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A conservative and ‘originalist’ definition of the role of government

Date Published: 10/12/2011

Author: Dane Smith, President


Deep respect for the wisdom of the past is one of the great appeals of the American conservative movement, and this reverence is implicit in the very label “conservatism.”

This came to mind recently as I was debating the national leader of the Ayn (pronounced “ine,” as in “mine”) Rand Institute on the subject of whether government regulation is morally defensible (I took the “yes” side). My adversary, Yaron Brook, struck me as a nice enough fellow, for being about as wrongheaded and dismissive of America’s founding communitarian values as one can be.

We agreed in private beforehand that his home state of California has an enviable climate. And we agreed in our public debate that civil liberties are good and that government should not impose religious beliefs on anyone, and then we agreed on very little else.

Although I am familiar with the objectivist philosophy, having been an avid reader in my twenties of Rand’s novels and polemics, I was left slack-jawed at times by Brook’s absolutist assertions that almost nothing should be public. It also occurred to me that objectivism hasn’t gotten any more sophisticated or flexible in 40 years, refusing to accommodate the overwhelming consensus by even laissez-faire economists on the need for some public regulations to reduce the environmental damage done by private profit-seekers and individuals.

But objectivism is also disrespectful of the clear mandates provided in our state and U.S. constitutions, including 18 clauses in Section 8 of the latter, which unequivocally state that our government has the power and obligation to raise taxes not only for “the common Defence and the general Welfare” but also to borrow money, incur debt and “regulate commerce” (emphasis added), and build roads and post offices, and lots of other commonsensical government stuff we take for granted and that actually help business and commerce thrive.

Brook defined our own good governments as an essentially — not potentially or occasionally, but essentially — immoral and evil force. He described them at one point as nothing more than an agent of coercion wherein all the power derives from the “point of a gun.” Brook, in keeping with Rand’s elevation of individual freedom as the supreme virtue and unfettered capitalism as its only legitimate structuring principle (she wrote a book titled “The Virtue of Selfishness”), was arguing that there is almost no such thing as public good, and that the only good lies in the pursuit of self-interest by private individuals, corporations and business owners, and other voluntary associations.

I had prepared a counterattack arguing that Brook and libertarian/objectivists were not just against government but against democracy itself. Brook beat me to the punch and declared that he indeed disapproved of the very idea of democracy and majority rule. He then went on to propose selling and privatizing all public land and parks, including public schools, even privatizing rivers and presumably our lakes, too, privatizing everything except the courts and cops and guys with guns to protect private property, although it wasn’t clear to me that anything would remain truly public in his utopia. He did insist that he favored a “strong government” but just to protect property and was therefore not one of those libertarian anarchists. (You can see the debate at www.livestre.am/13xtU.)

It’s not just progressives and moderates who are freaked out about the rise of this once extremely marginalized “philosophy,” which clearly is gaining ascendance. Presidential candidate Ron Paul and his son, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, and dozens if not hundreds of newly elected officeholders are openly praising Rand as their spiritual mentor.

Many other conservatives are appalled and critical of objectivism and libertarianism, particularly by Rand’s well-known antipathy for the altruism inherent in the world’s great religious systems. Conservative thinkers and strategists from William F. Buckley to Karl Rove have rung the alarm bells about this school of thought.

Robert Locke, a contributor to the American Conservative magazine, recently attacked libertarianism as “the Marxism of the right. If Marxism is the delusion that one can run society purely on altruism and collectivism, then libertarianism is the mirror-image delusion that one can run it purely on selfishness and individualism. Society in fact requires both individualism and collectivism, both selfishness and altruism, to function.”

I want to advance a similarly conservative and traditional and “originalist” definition of the role of state government. It’s quite old, actually, and here it is in one starkly short and simple paragraph from 1858, at the very beginning of the Minnesota Constitution and helpfully labeled “Object of government”:

“Government is instituted for the security, benefit and protection of the people, in whom all political power is inherent, together with the right to alter, modify or reform government whenever required by the public good.”

And that is all it says in that section. Note the emphasis on continuously altering, modifying and reforming, but there is nothing else under “object of government” that says it is better when it is smaller, that taxes must be kept low, or that private property is more important than public property, or that private purpose is more important than public purpose. Some of those principles might be at least partly true, but they are not part of the constitutional “object of government.”

In both constitutions, the word “liberty” is prominent, and both documents abound with enumerated individual rights, and checks and balances and mechanisms to curb the coercive power of government, and the potential excesses of majority rule.

But in both these sacred mission statements, the first three words are: “We the people.”


A version of this column originally appeared the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report on Thursday October 6, 2011.

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