sources of harm, and the vision of thriving.

I said I distilled it down, and it is in fact rather a dense statement is in fact rather dense to say that a government's responsibilities consist of protection from harm, enabling living well, and efficiency.  I shall unpack it a bit for clarity.

Protection from harm includes military protection from foreigners who would attack from without, and it includes police protection from criminals who would attack from within.  It also includes civil protection from those who would take advantage of the vulnerable, ignorant, or gullible.  It does not, on the other hand, include protection from choices an individual makes for him or herself (provided that individual was not duped or incapable of making the decision).  Questions of justice largely fall into this category

Enabling living well includes policies that promote job growth and health.  It includes the important consideration that the afore-mentioned policies should also be sustainable over the long term for the country, promoting consistant positive movement, not volatile cycles of boom and bust, or good times today at the expense of the next generation. It does not mean that everyone is entitled to monetary success, but it does mean that the government provides a setting which promotes that opportunity for its people, and makes it more difficult for them to fail desperately.  A lot of regulation falls into this category, as does government investment in things like infrastructure and research.

Efficiency is important because it is a critical part of government not becoming a source of harm itself by being a burden.  It is also important in selecting policy options for achieving the first two parts of its responsibilities.  Most importantly, though, it ties the lofty goals of the first two back to reality and the practical impacts of implementation.  A law or policy must function in practice, not just in theory. If a policy doesn't work, it is in my eyes automatically disqualified from consideration.  I believe that I will refer back to this requirement quite often.  Platonic ideals might be interesting to contemplate, but they do not really provide much positive input to the improvement of real-world functioning.  The perfect can often be the enemy of the good. I am interested, therefor, not in examining the ideal, but in examining and discussing the evidence that can lead to the betterment of policies.  Let's call it evidence-based politics.

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