All Commentary
Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Can There Be Good Government?

It can crush innocent lives.

For the past four weeks I have blogged on a trial in which a teacher named Tonya Craft is charged with child molestation. It has become convincingly clear the charges are false. But government can crush innocent lives, as we saw in the rush to prosecute these kinds of cases 20 years ago, resulting in the conviction and imprisonment of many people. (Most of the convictions were overturned.)

No entity is better than government at destroying life and property. As R. J. Rummel pointed out in his book Death by Government, a person in the past century was twice as likely to die at the hands of a domestic government as be killed by a foreign one. This is a frightening number, since it tells us that for all of the talk that we need to protect ourselves from enemies outside our national borders, perhaps the greater enemy is among us.

I admit struggling with the whole concept of “good government.” Like most people, I am outraged when I see individuals being mistreated (at best) by government agents and tortured and killed (at worst) by the same. William N. Grigg, via articles and his blog, has exposed violent acts that police and others acting under cover of government protection carry out against people who did not warrant such treatment. We know what evil governments can do, yet something in us makes us believe that  governments can be better. We want “good government” even while the government we see falls well beneath that standard.

In fact, we should wonder if the term “good government” is an oxymoron. If it is government, can it be good? Unfortunately, even that question is fraught with ambiguity, as the definition of “good” differs among so many people.

For example, all of the members of the political science department that I share office space with consider themselves “liberal Democrats,” and while I like all of them, their view of “good government” is a government that regulates every area of our lives. They see a “good government” as one that provides cradle-to-grave care and “protects” us from the “ravages of private enterprise.”

To them the “market” is an entity that oppresses others. They believe the Wall Street meltdown came about because government was not vigilant enough in preventing “market failure.” Thus they want government to have powers that potentially can control nearly every action we perform.

Yet at the same time, they openly deplore the reports of torture and brutality. They express admiration for my blogging on the trial, yet what I am doing is opposing the very State that they support. I don’t call this hypocrisy, for in their minds one kind of government is legitimate, while the other is not.

The problem, of course, is that government uses the same powers to do both sets of deeds. My friends admire the fact that government seizes money from some people and then gives it to others in the name of welfare, but are outraged when government takes someone’s home so Costco can build a new store. My friends believed it was fine for the U.S. military to bomb Serbia and kill civilians, but it is not good when government kills civilians in Iraq. In other words, political consideration of each government act determines their reaction to it.

Six years ago Randall Holcombe wrote a controversial paper titled, Government: Unnecessary but Inevitable,” in which he acknowledged that government clearly could not be “good” in any libertarian sense, but that it will always be there. Our job, he said, is to be eternally vigilant and try, even if we are unsuccessful, to keep it limited. I have no idea if his thesis is correct, but I do concede that we live in a “second-best” world and government always will be with us.

However, existence does not make something good, nor can vigilance keep it contained. I live with the realization that government is not good, but at least I can speak my piece and let other people know.

  • Dr. William Anderson is Professor of Economics at Frostburg State University. He holds a Ph.D in Economics from Auburn University. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.