All Commentary
Saturday, September 1, 1990

The First Civil Right Is Safety

Mr. Matthew is studying law at the University of Chicago Law School

Just one block from the law school I attend, I cannot walk after dark. Experience shows that I would almost certainly be attacked. The local police now only warn people not to enter the area—they don’t actually protect them. and what about the people who live there? It seems clear that something has gone very wrong.

The core function of government—the protection of the lives and property of its citizens—is being seriously neglected. More than that, government at all levels is run by people who no longer see that protection as the core function of government. Instead, government now concentrates on performing such tasks as propping up tobacco prices and sponsoring art exhibits.

Government can do only a few limited things at a time. Beyond a certain size and complexity, it begins to fail at all its tasks, and to damage all the interests it touches. Luckily, there are only a few functions that we need government to perform. Nationally, it must protect us from the aggression of foreigners. And locally it must protect us from aggression against ourselves and our property by other citizens. We need government to keep us safe. Without security in life and property, there is nothing else.

For the first 150 years of our nation’s history, Americans used government to perform these core functions, and very little else. And it performed them quite well. Well enough, in fact, that many people concluded that government should also be able to perform lots of other tasks. But government can’t grow food or sew clothing or build ca s—it can only confiscate wealth from the people who create it. The only thing of real value that government can produce is security. It is a product which individuals are singularly poor at producing themselves.

Unfortunately, the attempt to get more from government did not mean that government would fail at only its new tasks. That would have been bad enough, for government “solutions” discourage private actions that could work toward solving society’s problems. It also meant that government’s limited talents and abilities would be stretched beyond the breaking point. And so government no longer performs its one, irreplaceable function—the protection of life and property.

What has been forgotten in this process of expanding government is that virtually all the gains society reaps from government come with the securing of life and property. Beyond that security, more produces less. As more tasks are assigned to government, it slowly begins to dissipate those large initial gains. America is approaching a middle area where government’s failures outnumber, and outweigh in importance, its successes.

It seems today that everyone has a prescription for ways in which more government can make America a better place. Just one more law, one more program. But even if we could find the money and expertise to perform all these tasks well (which we cannot), the programs themselves would make us worse off. Asking government to perform these additional tasks—demanding that government compensate us for every bad break and insure us against our own failings—condemns us to fear and insecurity.

The average American pays 35 percent of his income in taxes. And he can’t walk the streets at night. It is important to recognize that government doesn’t need any more money to keep us safe. Government simply needs to concentrate on that task, and stop wasting our money on other things.