The purpose of government is not to perform a concrete list of duties, but to solve an indefinite number of “tragedies of the commons.”
Many libertarians, here and elsewhere, have asserted that the government ought to be responsible for X, Y, and Z, no more and no less. Often the goal in mind is to minimize the role of government in our lives, to promote greater freedom and autonomy for the individual.
That’s great and all, but those assertions about government responsibilities are pretty flimsy. At best, they describe the kinds of government we want here and now, without speaking to the goals and concerns of our past and future. They myopically focus on a government’s abuse of power and begrudgingly concede to its necessity in a handful of cases, like law enforcement.
They miss the forest for the trees. The real purpose of government is not fixed. It is an imperfect, makeshift solution to a wide variety of problems best described as “tragedies of the commons.”
A tragedy of the commons is, roughly speaking, a situation in which a group has a shared goal, but the structural incentives nudge most individuals to act against that common goal.
Let’s talk about a few of these tragedies of the commons that most governments attempt to solve in some form:
Military defense. Everyone wants security from external political groups, while some people want to have dominance over an empire (which affords certain privileges to the citizens). People disagree here, but these goals aren’t all that controversial. The problem is that most people don’t want to risk their lives to achieve that goal, so most modern states use conscription to coerce a subset of the citizens to do it. The individual’s incentives favor not going off to war. Likewise, proper military defense requires leadership, organization, weapons, training, etc., so these things are provided by the state institutions.
Enforcement of law. This applies to criminal law, corporate law, civil & family law, and so on… The problem here is less about individual incentives, and more about an individual’s inability to unilaterally provide such enforcement. You need sufficient threat of force or punishment in order to back up any universal legal claims. This is hard to do without a monopoly of force. And that’s why “failed states” are typically lawless hell-holes.
Environmental regulations. This is a tragedy of the commons because, without regulation, there are very few incentives to avoid pollution, and huge incentives to ignore the environment and do whatever it takes to gain an advantage in a competitive market. For individuals, it’s less about competition and more about trade-offs and relative impact. The personal cost of environmental responsibility can be enormous for many people, while the marginal impact of their actions is minimal. Everyone needs to participate for it to make a dent in the climate change problem.
Natural disaster response. When a disaster occurs, people are out for themselves, sometimes personally devastated by the event. Charity is typically underwhelming, since the cost/benefit ratio is small for non-affected people. The government can use tax money and allocate all kinds of specialized resources to save lives and rebuild communities.
Public health. This is a politically charged topic, but there is absolutely no doubt that governments can levy enormous resources for medical research, basic science research, public health administration, and health insurance. If the public has a shared goal of making sure everyone has accessible & affordable healthcare, then we can use the levers of government to bring prices down, enforce rules about insurance coverage, and enforce certain standards of care. It will never be perfect, but we know from observation that it can work effectively.
Public education. Again, the incentives for giving every child a quality education are basically absent without some kind of institution to guarantee it. Sure, there are private/charter schools, but those operate under the assumption that not everyone can access their services, for a variety of reasons. One reason is that it’s more profitable to set a price point that necessarily excludes part of the population. Fewer students paying more money means reduced costs and higher profit margins. The scarcity of the service only drives up the price. So the incentives don’t really encourage private institutions to provide education for all. Therefore, government…
Hopefully I’ve illustrated my point. Government can be corrupt, brutal, violent, reckless, and so on… but it’s a powerful tool for solving the problems that no amount of individual altruism can ever hope to solve. When we talk about governmental responsibilities, dogmatism fails us. It is far better to talk about our shared goals, and how we can leverage our public institutions to achieve them. That doesn’t necessarily mean government, but it often does.
As for corruption and violence of government, that’s an entirely different discussion. Preventing abuses of power is a hard problem, but it can be solved. And it starts with forming institutions with built-in limitations.
Feel free to destroy my arguments…
Article from r/Libertarian: For a Free Society