It may, at first blush, sound too sweeping to say that we have government to protect public health, safety, and morals, and to advance the general welfare.
Yet this statement does not imply an unlimited scope for government. Indeed, the general welfare itself requires that government be limited. Although government has primary responsibility for defending the nation from attack, protecting people from physical assaults and various other forms of depredation, and maintaining public order, its role is otherwise subsidiary: to support the work of the families, religious communities, and other institutions of civil society that shoulder the primary burden of forming upright and decent citizens, caring for those in need, encouraging people to meet their responsibilities to one another, and discouraging them from harming themselves or others.
Governmental respect for individual freedom and the autonomy of nongovernmental spheres of authority is, then, a requirement of political morality. Government must not try to run people's lives or usurp the roles and responsibilities of families, religious bodies, and other character- and culture-forming authoritative communities. This is wrong in principle, and the record of big government in the 20th century--even when it has not degenerated into vicious totalitarianism--shows that it does little good in the long run and frequently harms those it seeks to help.
And so it is that conservatives have rightly embraced--though more faithfully in theory than in practice, alas--the principle of limited government. Some conservatives have gone all the way to libertarianism, having become persuaded that government has no legitimate role to play beyond preventing violent force and fraud. The strict libertarian position, it seems to me, goes much too far in depriving government of even its subsidiary role. It underestimates the importance of maintaining a reasonably healthy moral ecology, especially for the rearing of children, and it fails to appreciate the legitimate, albeit once again limited, role of law and government in maintaining such an ecology. (I have developed and defended this point in Making Men Moral: Civil Liberties and Public Morality and elsewhere.) Even critics of libertarianism, however, must acknowledge that it responds to certain truths that have come increasingly into focus as experiments with big government, especially in its bureaucratic and managerial dimensions, have produced their disappointing--and sometimes deplorable--results.
Free markets are engines of economic growth, social mobility, and general prosperity. Economic freedom cannot guarantee political liberty and respect for individual rights beyond the sphere of economic exchange, but in the absence of economic liberty other honorable freedoms are rarely secure. Moreover, the concentration of economic power in the hands of government is something that every true friend of civil liberties should, by now, have learned to fear.
But there is an even deeper truth--one going beyond economics--to which libertarianism responds: Law and government exist to protect human persons and secure their well-being. It is not the other way round, as Communist and other forms of collectivist ideology suppose. Individuals are not cogs in a wheel. Stringent norms of political justice forbid persons to be treated as mere instrumentalities of the state. These norms equally exclude the sacrificing of the dignity and rights of persons for the sake of some supposed "greater good."
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