How did we ever come to the conclusion that less government means more freedom? There has certainly been occasion for too much government -e.g., promotion of officially approved religion, regulations to insure large profits for pharmaceuticals. But the absurd idea that government itself is an enemy of freedom violates the very charters which define our political life–the Declaration of Independence which insists that governments are “instituted among men” to secure their liberties, and the Constitution, established to overcome the weaknesses of previous governments in order to serve the larger welfare of the nation.
I am brought to these concerns by the recent news concerning the Ebola virus in East Africa, where the very possibility of contamination is due to weak and often corrupt governance in East Africa. When missionaries serving in Liberia and neighboring countries are brought to the U. S. (specifically, North Carolina as reported on NPR) who might be contaminated, there is little worry among medical professionals of contamination because our medical institutions and professions are highly regulated, and government institutions are established to insure they maintain standards which prevent the spread of disease. Where hospital infections do occur due to lax oversight, something that is now under examination by regulatory authorities like the CDC–there is an immediate outcry in favor stronger governmental regulation.
Examples of weak governance and the utter disaster that results are everywhere. Weak states breed militias, terrorism, corruption, and other illustrations of anarchy in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Myanmar ,El Salvador, Honduras, and much of East Africa. Military dictatorships are the natural result of weak civilian governments which fail to maintain order and security. A vicious cycle usually follows when military governance also fails to deliver what people want and restrict basic freedoms because they cannot govern in the way that politicians are forced to govern in a democracy–through the solicitation of a broad consensus to establish the kind of legitimacy that enables good governance to improve our lives.
The idea among some in the United States today that citizens with guns guarantee liberty is based upon an inherently nonpolitical fantasy, where we can simply insist that we be left alone without having to engage other citizens to serve our common needs and purposes. Meaningful liberty requires active citizens who shoulder responsibilities for building strong institutions that protect and serve us. The framers knew this well: no one is free where everyone has the liberty to do whatever he or she want without building a common world with others.
Governments help us become free by enabling us to make choices with the support and protections given us by others. Traffic laws give us freedom of movement; sanitary laws allow us to eat food and drink water which doesn’t kill us or make us ill; banking regulations enable us to save and borrow money without storing it in our mattresses; and enforceable contracts backed by law enable our economy to grow and provide us with a huge variety of consumer and investing choices.
One wonders why this isn’t obvious to everyone. Governments have created standardized languages enabling communication among millions, rather than restricting us to the local dialects of medieval times which vastly hindered the connections which built our world. Standardized weights and measures, elaborate transportation networks and mandatory schooling enhanced our freedoms and built public support for the very governments which benefited from such policies.
Governments can certainly get out of hand, and the best remedy for arbitrary governance is the requirement to built a broad public consensus where people recognize their mutual social obligations and see how such recognition actually enhances their own liberty. But then what else is new? Isn’t this obvious to everyone?