When government goes too far individual liberty pays the price

What sort of mental — perhaps emotional — response does the word “government” trigger in you? My experience indicates to me that views on its nature range from it being a bulwark against life’s vicissitudes to a guiding force for a polity’s collective march into the future to an intrusive obstacle to the exercise of individual sovereignty.

In a society such as America’s, predicated (at least historically) on the primacy of freedom, the first two views are antithetical to what government’s nature ought to be, and, sadly, the third dim view of what it is becomes widely embraced as a result of widely held expectations that it will fulfill the first two visions.

The first two views achieve prominence when large numbers of people conflate government with the overall populace. They are by no means the same animal.

In his seminal 1962 tome “In Defense of Freedom,” philosopher (and one of National Review’s founding editors) Frank S. Meyer said: “The state is not co-extensive with the totality of that which it governs; it is a definite group of men, distinct and separate from other men, a group of men possessing the monopoly of legal coercive force.” He further stresses that this is so “whether it governs with or without the consent of the governed.”

Therein lies the proper response to the assertion that, just because some redistributionist initiative garners a yes vote from the majority of the people, it is consistent with a society whose first priority is liberty.

Since those whose main concern is liberty stress the limiting of governmental power at the federal level to matters of national security, foreign relations and legal questions that arise between and among states, a lot of functions that no entity but government can perform fall to more local levels of society.

In other words, there are going to be functions that we ought not to ask a national government to perform that we quite rightly expect of state, county and municipal governments.

Examples that would elicit wide consensus would include zoning and land-use considerations, provisions for maintaining public order and response to disasters. There’s less consensus about education, but the liberty-oriented take on that tends away from centralization and national uniformity.

So there will be a governmental presence on a local level that we welcome but would find unacceptably intrusive if imposed from a federal level.

I’m comforted by the occasional Columbus Police Department patrol car cruising down my street but would assuredly bristle at a vehicle sporting some national law-enforcement agency’s logo driving by with the same frequency.

Still, too much can be made of the notion that, because it reflects the will of a more contained group of people in tune with the particularities of the area where they live and work, local government ought to have a highly visible presence in the life of a community.

The basic principle for national and local government is the same. It is there to provide sufficient order for the maximum exercise of sovereign individuals’ freedom.

It’s perfectly appropriate for local government — such as Columbus’ mayor, the City Council or Bartholomew County Council — composed as it is by those who best know the lay of the land inhabited by those it represents, to encourage collective undertakings that are shown, after having taken such measures as town halls and surveys, to reflect the general desire for a certain direction for the community.

Beyond that, however, the only proper role of government is to provide the basic infrastructure that supports the desired way forward.

The rest is up to the energy and vision of free people freely associating to make lives better where they live.

Barney Quick is one of The Republic’s community columnists. All opinions expressed are those of the writer. He may be reached at [email protected].