Throughout the course of human history, there have primarily been two distinct, fundamentally different views of the role of government. The position that has dominated in much of the world – now and for the overwhelming majority of history – is the view people in any given place ought to entrust a select few from society to rule over the masses. These governing authorities are given the power to control economies, regulate speech, and determine the extent of personal freedoms granted to individuals – all with the understanding the authority granted to them will be used responsibly to improve the lives of all people.
The second, more-radical view holds that every person – regardless of race, religion, age, or gender – is guaranteed certain inalienable liberties that no authority has the power to reduce, deny, or destroy, and it is the duty of government to safeguard these freedoms against all enemies, both foreign and domestic.
Under the first view, the success of society is dependent on a small group of people who have by birth, by privilege, or by force taken for themselves the lion’s share of power, and success is often determined based on subjectively defined, easily manipulated measures. Under the second view, each individual is treated equally under the law, is free to chart his or her own course in life, and is empowered with the liberty to pursue his or her own interests, to attain success, and to improve the lives of others without the heavy hand of a higher authority coercing the course of human events.
In his 1981 inaugural address, President Ronald Reagan, with the nation facing economic turmoil and growing international threats, denounced those who would trade their liberty for a more powerful government.
“In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” said Reagan. “From time to time, we have been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. But if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else?”
Reagan’s refutation of the expanding role of government in Americans’ lives echoes the desire of the Founding Fathers to establish a government that would exist to protect the liberty of every individual, rather than to seize freedom from the people in order to better control and manipulate society.
Government doesn’t exist only to serve the people; it exists to serve the people by protecting their liberties. When individuals are empowered to act with one another freely, innovation, economic growth, and virtually every other factor affecting people’s quality of life improves.
One of the greatest threats to personal liberty and destructive government overreach is the centralization of government’s power. Local and state governments should return to their constitutionally defined role of being the primary lawmakers on all those issues not specifically granted to the national government in the U.S. Constitution. Legislators and executive agencies should also reject all those laws and regulations that do not enhance personal freedom, and term limits should be imposed so that lawmaking is a public service, not a lifelong profession.