Tuesday, May 26, 2015

What's the purpose of government?

During the past however many months it's been, I've been taking Dan Fincke's Social and Political Philosophy class online over Google Hangouts (and let me take a moment here to plug his online classes; they're definitely worth a person's time to take, and there are scholarships available for the financially hard up). Recently, while doing some reading related to the class, a thought occurred to me: is it possible that the government's purpose is to support the thriving of its constituents in ways that can only or best be done communally? Let me unpack what I mean by that, and then I want to explore the possibility that is raised by the question.

The purpose of government has obviously been a matter of some question, presumably since the first government was formed. It's been conceived of as a way to power over others by many governments past and present, as a way to protect territory, as a way to protect the constituents, as a way to protect the rights of people, and so on. What if all of that was either wrong, or only part of the story?

When I think of thriving, I think of individuals being empowered to develop and live their lives to their fullest potential in whatever areas of life they find most rewarding. This necessarily includes being safe and secure from violence (unless, perhaps, you're an MMA fighter or something), and having the protection of rights, whatever those rights are conceived to be. But being able to thrive in our powers also includes things like having the basic necessities for food and nutrition, healthcare, a place to live, and the education needed to develop our skills and abilities (at least).

But to answer whether the government should be actively and positively supporting people's thriving, as opposed to simply protecting us and our rights, requires us to first examine exactly why humans have formed into communities in the first place. The first thing that springs to mind is the safety in numbers feature of gathering together. Humanity may rule the planet currently, but that hasn't always been the case. It would have been advantageous in the distant past, even before we were humans, to gather together into groups for the protection of all from predators. Once we became human, that reasoning still held, but eventually groups of humans were required to protect against other groups of humans. Unfortunately, this still holds true today.

However, security is hardly the only benefit that humanity gets from living in groups, in communities. One can think of the barn raising that used to be done in farming communities, and still is in some Amish communities. Communities allow people to work together to get things done more efficiently, and perhaps in some cases, at all, that individuals or even single families would have a hard time doing on their own. Communal food gathering and storage, communal child raising ("it takes a village..."), and even communal worship, have been or are currently used. In today's modern world, community takes on perhaps even greater significance. Specialization in specific skill sets is something that has been taken to a whole new level in the modern world, and could only work in communal living arrangements.

So it seems that communal living has more going for it than just security. Community seems to have, at its very core, the purpose of supporting each other in our individual and communal thriving. Government then appears to be a way to accomplish some of that support. One could try to limit government to supporting security only, and this has been proposed multiple times. But no government has ever truly been limited in such a way.

In a modern democratic society, communities have elements of both local and national character, as well as international. Food is gathered from all over the country and world, and shipped to different parts of the country. Doctors might consult with experts on the other side of the continent. Goods are brought in from all over, as manufacturing is frequently a centralized thing. No one neighborhood or town is ever completely self-sufficient, and neither is any individual. A great deal of this is made possible with the support of the government. Government controls the roads, and continues to maintain and build more roads. Government provides for binding arbitration when individuals or companies require it. Sometimes government supports by enforcing laws that requires businesses to continue to allow for competition. The government supports education through the public school system. And of course it provides for security.

But in a modern democratic society, isn't there more that the government could, and perhaps should, be doing? The government acts as a way to get things done that individuals can't get done on their own, things that are necessary to the thriving of the overall community. A community cannot really be said to be fully thriving to its fullest potential when its worst off members lack the very basics of life and thriving: food, shelter, healthcare, and education. Couldn't the government act then as that arm of the community that seeks to make sure that the worst off (and everyone else) has at least the basics necessary to allow for thriving? Shouldn't it?

One could argue that there are other ways of getting the worst off taken care of. Charity is a popular proposed solution. And charity is great. But all it takes is a look around America and the world to realize that charity is not and never has been enough. Human beings are social creatures, but we are also selfish creatures, and shortsighted creatures. Government could be a way to counteract our selfishness and shortsightedness.

Of course, governments are made up of people, and as such are prone to the same errors in thinking as individuals, as one can see from a cursory glance at American politics. But if a system could be developed whereby those errors could be weeded out, then perhaps this could work.

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