Friday, January 21, 2011

Security, fraud protection, and nothing else

What is the function of government? This is a hot topic by Libertarians and those that want smaller government, or don't want to pay for the government we have now. According to Libertarians, government is to only be responsible for a standing army, local security, and a court system. And that court system is to protect individuals against aggression, theft, breach of contract, and fraud.

Perhaps 25 years ago when I worked as a computer programmer there was a fellow programmer in our office for several months who talked a lot about Libertarian principles. All the fiction he read was from one author who set his stories in worlds that followed Libertarian ideals. One tried not to get into discussions with this guy because his "discussions" were so one-sided, the speech of a true convert out to change the world.

One of the things he talked about was ownership of roads. Instead of government maintaining roads, we could leave it to private enterprises. This included residential roads in addition to the major thoroughfares. If you drove over the roads belonging to a company you paid them a fee. At the time I thought (but never mentioned to him because I didn't want to face the long-winded reply) such a system would require me to spend a great deal of time writing checks to various road companies. Wouldn't it be easier to consolidate all that into one body that took care of all the roads? That way I could write one check. And, by golly, that sounds a lot like what the government does for me.

Christopher Beam, in the New York Magazine, has a long discussion on Libertarianism. Here's an important point: strip government down to its skivvies and our society doesn't work. If I have a product to sell, where does the money come from? Each bank prints its own, right? No, for that we need a central bank. What to do with people out of a job? Charity, right? What if charities can't handle the load because they don't have enough money? We'll need a welfare system so they don't become so desperate they'll start stealing. What to do if companies can't make enough money educating poor youth? Perhaps government needs to set up schools after all.

The answer of market economy or charity isn't enough and Libertarians have postponed thinking about that problem. Which means they never have to prove their system doesn't work.

Some more issues: Can I trust my doctor if the government doesn't issue licenses? Getting my neighbor's kid vaccinated helps the country as a whole. What if that family can't pay for it? If government is responsible for a public good, such as a standing military, what about clean air? If a private enterprise is responsible for clean air can they ever have the clout to make it happen?

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