(Occasionally I amuse myself by trying to write in the style of other authors, and since I was listening to a book on tape written by a favorite author, I simply couldn't resist the call to imitate her charming, though verbose style. So I apologize for the wordiness, and hope that the ultimate point remains clear.)
There has been plenty of political talk in our house of late (which can hardly be avoided when one lives with an economist so near the District of Columbia.) And though the frequency and depth of the conversation ebbs and flows like any other subject of interest (though, I might venture to say—not excessive interest) I always find myself wholly unprepared to encounter the immense amount of impractical and inexplicably silly decisions made by our various and sundry politicians.
It is, in fact, so completely incomprehensible to me that my first questions regarding such persons tend toward the area of mental stability or of the training of these government officials in the simpler points of logic. And while I do believe that some of our nation’s leaders make poor choices on purpose in order to further their own self interest and career, it would be unjust of me to say that all operate in this manner. I earnestly believe that some of these illogical people who make decisions that impel us all to do or buy or consume one thing over another; some of these people actually believe that they are on track to accomplish the greatest good of the century.
One might ask (as I often do) “How can this be? How can two people, or a whole populous for that matter, have completely opposite opinions about what is good for the country and both be equally convinced that they are in the right and that the other is either sadly deluded or vicious?” We might look at varying education or birth places, family situation and social connections, opportunities taken or overlooked or lost, even allowing for a disparity in temper and disposition. Yet none of these will satisfy for the dividing line. Instead, I believe it to be a mental division, and one not in nature related to our country or personal politics. And indeed, though some might proclaim it loudly, it is certainly not a division of religious belief.
I believe the division to one of philosophical nature, a difference of opinion on what a government ought to do. Instead of considering, “What can the government do? What good can we accomplish with it? What causes and problems can we thrust upon it in order to gain a solution against which (though unsatisfactory to many parties) no one could argue against? The question at hand is this: Given a general government (we could even say a representative government) what are its obligations to the people and to its neighbors in the globe? And an even deeper and more general question, “What is the purpose of government?”
Personally, I subscribe to the philosophy that the government ought to preserve peace and promote justice. This is frequently done by rewarding good and punishing evil.
But truly, I think few people would argue with this idea. It is merely about the specifics of how to implement it that people disagree so violently. But one main difference between the two extremes in the political field is this: one side claims that the government ought to preserve peace at home and punish criminals and absolutely nothing more. In fact, even with these paltry chores, the government should execute them in as simple a manner as possible, dealing solely with the matter at hand, and being less worried about the motive of a wrongdoer than the actual wrong itself. This is cold, certainly, but certainly no one could argue the justice in it? It is appropriate that the saying goes, “Let the punishment fit the crime,” instead of, “Let the punishment fit what the criminal was thinking and feeling at the time when he was impelled by his uncontrollable emotions to commit his crime.”
The other side claims this second standard. They believe that the government, in being concerned with peace and justice in the country, is impelled to consider the motives and mental capacity of its citizens. Everyone, in their own unique situation, has a right (they say) to a personalized ruling or measure of peace and happiness. This is attractive to those of us who are compassionate beings and think in terms of individuals rather than a large body of people. However, this is a most impractical system, since it necessarily causes chaos and uncertainly among the citizens of the country. Your very neighbor might obtain this or that ruling for a misdemeanor, or she might acquire this or that from the government’s generosity because of her situation, but if it is based solely on situation, you yourself have no cause to alter your behavior for better or worse by example.
It is absolutely imperative for the peace and prosperity of a country for there to be a strong measure of stability and predictability in the rule of law. For if one business can be sued for offering its patrons boiling coffee, and another sued for not offering boiling coffee, what man of business, in his right mind, would go into business offering food or drink of any kind?
Perhaps it is a logical leap, but if considered carefully, it is only the smallest hop to conclude that the most stable and predictable government is one that is most simplified. There must be a simple tax (however unpalatable) for the government to raise what small necessary funds it shall use. But it must be simple for the citizens to understand how they will reap the fruits of their hard labor. There must be a simple rule of law, where people are free to offer the services in which they are skilled and where a customer that is merely unhappy has no power to ruin the business that he so freely chose to patronize.
Add to this the immeasurable benefit of a society free to choose as it pleases, and that is also responsible for imprudent, foolish, or wasteful decisions. (And in this responsibility, we shall include the governing body as well.) This is a vision of freedom that captured the hearts of the settlers from Europe, and motivated them to give up a comfortable home for a wilderness.
Some people now despise this freedom and are eager to throw it away. They are instead capture by a vision of uniformity of wealth and income and station in life. They would give our freedom to those that know not our names and care only for pretty statistics that show how we are all amiably occupied, consuming healthy meals, and conversing with each other in a uniformly respectable way. These are good things. But shall we not have the pleasure of choosing them ourselves? Will we continue to relinquish our right to determine our own future and happiness?