Portal:What Government do We Want

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How should we be governed?

In America's early days we were an independent lot. We believed in liberty, a right to property, and freedom from arbitrary arrest. We saw the need for government but the problem was how to use it to maintain order without destroying liberty or trampling on our 'inalienable' rights. This balance was the subject of public debate leading up to the ratification of our constitution, articulated in essays that come down to us as The Federalist Papers and The Anti-Federalist Papers. It amounted to one side saying that the existing confederation of independent states provided as much government as could exist and be compatible with liberty; and the federalists saying that the Confederation was insufficient to maintain order and provide for a nation strong enough to defend itself against external (and internal) attacks on that liberty.

"If I ran the zoo.
I'd make a few changes.
That's just what I'd do."
Dr. Seuss

Both sides agreed with Thomas Paine who wrote "government even in its best state is but a necessary evil in its worst state, an intolerable one." (Common Sense 1776)[1]. Richard Epstein describes their dilemma thus: "A government that is too strong can become tyrannical and oppress its citizens; yet a government that is too weak cannot withstand a succession of internal upheavals or external attacks . . , with catastrophic loss of liberty and destruction of property. The key challenge was to determine how best to navigate between these two perils."[2]
This view of government is 'classic liberal'. In this view the preservation of individual liberty is the focus.

In the early 20th century there was a shift toward the 'progressive' view that saw government not as necessary evil, but as a force for good--correcting social flaws that the minimalist approach ignored. This view holds that individual rights are not 'inalienable', but are created by government; and that a benevolent and powerful state can eliminate the economic imbalances created by our rapid industrialization and advance of technology. The constitution's limits on government power were seen as barriers to a modern state to be overcome by greater power to be exercised by impartial administrative agencies (creating and enforcing regulations) that receive power from the legislature and that major issues should be settled through the action of a democratically elected legislature unfettered by the Constitution's structure, protection of property, and judicial review.

Which do we want? These two views have fundamental differences that won't be reconciled in a way that is stable and lasting. CW is on the side of liberty protected by only as much government as is necessary. However, we will also present thoughtful contributions that disagree.

  1. Paine, Thomas (1776). Common Sense. Philadelphia: Robert Bell.
  2. Epstein, Richard The Classical Liberal Consititution (2014) Cambridge, Massachusetts; Harvard University Press

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Featured Article

Classic Liberal vs. Progressive
Early Americans were very like-minded in their political theory. They were mostly what CW now calls classic liberals who wanted only as much government as was needed to protect liberty, the right to property, and a very few other fundamental rights. Such rights belonged to every person by birth-right irrespective of government.

The early 20th century saw the advent of the progressive view of government as an active force for good, correcting social problems through increased government authority. They saw rights as being defined and granted by government.(Full article...)