Sunday, April 15, 2012

Harmful Government 1/2

Government isn’t supposed to be big or small, it’s supposed to do its job. The same goes for every other institution, group, or individual in this world. The distillation of the government’s function into a matter of size completely ignores the substance of the argument.

No reasonable American wants an overly intrusive government that infringes on the rights of the people. But those charges are constantly leveled against the parties for different reasons. With Democrats the infringement is at the level of economic freedom and social programs. With Republicans the infringement is at the level of due process and the imperative of national security.

But are these infringements real? Does the government go too far? That becomes a far more nuanced question. One that really becomes a matter more of minutiae than the categorical destruction of (x) Amendment.

For example the first two Amendments to the United States Constitution are pretty clear, yet there is an extraordinary amount of case law regarding these two Amendments. For simplicity’s sake we’ll call the First Amendment the Democrats’ (for their love of hippie peace circles, flag burning, and peddling pornography) and the Second Amendment the Republicans’ (for their love of hunting quail with armor piercing bullets and automatic rifles, also starting border patrols). This is merely to illustrate traditional political divisions and the inherent contradiction in big vs small government arguments.

The First Amendment does have specific limits. A well-known distillation of the limits of freedom of speech, “you can’t yell fire in a crowded theater.” This hypothetical outlines a clear distinction between harmless speech and speech that can be considered action. Without delving into the specifics, if speech violates the well-being of other citizens in an overt and quantifiable way, the Democrats’ Amendment does not protect the originator of that speech.

It is the same for the rest of the protections in the First Amendment. While there are more narrowly defined and tailored restrictions regarding things such as obscenity or religious institutions and federal funding, by and large the limits of the First amendment are restricted to JS Mill’s harm principle. If a person commits an act that harms another, then that act can no longer be protected by law.

John Stuart Mill is often seen as the philosophical grandfather of libertarianism. His views on the role of government essentially boiled down to a couple of core concepts. Living in civilized society requires the forfeiture of rights. Some of those rights--such as the right to murder indiscriminately--are unsuited for society. The creation of society guarantees certain securities such as infrastructure, food, and a justice system in exchange for the forfeiture of those rights. An optimal society is one in which diverse lifestyles are permitted to experiment with and maximize the happiness of all citizens. Only the most minimal restrictions should be allowed. The imposition of a restriction is determined by the harm principle.