Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Functions of Government

One of the most disputed questions both in political science and in practical statesmanship at this particular time period, relates to the proper limits of the functions and agency of governments.
Although it sounds like it could be taken from today's editorial pages, this was actually written by John Stuart Mill in 1848 in his book Principles of Political Economy.  He went on to describe the tension between the those who look to government to improve the human condition and those who fear too much government control:
And when the tide sets so strongly towards changes in government and legislation, as a means of improving the condition of mankind, this discussion is more likely to increase than to diminish in interest.  On the one hand, impatient reformers, thinking it easier and shorter to get possession of the government than of the intellects and disposition of the public, are under a constant temptation to stretch the province of government beyond due bounds: while, on the other, mankind have been so much accustomed by their rulers to interference for purposes other than the public good, or under an erroneous conception of what that good requires, and so many rash proposals are made by sincere lovers of improvement, for attempting, by compulsory regulation, the attainment of objects which can only be effectually or only usefully compassed by opinion and discussion, that there has grown up a spirit of resistance in limine [at a gut level] to the interference of government, merely as such, and a disposition to restrict its sphere of action within the narrowest bounds.
Again a description that is relevant even today, though, it is striking to read a fair appraisal of the two sides of the argument, as 'impatient reformers' and 'sincere lovers of improvement' on the one side, and on the other those 'accustomed by their rulers to interference' and who therefore have 'grown up a spirit of resistance.'

Such a more thoughtful consideration of the two sides and their motivations than one often hears in discussions today, particularly in some places in the media.

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