What Is the Intended Role of Government? | Beaufort County Now | The concept of limited government is simple. A limited, just government, as summed up in the Declaration of Independence, protects the rights to “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

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    Publisher's Note: This post appears here courtesy of the John Locke Foundation. The author of this post is Paige Terryberry.

  • The crux of the government's responsibility is to protect people's rights and enable them to pursue their interests
  • Limited government unleashes prosperity
  • Government's declaration of itself as a moral authority undermines society's moral incentives

    The concept of limited government is simple. A limited, just government, as summed up in the Declaration of Independence, protects the rights to "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness." These rights are self-evident, beyond debate. Government's proper role is limited to protecting these inalienable rights.

    If we choose to hand over the reins of our lives to the government still further, the result will be social chaos. Witness the results of the last year and a half. The decision to exchange our birthright of personal freedom for public coddling is a grave danger.

    The government will be tempted to encroach on those freedoms, and without vigilance this encroachment will occur over time and in slow, convincing baby steps. Limited government works because it leaves individuals free to care for themselves and carve out their own plans for happiness, rather than following a centralized government plan.

    Government welfare, for example, has not been successful in breaking the cycle of poverty, because poverty does not have a solely financial antidote. Instead, a system of limited government can lift people from poverty because it allows people to thrive, it empowers them, and it restores the relational parts of society to where it belongs, with people and not government programs.

    If we tell the government its principal role is to take care of us, there will be no end to the violation of rights.

    To be effective, government does require power and authority. This authority comes from the imperfect governed. In Federalist No. 51, James Madison stated, "In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself."

    The proper role of government is limited to the protections of the following: persons and property. According to Madison, "persons and property are the two great subjects on which Governments are to act; and that the rights of persons and the rights of property are the objects for the protection of which Government was instituted." As the Declaration of Independence reads, it is for this reason that governments are established: "That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."

    Notice that the rights are intrinsic. The government should prevent injustices against one's person and property. These rights of the governed preexist the government itself. Unequal treatment towards the governed goes against the model of government intended by the Founders and creates an unfair society.

    The crux of the government's responsibility is to allow people to pursue their interests. At its purest form, this is a prevention of injustice. It is a safeguard.

    The people necessarily give government its authority. Government has no inherent power. In fact, our Founders designed government to be an institutional framework - not the source of economic growth. The novelty of the Constitution, in comparison with other national frameworks, is that it limits the powers of government officials.

    This brings us to the issue of morality. When government action exceeds the protection of persons and property, it enters the dangerous territory of legislating morality. Our government has grown, and the Founder's design has been reframed to make way for a government that promotes the illusion of being a warrior for social justice and the goal of "equity."

    People's sense of duty to help others, however, is only morally fulfilled through freely chosen acts of compassion, not from legal obligation. The invisible hand is more likely to create order, including lifting people out of poverty, than any actions induced by the government.

    Robbing Peter to pay Paul, for example, is not a promotion of justice. The government should enforce rules (law), not caprice. Nineteenth century French economist and political philosopher Frédéric Bastiat said, "[Government] cannot organize labor, education, and religion without disorganizing justice." It is impossible for the government to act altruistically as each dollar the government "gives" is forced from the working hand of another.

    The Founders predicted that government power would expand. This expansion may be in the name of justice, but it is actually about power. Madison warned, "The essence of Government is power; and power lodged as it must be, in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse."

    The promise of government seems enticing: We will ease your pain of toiling for your money. Let us take care of things. Private association has too many risks. This is the message we often hear from the Left. The government promises to do good - with other people's money. This dependency erodes self-reliance and weakens moral incentives.

    Today, our government has grown more self-assured in masquerading as the barometer for morality. History would argue that the idea of government compassion is unfounded and often turns deadly.
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