The Function of Government: What Is It In Iteself?

Stock Photo of the Consitution of the United States and Feather Quillby Gene Howington, Guest Blogger

The Law of Identity is one of Aristotle’s fundamental Laws of Thought. It is expressed often in the terms of A=A or in other philosophical works as some variation of Marcus Aurelius’ admonishment to “ask of each and every thing what is it in itself”.  This is less commentary than informal unscientific survey, but some of your answers will likely inform a future commentary. These questions kept hovering about as I considered the topic of the social compact. There seems to be a lot of confusion about the nature of the social compact model of government and that had been my intended topic for this weekend. However, as I thought about it and reviewed some older threads here where the subject had come up in preparation for addressing the subject, another area of confusion stood out as prevalent as well.  That confusion centers around the proper role of government in society, specifically the proper role of government as defined by the U.S. Constitution.

If we look at the Constitution itself, the Preamble contains a basic description of the function of our Federal government.

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

It is important to note that the Preamble is not law in the traditional sense. It neither grants powers nor restricts action. It simply provides context for the purpose of the form of government as established in the following articles and amendments. It is a statement of our aspirational goals of government.

Let’s break down the Preamble to provide some context for the question that follows.

“We the People of the United States” we’ll take to be all natural born or naturalized individual citizens of the United States. Just people. We won’t address the the twisted logic of attempting to turn the legal fiction of the corporation into real people. If you weren’t born, don’t have a metabolism, aren’t made of meat and won’t die, we won’t consider you a person for the purposes of this discussion.

“[I]n Order to form a more perfect Union” we can consider both as a statement of quality and an aspiration considering the Founders included a process for Constitutional amendment in Article V. They knew that society and consequently societies definition of perfection would change over time and designed the Constitution to serve the citizens by being flexible enough to adapt to those changing definitions and needs.

“[E]stablish Justice”, not just through the creation of the Supreme Court and lower courts, but to pursue that ever elusive perfected justice where all wrong doers are held accountable for their bad actions and all victims are made as whole again as practically possible.

“[I]nsure domestic Tranquility” which entails more than just keeping the peace. This idea is intimately related to both the preceding the notion of establishing justice as a society with just laws and just courts is a society less likely to suffer social discord from people opting for “self-help justice”, but also to the subsequent notions as well.  Providing for the common defense relates to domestic tranquility as a society that shares in protection from outside aggressors is less likely to be disrupted by invasion.  Promoting the general welfare relates to domestic tranquility as a society that both tends to the commons as well as protects and aids its weakest members is less likely to suffer internally generated domestic social discord. Securing “the Blessings of Liberty” relates to domestic tranquility as a  society that maximizes liberty will also face less discontent from the citizenry.

Consider that in many ways, mostly rooted in the corruption of the electoral and legislative processes by monied interests and their undue influence and the danger of the ever expanding unitary executive, our government has and is perpetually failing in their Constitutionally defined mission. We see regularly stories of injustice. We see regularly stories of not common defense, but wars of aggression and the erosion of our civil rights. We see regularly where the general welfare is sacrificed for the personal and corporate profits of the few. We see regularly stories where those in positions of power want us to sacrifice liberty in the name of security from a nebulous and overblown threat in a way that seems to be less about protecting citizens and our rights and more about their consolidation of personal political power and ability to stifle dissent and/or opposition.

Some Western countries penalize corporations for off shoring jobs. Some Western countries are not afraid to put bad acting previous pols on trail and/or in prison for their crimes. Some provide for post-secondary education either for free or minimal cost to their citizens.  A great many provide universal health care as a basic human right.

The questions are simple although the answers may be complex.

NOTE: Any suggestions based on either Ayn Rand or the Austrian School of Economics will be laughed at and probably ridiculed as simply apologetics for the venal and sociopathic.

What do you think is the proper function of the U.S. government in itself given the context stated in the Preamble?

What do you think our government should be doing to achieve the goals stated in the Preamble that it isn’t doing right now?

What do you think our government should stop doing to achieve the goals stated in the Preamble?

~ submitted by Gene Howington, Guest Blogger.

55 thoughts on “The Function of Government: What Is It In Iteself?”

  1. Bill H: Well, one thing that should be included in the definition is that an effort to “promote the general welfare” does not mean guaranteeing the individual welfare of every person in the country.

    That is self-contradicting logic; if we did guarantee the welfare of every citizen we would self-evidently promote the general welfare. What do you think “general” means, if it isn’t some measure of benefiting all citizens?

  2. Gene, sorry I’m late to the party…

    I wish to provide a preamble to my discussion of the preamble: As I have stated on previous threads, I have independently arrived at the conclusion that the ideal government serves two primary purposes, which I believe are stated most clearly as

    1) Protect the weak from predation by the strong;
    2) Serve as the focal point for communal action, both in deciding what will be done, and (without favoritism) managing the process of getting it done.

    Within the context of the preamble:

    We the People of the United States, … specifies the controlling body; which I agree with.

    … in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, … provide for the common Defence … All of these fall under (1); protecting the weak from predation by the strong.

    A “more perfect Union” of States prevents small States from being dominated by large States, poor States from being dominated by rich States, States without access to the sea from being extorted by States with access, etc. The “strength” of a State may vary over time, but a more perfect union is formed when States are on an equal footing (as in the Senate).

    Establishing Justice is nearly synonymous with protecting the weak from predation by the strong, but obviously includes punishment (“obviously” because without the prospect of punishment law does not shield the weak from the strong).

    … provide for the common Defence, … This extends the metaphor to the International stage, the common defense is our collective shield against invasion or threats to our existence. It is another way of shielding the weak (individual citizens) from predation by the strong (raiders, looters, foreign armies, terrorists, etc.)

    … insure domestic Tranquility … promote the General Welfare … As Gene noted, one way of ensuring Tranquility is to address the causes of Distress; which I believe (from the sociological study of criminality) stem primarily from desperation, poverty, and (as many minorities still feel today) a sense of rigged game in which you always lose because somebody else controls all the resources and power. When there seems no way to win within the system, some people (particularly young adults) will try to win outside the system; they feel they have nothing to lose except an otherwise pointless existence of poverty and subjugation.

    Certainly some criminality stems from actual clinical mental deficits that produce sociopathy and psychopathy, but only about 1% of people are born that way.

    The rest is preventable; and I think this falls under my second point (2) above. The crimes cost us more than the preventions; in this case an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and the ounce of prevention is, for most people, what they feel is the moral communal route anyway.

    Namely, provide a real, tangible route out of desperation, poverty, and permanent subjugation that seems more plausible than risking one’s life in criminality. There is some overlap in doing that between (1) and (2), namely citizens should feel safe in their neighborhood, employers should not be exploiting the desperate circumstances of workers by demanding they endanger themselves, or making sexual demands of them, or paying them so little they have no real chance of escaping their circumstances or working their way out of them.

    But there is also the common infrastructure. Nutritional support, educational support, transportation support (like roads, and perhaps at-cost public transportation), sanitation support, health care support, shelter support, retirement income support for the elderly. These may not have been the specific “general Welfare” points the founders envisioned, but I believe they did not get specific because they expected things to change over time, and rather than dictate points, they believed the people should decide.

    … and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, …

    We know what “Posterity” means. What are the “Blessings of Liberty?”

    Or to put it another way, what do we find “good” about liberty? I think what we find good is measured in our degree of self-determination. Which is directly related to our degree of oppression, coercion, or powerlessness to change (some addicts, for example, feel enslaved by their addiction, they want to be “freed” from their addiction, but feel powerless to change).

    The other word in this prescription is important as well; I think “to secure” is well chosen, because Liberty does not come at zero cost. It must be captured, so to speak, and detained!

    To me the overall purpose of government, which I believe is consistent with the preamble, is to maximize the general level of self-determination, primarily by removing the obstacles to self-determination, including thwarting the strong that would exploit the weak (either criminally or financially), and leveling the playing field to alleviate the traps of misfortune and circumstance, like being born into poverty, disabled by birth or accident, or unemployed despite a willingness to work.

    I do not think that means people cannot be rich, I think talent should be rewarded and different jobs deserve different financial rewards. I have no problem with people just getting lucky and striking it rich.

    Primarily, when it comes to the General Welfare, Securing the Blessings of Liberty, and Domestic Tranquility, I believe those are addressed by putting a floor under poverty; a limit on how low one can fall. A “safety net” is one way, but I also think poverty should not dictate the quality or level of one’s education, nutrition, health care, sanitation or domestic safety.

    People that think they have been born into a rat, flea and cockroach infested jungle with no way out except crime will commit crimes. People that think they have a real chance to work their way out will (except for a small percent) generally attempt to do the work rather than risk their lives on quick riches.

    That increases self-determination for the poor (their Liberty) and increases Domestic Tranquilty for us with less crime, and more good citizens adding value to our lives by their work (as we add value to their lives by our work).

    For those with empathy, it is the moral thing to do: A rising tide lifts all boats.

  3. And before you object to Objectivism being categorized as a religion? It’s a cult of personality with dogmas expected to be accepted not only as true in the face of an absence of evidence but in the face of evidence to the contrary as provided by science.

    I might also add that her notion of the primate individual is also fundamentally at odds with the social compact model of government. She allows no room for mutually derived benefit if it curtails the absolute rights of individuals. In short, she doesn’t recognize the collective nature of societies. A fatal flaw in her reasoning (such as it were).

  4. Nope. But Ayn Rand in toto is simply apologetics for being venal and sociopathic, Bron. Her very narrow understanding of the function of government – which is informed by the outcome determinism she engages in to reach the conclusion that greed is good which is, in turn, an expression of her mental illness – was not what was adopted by our Founders. The eventual result of putting her policies into action would be not just tyranny but slavery. Cherry picking some quotes in which she essentiall parrots Locke does not change that fact about Objectivism and its Ubermench ideals. She’s anti-egalitarian, anti-democratic and sociopathic. The last demonstrably so by both the WHO and the DSM criteria.

    Sorry. “Look out for number one and screw everyone else” is not a formula for a successful society. Society is an inherently cooperative effort and her view of cooperation is “what’s in it for me” – selfishness.

    It’s considered a sin by every other religious system in the world for a reason, Bron. Her work is a rationalization for bad behavior in the individual. Just because she read Locke doesn’t change that.

  5. “NOTE: Any suggestions based on either Ayn Rand or the Austrian School of Economics will be laughed at and probably ridiculed as simply apologetics for the venal and sociopathic.”

    Gene Howington

    So freedom is for the venal and sociopathic? Wow, just wow.

  6. “The fundamental difference between private action and governmental action—a difference thoroughly ignored and evaded today—lies in the fact that a government holds a monopoly on the legal use of physical force. It has to hold such a monopoly, since it is the agent of restraining and combating the use of force; and for that very same reason, its actions have to be rigidly defined, delimited and circumscribed; no touch of whim or caprice should be permitted in its performance; it should be an impersonal robot, with the laws as its only motive power. If a society is to be free, its government has to be controlled.

    Under a proper social system, a private individual is legally free to take any action he pleases (so long as he does not violate the rights of others), while a government official is bound by law in his every official act. A private individual may do anything except that which is legally forbidden; a government official may do nothing except that which is legally permitted.

    This is the means of subordinating “might” to “right.” This is the American concept of “a government of laws and not of men.””

    “The Nature of Government,”
    The Virtue of Selfishness, 109

  7. “The source of the government’s authority is “the consent of the governed.” This means that the government is not the ruler, but the servant or agent of the citizens; it means that the government as such has no rights except the rights delegated to it by the citizens for a specific purpose.”

    “The Nature of Government,”
    The Virtue of Selfishness, 110

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