Monday, September 13, 2010

What is the legitimate role of government in America?

The social and political conflict taking place in America is based in two very diverse concepts of the legitimate role of government. In order to gain a rational perspective on the "legitimacy" question, one should first take a good look at the purpose of government in general.

In a nutshell, "government" is the system of political authority that exists within a sovereign state: to establish the rights and responsibilities of citizens; to manage the common resources of the state; and to protect the citizenry from foreign and domestic threat (to life, limb, and property). Government accomplishes these functions by passing and enforcing laws, and by levying taxes to pay for services.

In a "free society", government derives its legitimate authority to do those things by means of an underlying social contract with The People who are being governed.

When discussing "social contract" within the context of "government", most socio-political philosophies use the hypothetical "state of nature" as their starting point:

Living in the "state of nature" is an imaginary situation whereby every "individual" has unlimited "natural" freedoms, and the "right to all things." In such a world, the individual’s freedom to act upon his own self-interests is constrained only by his or her personal power, his or her individual conscience---and by the laws of Nature.

In the state of nature there is no structured social order, because there's no universal code of conduct between individuals---nor any recognized authority to enforce such a code. Everyone is free to exercise their natural right to do or to have anything they want---regardless of any prior claim---and humanity remains in a perpetual state of violence and Anarchy.

Eventually, rational individuals come to realize that it is in their best self-interest to "voluntarily associate" and cede some of their "natural rights", as long as others agree to do the same ("I will not act on my natural right to harm you, kill you, or take your property, if you agree to do the same). In time, the natural state gives way to the formation of society that then institutes authoritative bodies to promote and enforce social contracts.

Following America's War for Independence, the social contract between legitimate government authority and peaceful citizen compliance was codified in the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The underlying social contract states that The People agree to peacefully comply with the rule of (Constitutional) law---as long as their elected government abides by its Constitutional limits of authority, and performs its defined responsibilities.

"A constitution is not the act of a government, but of a people constituting a government; and government without a constitution is power without a right. All power exercised over a nation, must have some beginning. It must be either delegated, or assumed. There are not other sources. All delegated power is trust, and all assumed power is usurpation. Time does not alter the nature and quality of either."
~Thomas Paine

Any elected government that overreaches its legitimate authority, or neglects its defined responsibilities, is in violation of that sacred American social compact---our U.S. Constitution; and civil disobedience then becomes a legitimate, patriotic response to their government breeching the contract.
"The Constitution is not an instrument for the government to restrain the people, it is an instrument for the people to restrain the government - lest it come to dominate our lives and interests.” ~ Patrick Henry
For Americans, the legitimate role of government was extensively written about by our Founding Fathers, and was written into the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

The U.S. Constitution does not grant the Federal Government the authority---or the role---of engineering social change, or orchestrating "social justice" through forced redistribution of national wealth. Those ideas are un-American and destructive to the American social contract.

"When the representative body have lost the confidence of their constituents, when they have notoriously made sale of their most valuable rights, when they have assumed to themselves powers which the people never put into their hands, then, indeed, their continuing in office becomes dangerous to the state, and calls for an exercise of the power of dissolution."
~Thomas Jefferson

"I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not so desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right."
~Henry David Thoreau (Civil Disobedience, 1849)

"We cannot, by total reliance on law, escape the duty to judge right and wrong.... There are good laws and there are occasionally bad laws, and it conforms to the highest traditions of a free society to offer resistance to bad laws, and to disobey them."
~Alexander Bickel

"There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived---and treats him accordingly."
~ Henry David Thoreau

"We the people are the rightful masters of both Congress and the courts, not to overthrow the Constitution but to overthrow the men who pervert the Constitution."
- Abraham Lincoln

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