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The American Right, the Purpose of Government, and the Future of Liberty

From The Objective Standard, Vol. 6, No. 4.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson: Wikimedia Commons

Now that the 2012 GOP presidential nominee is almost certain to be either Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich (who, in terms of policy and lack of principle, are practically indistinguishable), many on the right are turning their attention to the 2012 Senate races. And they are wise to do so.

In the 2010 midterm elections, Republicans gained control of the House but failed to secure a majority in the Senate, leaving Democrats with 53 of 100 seats. Of the 33 Senate seats up for election in 2012, 21 are held by Democrats, 2 by independents. Republicans are likely to retain control of the House, and if they manage to gain control of the Senate as well, they will have the opportunity to repeal ObamaCare, Dodd-Frank, and other disastrous laws and regulations, and to begin cutting federal spending. These are crucial short-term goals.

But if we want to return America to the free republic it is supposed to be, we must do more than campaign and vote for Republicans. We must embrace and advocate the only principle that can unify our political efforts and ground them in moral fact. That principle pertains to the purpose of government.

Government is an institution with a legal monopoly on the use of physical force in a given geographic area. What is the proper purpose of such an institution? Why, morally speaking, do we need it?

The proper purpose of government is, as the Founding Fathers recognized, to protect people’s inalienable rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. Government fulfills this vital function, as Ayn Rand put it, by banning the use of physical force from social relationships and by using force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use. Insofar as an individual respects rights—that is, insofar as he refrains from assault, robbery, rape, fraud, extortion, and the like—a proper government leaves him fully free to act on his own judgment and to keep and use the product of his effort. Insofar as an individual violates rights—whether by direct force (e.g., assault) or indirect force (e.g., fraud)—a proper government employs the police and courts as necessary to stop him, to seek restitution for his victims, and/or to punish him. Likewise for international relations: So long as a foreign country refrains from using (or calling for) physical force against our citizens, our government properly leaves that country alone. But if a foreign country (or gang) attacks or calls for others to attack us, our government properly employs our military to eliminate that threat. As Thomas Jefferson summed up, a proper government “shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government.”

In order to begin moving America toward good government, we must explicitly embrace this principle, and we must demand that politicians who want our support explicitly embrace it as well. To do so, however, we must understand what the principle means in practice, especially with respect to major political issues of the day, such as “entitlement” programs, corporate bailouts, “stimulus” packages, and the Islamist assault on America. Consider these in turn. . . .

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