More than once, while recruiting people to M*, the first thing they say to me is “I disagree with your politics.” I’m not surprised. I am, without a doubt, the black sheep politically. On the other hand, when Joanna first met me at M* she wanted to know if I was some sort of right wing political nut. I assured her that no one would mistake me for a right wing political nut.
I’m sometimes not even sure what I am. I once told Geoff that I’m ‘politically agnostic.’ But, of course, that’s not really true either since I’m quite passionate about what political beliefs I do hold. Is there such a thing as a politically partial agnostic?
Most of the time I just tell people I’m a moderate conservative and leave it at that. My employer at work, upon hearing me label myself that way, asked “what part of your political beliefs are conservative?” On the other hand, I’ve had a number of conversations with John C at BCC and I’ll bet he’s wondering what part of my political beliefs are liberal.
I really don’t think my political views are that hard to pin down, I just think they aren’t quite within the ‘norm.’ But isn’t that sort of true of everyone’s political beliefs? Is there anyone out there that says of themselves “yeah, I pretty much don’t think for myself, I just go with the party line.” Even if it were true, no one would admit it.
My Apostasy from Ezra Taft Benson’s View of Government Begins
I have a little book called The Proper Role and Improper Role of Government by Ezra Taft Benson and Elder H. Verlan Andersen. Han Anderen Jr. gave it to me. I enjoy the book very much, though I no longer agree with it. I particularly admire Ezra Taft Benson’s honest and sincere attempt to come up with a rational framework for determine the boundaries of government. For a while I considered myself a Bensonian.
I was (and still am) impressed by Benson’s attempt to come up with a clear cut boundary for proper and improper roles of government. His is still the best attempt I’ve seen. He argues that government receives it’s power from the people and that therefore governments can only do what the individuals that make up the nation could have done individually based on God-given rights.
He uses the example of hiring a Sherriff:
The individual citizens delegate to their sheriff their unquestionable [i.e. God-given] right to protect themselves. The sheriff now does for them only what they had a right to do for themselves – nothing more. (p. 5)
This approach puts a moral boundary on what government can and can’t do. I found this enlightening as I’d never really tried to put a finger on what makes government action moral or immoral before. Benson goes on to say:
This means, then, that the proper function of government is limited only to those spheres of activity within which the individual citizen has the right to act. (p. 6)
I rejoiced over the clarity this idea brought to me. Benson then follows this idea through to it’s logical conclusions, namely that it is immoral for governments to set up any sort of welfare programs, because individual citizens do not have the right to take money from each other to pay for someone else. If we were to do this to each other we’d rightly call it robbery. Therefore, when the government – which solely derives it’s power from us – does this, we should think of it as robbery too.
Being rather conservative on entitlement programs – and I still am today, as we’ll see later on – this, I thought, formed a pretty good rational explanation for why I was, in general, against welfare programs.
Did I Really Want to Get Rid of All Welfare Programs?
But I have this problem. I can’t seem to turn off my mind, even when it would have been better for me. So I kept being bothered by the rational inconsistency of that “in general” in the last sentence of the previous paragraph. It seemed to me that if I were to accept that governments have no right to take money from people based on the argument that governments solely obtain their power directly from the people and the individual people don’t have the right to take away another person’s money, then I was going to have to drop the “in general.”
Many conservatives might now say, “Heck yeah!” Many others might say, “Dude, you’re over thinking this.’” But I couldn’t accept either point of view. If this argument of Ezra Taft Benson’s was really the clear cut boundary I wanted it to be this was an all or nothing proposition. If I admitted that government had any right whatsoever to take money from people to give it to others, then the argument fell apart logically because now we were just arguing over how much is appropriate.
But I just couldn’t bring myself to believe it would be a wise thing for modern society to do away with government welfare altogether. I could accept that we should cut back on it because we had too much. I could accept that we should be wiser with it. I could accept that, as much as was humanly possible, charities should play that role. I could accept that it should be ‘workfare’ rather than ‘welfare.’ But I couldn’t see myself honestly agreeing with the idea that all government welfare amounted to robbery.
What About Sheriffs Themselves?
At first this little disagreement with Ezra Taft Benson didn’t bother me that much. I made my peace with it for a while. But then a new problem started bubbling up in my subconscious and started to invade my conscious mind.
Is a Sheriff really just a person hired to protect the people that hired him/her?
I agree that people have a right to protect themselves. I agree that people can, if they wish, hire a private person to protect themselves or their property. But is a Sherriff really nothing more than a person hired by another to fulfill their God-given right to protect themselves? It seemed evident to me that the answer was a pretty resounding ‘Nope.’
Consider the moral problems that ensue if a Sheriff is only enforcing one’s God-given right to protect ourselves. Suppose, for example, that me and half my neighbors decide to hire a person for protection. Would that give that person the right to investigate crimes done by the other half? Would it even give him a right to investigate crimes I committed against another of my paying neighbors? And if it did, then why not just drop out of the pact first? Or maybe even just drop out of the pact right after I am caught so that the Sheriff no longer had authority over me?
The simple truth is that for society to function correctly, we need ‘police’ and they are not merely people hired to directly protect us. We ‘give them’ more power over us than any of us individually had over each other.
What About Taxes?
Now the slide was starting to become an avalanche, because the next thing I thought of was whether or not Ezra Taft Benson’s view of the proper role of government could ever be used to justify taxation at all. After all, taxation really only works because we all know everyone is going to have to pay up equally. (However we happen to define ‘equally’ since the word has multiple often mutually exclusive meanings.) I do not believe that any current society could survive if people could just opt out of taxes like Ayn Rand believed. For better or worse, if we want to have a government – and we must have one if we care to build a society in the first place – these governments will not function without the government being ‘given’ the right to extract taxes in some equal manner from everyone. Yet individually we do not have the right to do that. Therefore governments do not have the right to take any sort of tax either – any sort even tariffs if we are being honest with ourselves. I could not accept this.
At this point, my beliefs in Ezra Taft Benson’s view of government was effectively dead as a ‘clear cut boundary.’ To this day, I still appreciate his point of view as a sort of ‘symbolic view of government.’ I believe that taxes are a forced taking of some else’s money and that we should openly accept that this is the case. It’s completely necessary, and there is no other viable option, so it is not the same as “robbery” on the grounds that “robbery” is tautologically immoral where as taxation is tautologically required for good government. But we should never treat taxation lightly because it is not a pretty thing to do to people. And government has – in my opinion – a sacred duty with the money they take from us to run society. For one thing, I should always have a say on how it’s spent. (And I do within the US democracy.)
But as a merely symbolic point of view, the argument against welfare withered on the vine. If I could make the argument that taxation was ‘like unto stealing’ but ‘a moral version of it’ (or at least a necessary evil, which is really just a more negative way of saying the same thing) then I could make that same argument for welfare.
What’s the Alternative?
So, to avoid Rejectionism, I must not merely criticize Ezra Taft Benson’s view of the proper role of government; I must actually present a viable alternative. That’s harder, of course. And it’s a subject that I can’t fit into a single post. But in future posts I’ll do my best to present what I see as a viable alternative approach to defining good government.