Quantity, Quality, and Government

May 25, 2010 by  

In today’s Globe and Mail newspaper, Professor Tom Flanagan – professor of political science at the University of Calgary and a former campaign manager for the Conservative Party of Canada – argues that a number of issues currently hurting the governing Conservatives would not have arisen were it not for their having grown the government. Flanagan points to three examples. The Conservatives created a $1-billion Green Infrastructure Fund, pursuant to which former Conservative MP Rahim Jaffer is alleged to have sought subsidies, such that there is now speculation that he did not comply with lobbying rules. As chair of the G8 and G20 summits, Stephen Harper chose to promote foreign aid for maternal health, excluding funds for abortions, thereby reigniting the abortion debate in Canada. And the Harper government cut funding to Toronto’s gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender Pride parade, redirecting those funds to non-gay events, and thereby (deliberately?) creating the impression that Conservatives are anti-homosexuality. Flanagan’s conclusion:

Rahim Jaffer, abortion, the Toronto Gay Pride parade – these three issues have recently involved the Conservative government in heated debate. There is a common thread to these seemingly unrelated issues. They all illustrate what happens to a conservative government when it increases, rather than decreases, the size of the state.

I agree with Flanagan’s if-thens (i.e., ‘if they hadn’t been funding such things, this scandal would never have arisen’), but Flanagan errs in identifying the “size” of government as the problem. That argument is essentially the libertarian one, derived from anarchist Henry David Thoreau:

I HEARTILY ACCEPT the motto, — “That government is best which governs least”; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe, — “That government is best which governs not at all” (from “Civil Disobedience”)

There are all sorts of people, with conflicting philosophies, who call themselves “libertarian” and who band together with others who call themselves “libertarian”. What they all have in common, to one extent or another, in certain ways or in others, is a desire for “less government”. Yet, though many libertarians gleefully chant that “That government is best which governs least”, many intentionally stop short, and blank out with the rest of what Thoreau said: “it finally amounts to this” – no government at all. Thoreau was correct: if less government is better, that necessarily implies that anarchy is best.

Tom Flanagan is no anarchist. Like other libertarians, he has mis-identified the essential issue. Ask yourself whether you would say one gram is “too much” or “too little” when it comes to “the stuff in your bowl”. If it is a gram of stew, most hungry people (who like stew) will say one gram is “too little”. If it is rat poison, all but the suicidal will say one gram is “too much”. The essential issue is not how much is in the bowl, but what is in the bowl.

If government is properly defined (e.g., loosely: a group of citizens authorized by the governed to use force and the threat of force to prevent persons from taking any other person’s life, liberty or property without the latter’s consent) then one can start talking about how much government is too much government. However, if “government” means nothing more than: “a group of citizens authorized by the governed to use force and the threat of force to ensure compliance with laws made in a duly elected legislature”, then talk of “too much” or “too little” government is meaningless.

The Conservatives’ problem is not a matter of quantity, but of quality. Like all Canadian ‘governments’ before them, the Conservatives fancy it to be the role of government to use force to prevent individuals from making ‘bad’ decisions – or to force them to make ‘good’ decisions – even when those decisions do not involve the violation of anyone’s life, liberty, or property (e.g., merely self-destructive acts, like using drugs to avoid facing and dealing with ones own responsibilities or problems). In other words: the Conservatives have assumed a parenting role, instead of assuming the peace and order role that they ought to be assuming: defending every adult individual’s freedom to make, for themselves, both good and bad choices that do not involve non-consensual conduct.

In the cases of Jaffer, Abortion, and Pride, the Harper Conservatives took property from those who earned it – without the consent of those who earned it – and gave or loaned the money to those who did not earn it. That is the very sort of conduct for which a government imprisons people. The gang we have now – like all of the gangs we have gotten since 1867 – masquerading as a government, in reality fancies government itself to be above the law.

In the end, the issue isn’t “less government” or “more government”. As always, the political issue is consent. Specifically, the Conservatives are taking money from people who earn it, and without the consent of those who earn it, and handing the money to those who did not earn it: they are stepping outside the role of government, and into the role of organized criminals. Accordingly, the Conservatives’ more fundamental error is one of identification: a failure to identify the nature of a “government”, and to distinguish it from the nature of “elected criminal organization”


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