That Government Is Best Which Protects Individual Rights

The following article originally was published on August 17, 2009, by Grand Junction’s Free Press.

That government is best which protects individual rights

by Linn and Ari Armstrong

You just don’t like government. That’s what a friend told your elder author Linn following a local political event, during an informal discussion about which candidates are running and who is supporting them.

It’s an odd sort of charge, given that Linn once ran for elected office himself and has participated in numerous campaigns and political functions.

The fact is, we love government, if it’s the right sort of government. But not all governments are created equal. Who loves the oppressive governments of North Korea or Iran? What about the fallen government of the Soviet Union? There is no greater evil on the face of the earth than a government gone wrong.

The question, then, is what constitutes good government. That depends primarily on what is the proper purpose of government.

We disagree with Henry David Thoreau when he writes, “That government is best which governs not at all.” We answer that government is best which protects individual rights.

Fortunately for us, our forefathers created a republican form of government with strictly delimited powers and an explicit recognition of individual rights. The obvious exception, slavery, took another century to expunge, and racist laws took longer to root out, but finally in this respect America lived up to her founding principles.

Nations to the south of us, on the other hand, often took a course other than freedom, and the result has been frequent juntas, bloodshed, and mass poverty.

Governments that try to run the economies of their nations must enforce their policies at the point of a gun. The mass slaughter and mass starvation of 20th Century Communist nations bear this out.

We witness the contrast of free markets every summer in Palisade, when fruit markets spring up along Highway 6 and 24 and growers sell everything from peaches to tomatoes.

Farmers grow and sell fruit under few political controls. What governs transactions instead is voluntary consent in which both parties benefit from the trade. The government’s only useful role is to prevent force and fraud. The old marketing phrase, “reach for a peach,” is an exhortation, not a command.

Contrast the benevolent exchange of the free market, in which both parties win, with the force and conflict of political intervention. The city of Fruita prepares to break ground for the city government’s recreation center, something we argued against.

We witnessed a city with a friendly reputation fall into heated “us versus them” squabbling. Hostilities had barely receded after the first vote before a second was scheduled. While the motive might have been to improve physical health, the means was to force some to pay for the benefits of others, and this fostered distrust among neighbors and undermined the health of the community.

Meanwhile Clifton, a part of the valley often dismissed as a poorer area, recently witnessed the grand opening of a Gold’s Gym. We witnessed no community division over this. The gym opened on time and on budget. While the Fruita center benefits from tax subsidies, Gold’s Gym must pay taxes. In Fruita, some won at the expense of others. Gold’s Gym illustrated the meaning of win-win.

We think people should be able to make their own decisions concerning their resources, from the color of socks they wear to the brand of peach they buy to the health care they purchase. The alternative is to treat people as wards of the state and stooges of political whim.

The economist F. A von Hayek points out that people are so different and complex that politicians cannot hope to successfully plan out our lives, at least if the goal is our well-being. Hayek lived through an era in which the well-being of the citizenry was hardly high on the list of priorities among social “planners,” and mass murder was more likely where politicians ruled unchecked.

In a system of economic freedom, in which property rights are protected and people may direct their resources by their own judgment, people interact by mutual agreement.

Milton Friedman explained, “Adam Smith’s key insight was that both parties to an exchange can benefit and that, so long as cooperation is strictly voluntary, no exchange will take place unless both parties do benefit. No external force, no coercion, no violation of freedom is necessary to produce cooperation among individuals all of whom can benefit.”

Right now many are asking what role we should give to government in our lives. Some, hoping for more political favors and a larger share of other people’s money, or simply beholden to the ideology of statism, call for more political control of the economy.

We believe that a government that robs from Peter in order to placate Paul and gain his political support is not a government worthy of the United States.

We advocate individual rights. We therefore advocate government designed to protect our rights.

Linn Armstrong is a local political activist and firearms instructor with the Grand Valley Training Club. His son, Ari, edits from the Denver area.