At the bottom of the ontological stack, we have no coherent theory of Government.

by w3woody

In response to a comment made on a Slashdot thread:

The GOP promise is small government. A government that gets out of the way and lets business do what it wants. Yet the GOP seems to really really like getting in there and making things personal. This is the exact opposite of small government.

My response:

I think the real problem is that, at the bottom of the ontological stack, we don’t really have a coherent theory of what government should actually be.

I mean, on the Right it’s basically a limited laundry list, more or less corresponding to the enumerated powers in the Constitution (and forgetting the 10th Amendment, prior to the 12th, permitted States to do whatever the hell they wanted, including religious tests to qualify for state office–meaning we’d have 50 little tyrannies instead of one big one). And for the Left, it’s basically a utopian vision of the future for which government should intervene (meddling and even restricting little liberties if it serves this Star-Trek utopian vision).

That is, we define government by our laundry list of pet projects, rather than defining government based on what government should actually be–what role government serves in the greater society.

So of course both sides are completely contradictory: the whole “big government”/”small government” seems hypocritical because they’re just branding: slogans they use to help sell their laundry list of pet projects.

Personally, I believe government is three things.

First, it is the agency which assures trust between citizens. Thus, things like the police and the FDA and agencies which makes sure when you buy a new car you don’t buy a lemon. That is, it helps guarantee trust between strangers so we can build a complex economic society based on complex interactions with people we barely know. (Do you know the name of the manager at the bank which holds thousands of your money?)

Second, it is an agency capable of mobilizing a massive first response in the event of an emergency. (Again, think police officers and fire fighters who arrive on scene when an airplane crash lands, or when a tornado strikes.)

And third, it is the agency capable of funding or managing projects where there is a market failure, where normal market forces run contrary to desired social outcomes. (Think, for example, of government back-stopping the desperately ill, or funding the interstate highway system.) The key, however, is “market failure”; sadly too many people want to claim a market failure because they hate their neighbors. I believe this power needs to be limited in light of the first point as well; having the government claim “market failure” left and right actually reduces trust.

In light of this, I think we can then have a debate over which laundry list items on the Left and the Right actually belong on the government’s plate. (And yes, I know; the third point makes that debate contentious because the Left sees market failures in the fact that you ate a banana this morning while I didn’t, while the Right sees no market failures when an insurance company drops someone because they got cancer. But at least we’re having the right debate.)