A Discussion of Principle-Driven Government: Why It Is Moral & Necessary
“If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” —James Madison, Federalist No. 51
Government Legitimacy in a Free Society
In a free society, government is the agent of free individuals. We the People grant government operatives their power; they do not grant us ours. The only legitimate reason government exists is to safeguard citizens and the rights of citizens.
Government must protect citizens’ rights without favoring any individual or group of individuals. Every person, as a human being, accrues natural rights that must be protected by government and not treated as privileges.
Appropriate Delegation of Power
The people can only delegate powers to the government that they rightly possess themselves. Thus, we institute government to protect what is natural to us that predates government altogether; the government does not grant us our rights as a list of privileges that they might decide, at some point, to take away.
Indeed, the French political theorist Frederic Bastiat writes, in The Law: “Life, liberty, and property do not exist because men have made laws. On the contrary, it was the fact that life, liberty, and property existed beforehand that caused men to make laws in the first place.” The people are thus superior to government and must ensure that government remains subservient, lest an unnatural despotism develop.
The Principal of Agency
Government should operate based upon a set of consistently applied principles, rather than upon fleeting popular notions. One such principle is that government, as your agent, is only permitted to do what you may do yourself. By the same token, if the act of another person does not seem in some way offensive to you, you have no right to compel the government to punish such an act.
This means that, if you have no moral right to go into your wealthier neighbor’s home to take his money for redistribution among your poorer neighbors, then you may not delegate this power to the government. Ezra Taft Benson, Secretary of Agriculture under Eisenhower, makes the seminal point that, if Citizen A has no legal right to take the property or money of Citizen B, then Citizen A may not properly delegate this power to an agent. Even if everyone in the neighborhood is in sympathy with A, they have no right as individuals to force the matter; and, since collective rights devolve from individual rights, they have no collective right, either.
This immediately calls into question the validity of any kind of government-forced welfare state. This form of governance fundamentally changes the relationship between the government and the people. It gives government the power to boss the people around inappropriately, usurping their natural rights. Thomas Jefferson once said, “A wise and frugal government . . . shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.”
One of the ethical problems with welfare programs is that they cause harm to some in order to benefit others. By treating people differently, they violate the right of equal protection under law, another timeless principle enshrined in the Constitution. This violates the basic principle of fairness.
This wisdom principle is found in Leviticus 19:15: “You shall not render an unfair decision: do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich; judge your kinsman fairly.” Some claim this verse applies only to judges, but how could that be true? If the government passed a law requiring that judges treat people differentially, then judges would be forced to violate this principle, which applies to everyone.
The Right to Self-Defense
Every citizen has the right to protect his own life and limb, as well as the lives of his family members, by the same means he might expect to be set upon by an adversary. It would be ludicrous to deny human beings the same right enjoyed by animals. You are, therefore, permitted to hire a peace officer to act as your agent in this regard. And with respect to groups, a police force or a military force could be formed. Bastiat, in The Law, makes this assertion: “[T]he principle of collective right—its reason for existing, its lawfulness—is based on individual right.”
John Locke explains all of this in his Two Treatises of Civil Government: “For nobody can transfer to another more power than he has in himself, and nobody has an absolute arbitrary power over himself, or over any other, to destroy his own life, or take away the life or property of another.”
Punishments & Compensations
It is also wrong for government to punish a citizen for any transgression more harshly than any citizen would think reasonable. If you yourself would not render such a punishment, then it would be wrong to endow the government with power to render such a punishment.
The government should not be allowed to take property from a citizen without just compensation. And compensation money should not be taxed in any way, lest the compensation be unfairly reduced in the process.
Government Is Force
Always bear in mind that, when you make a law, you are instructing the government to use force to imprison or execute anyone who violates it. George Washington once said, “Government is not reason, it is not eloquence—it is force! Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master!” We owe it to our fellows, then, to limit the power to punish that we delegate to government.
No government may morally or ethically infringe our natural rights or destroy them altogether. Legitimate government exists to protect our rights and is obligated never to usurp them. To stretch beyond these purposes alters government’s role fundamentally, transforming it ultimately into an institution of oppression and tyranny.
The views expressed in this opinion article are solely those of their author and are not necessarily either shared or endorsed by EagleRising.com