06 September, 2005

Responsibilities of Government

The recent Gulf Coast disaster has prompted me to summarize some of my thoughts on the responsibility of government. "Government" has many definitions, but I tend to think of it as being responsible for things that everybody wants but nobody wants to be responsible for.

Services and How They're Paid For

How services are divided up should not be determined by who funded them. Services are for providing a public (shared) good. For those who want services to be tied to how much you contribute, the reliance should go the other way: you have to pay in based on what you are expected to reap. Pay-as-you-go doesn't work with public goods; if it did, we would simply make them private goods and everybody would take care of him- or herself.

That said, there are probably things that are currently under the government's purview that needn't be public goods. We should not hesitate to remove things from this domain. For example, I am not going to argue in this post for or against Social Security, but the fact that it's so difficult to reform seems like a problem to me. We should never think of services as givens; they should be justified and regularly rejustified.

The following lists apply to the "Government" in general. In the US (the scope of my discussions), this consists of many levels of government. The distribution of powers and responsibilities throughout these levels is the task of a different essay.

    Things the Government Should Provide - these are the things without which society itself cannot hold
  • Defense from incursion from foreign nations
  • Defense against attacks from nature: hurricanes, floods, wild boars and the flu
  • Protection of life, liberty and property: criminal court, police,
  • Dispute resolution: among people, businesses and lower governments - civil court, support of contracts
  • Facilitate contribution: universally accessible polling places, frequent open meetings for discussion issues, unwavering support of the rights of its citizens to praise, criticize and participate in their government.

Note that defense against terrorism doesn't have its own item. I would argue that it falls under "Protection of life, liberty and property" rather than under "Defense from incursion from foreign nations," but the current president seems to think it is more of a war.

    Things the Government Might Provide - these are the things we might want to help one another out with, but without which society itself would not crumble to anarchy
  • Protection from non-transmittable disease: health care program beyond the scope of vaccination and disease control.
  • Protection from poverty: poverty is notoriously difficult to overcome, and programs such as welfare, Medicaid and low-income housing have tried to break the cycle. Their efficacy is debatable, though their goal decidedly good.
  • Education (or protection from idiocy): here I will merely comment that paying for education with local property taxes is a bad idea because of the poverty -> poor schools -> poor jobs -> poverty cycle. On the other hand, completely socializing education means people will be paying for schools that they will never use. Education seems to be a semi-public good like many of the others in this category.
  • Infrastructure: things like roads, airports, internet access, telephone lines, the electromagnetic spectrum could be entirely paid for by the government, entirely paid for by usage fees or by some sort of balance between the two. I am currently leaning towards government footing the bill from the start, but people paying back into the system based on use to support future improvements; regardless, we should have a consistent strategy across media.
    Things the Government Should not Provide
  • Subsidies for items that are not public goods (sugar, oil, diapers, art). A free and open market will determine what is of value to produce and sell. (Note that in re: art, I think it may be important for government to instill an appreciation for art, for it is often said that a society's art is the measure of its worth.)


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Anonymous said...

it was helpful thanks

Anonymous said...

Should have said the responsibilities the government does have. Woulda been a lot more helpful, but not bad thinking

Anonymous said...

helpful, thanks!

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Anonymous said...

I loved it. Very abstract, a unique way of stating what should be obvious.

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Anonymous said...

it really helped my friends

Jotham said...

Kind of helpfull

Anonymous said...

hey well..nice thoughts...n PS...everyone who wrote those "not helping" comments..he did not write it for ur homework..its not his problem...the essay is good..exactly..thats what we people expect from government

john said...


Anonymous said...

I don't understand.
But this helps somehow.

Raymond Okon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
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