How Much Control Should The Government Have?

Who is to say how a government is run?  Isn’t it an establishment ‘of the people, by the people, and for the people’ designed to enhance our freedom to choose how we want to live?  So then the answer is this: people.

The most interesting part is that it’s both the answer and problem behind the question of government control.

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So what?  I mean this isn’t anything new, right?  In fact, I’d argue that these principles were established well before the United States formed as a nation.  But that’s the beauty of it all – nothing’s new under the sun.

The point of this article isn’t to bring up any new ideas to the role of government but to revisit the foundational roles that were established by the father of economics, Adam Smith.

Adam Smith’s Three Roles Of Government

In his book, The Wealth of Nations, Smith outlines the role of government in cover three distinct areas: military force, administration of justice (law), and provision of public goods.

Role 1: Military Force

The first priority of the government should be to protect its citizens from outside forces that try to compromise our freedoms.  The ultimate reason for this provision is to ensure that the nation is sustained for as long as possible.

Smith presents a not-so-groundbreaking thought that if government spending is reckless during peacetime, that war will require the nation to borrow.  Unfortunately, this is a reality today.  The principles of budgeting still apply for the everyday person and for the most powerful of governments.

Role 2: Administration Of Justice

“Commerce and manufactures can seldom flourish long in any state which does not enjoy a regular administration of justice, in which the people do not feel themselves secure in the possession of their property…”

If there were no laws protecting society members in areas of property rights, legal contracts, or other rules of law, we’d probably live in a constant state of fear that someone would wrong us.  Smith explains that the government should have a role in creating laws that keep the peace.  Exactly how far these laws should reach, well that’s the big question.  His point is that we should have a common source for justice and the government makes the most sense as a source for legal resolution.

Role 3: Provision Of Public Goods

The third and most debated role of government involves spending for the public good.  This includes building roads, bridges, canals, parks, or any other public feature that no one person wants to fund.  Even more interesting is Smith’s suggestion that these features should be self-financing.  That means if you don’t use the road, you don’t pay.  Enforcing tolls or other fees to construct these public goods is his recommendation.

Another recommendation of Smith is that governments should subsidize the general education of its people in order to create a healthier society.  He stated that “an instructed and intelligent people…are always more decent and orderly than an ignorant and stupid one,” suggesting that it’s easier to govern those who are educated.  The scope of this funding, Smith argues, shouldn’t be extensive, but just enough to provide the basic needs to “read, write, and account.”

Government’s Roles In Society Today

The role of government in society today has reached far beyond the three basic roles that Smith proposed in the late 1700’s.  Unfortunately, a major cause of the expansion of government’s role has been founded on people’s natural tendency to feel entitled to get something in return for very little or nothing in some cases.

I know we’ll never completely rewind and reduce government to these three roles, but it is interesting to see how a government (elected by the people and made up of people) can expand beyond the basic roles outlined by Adam Smith.

What do you think of the three roles outlined by Adam Smith?  Agree or Disagree?  Would a simplistic government, as outline by Adam Smith, work in today’s society?

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Last Edited: 22nd March 2011

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  1. says

    Coordination should be the goal. Simply put, there are certain things that humans can do better through coordinated effort, and we so over-populated, that institutions are required to get the job done. But it should always be with an attempt to avoid controlling people as much as possible.

  2. says

    I remember reading a quote from Benjamin Franklin that applies to the entitlement spending:

    “When the people find they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic.”

    In other words, when people find that they can vote for politicians that will take away others money to give to them – we’ll be in trouble as a country. I think we’re headed down that road right now with the entitlementmentality, and out of control spending by government in the name of the “public good”. People will too often vote in their own selfish interests, so we need politicians that will do the right thing – regardless of whether they get re-elected. Just my two cents.

  3. says

    That’s such a tough question today because the role and involvement of government has stretched well beyond anything that could have been conceived of 100 years ago or even 50. A dependence has been spawned that has millions of people wanting government to do even more.

    It’s safe to say that even apart from the fact that government has gone well beyond Smith’s 3 roles of government, it’s also exceeded any reasonable mandate even within those 3 roles! For example, who could have imagined–prior to World War 2 that America would have a truly global military presence? The military was only supposed to defend the nation, so clearly we’re way out of bounds on that.

    It seems we’re past the point of entertaining a reasonable discussion of this topic, everyone just assumes that everything is governments role.

  4. says

    We’re so far from that the point is quite moot.

    Here are the typical stages of society as history teaches:

    1. From bondage to spiritual faith
    2. From spiritual faith to great courage
    3. From great courage to liberty
    4. From liberty to abundance
    5. From abundance to selfishness
    6. From selfishness to complacency
    7. From complacency to apathy
    8. From apathy to moral decay
    9. From moral decay to dependence
    10. From dependence to bondage

    I see our nation as having just surpassed number five and heading downward into steps 6 – 10. and believe only a majority return to spiritual faith, morality, and charity can reverse the current course we are on.

    • says

      Matt – You’re being extremely generous spotting us ***only*** at #5. The evidence of complacency, apathy, moral decay and dependence seems obvious all over. Look at all the big corporations that needed to be bailed out as evidence of dependence even at the highest levels. I’d say we’re all the way to #9!

      The good news is that bondage is followed by spiritual faith–let’s hope we can get through the bondage part as quickly as possible…

      • says

        I remember seeing this sequence before – it’s really interesting. I think our generation is definitely living through the 7-10 phase. Hopefully we can experience the rebound to #1…but that won’t be an easy thing to live through.

  5. says

    Yes, Peter, good ‘ole Benjamin is spot on. Unfortunately, all the tax cuts you’ve been hearing about lately is a futile effort. I’ve come to the realization that this country is headed down hill FAST and only God can change it now. I sincerely believe we’ve lost our blessing as a Christian nation. But there is hope for He is sovereign! We can get anxious about this stuff all day, but going to prayer is a better bet I think.

  6. says

    I think Adam Smith’s second point — enforcing rule of law, so that people are safe from thieves and corruption — is an extremely important point. Traveling in other countries that don’t have good rule of law, where corruption is rampant, and customers get ripped off all the time because businesses don’t have to deliver the goods as promised, really opened my eyes to how much your money can get lost when basic rule of law isn’t there to protect it.

  7. says

    I’m not sure if I agree with that order. And I’m also curious where social services would come into play? Administration Of Justice maybe?

  8. says

    In my opinion the government should only have as much control as necessary to preserve human life and liberty. The government should be there to prevent people’s rights from being removed; it should not be there to take from some to give to others and it should not serve as a tool to grant some people power at the expense of others.

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