How big a role should the government play in impacting how people live their lives?

Publish Date
Feb 9, 2017
Last Edit
Mar 23, 2022 12:50 AM
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Does the government have a say in your everyday life?
This is the second of seven pieces addressing the core philosophical questions facing Americans today.
Today though, the focus is on the role of the government in everyday life. This is broad, but it applies to a range of key topics from education to civil liberties to influencing or governing lifestyle choices. Put another way, it covers regulation beyond the safety net. Education provides a fairly clean dichotomy: that we provide free education up through high school for everyone can be thought of as a (uncontroversial) part of how sufficient our safety net is. Governance of education beyond that: regulations and standards like those governing charter schools or broader policies like the common core curriculum fall into this bucket.
Yet this question does touch a lot of different policy realms: education, the legality or illegality of drugs, the extent of gun control, and the extent of public health initiatives, any declaration or restriction on civil liberties, and more are a function of this question.
Because this question covers broad areas, it is one that is both the toughest to apply a consistent ideology toward, and thus the one with the most potential for hypocrisy driven by one’s personal situation. As an example: one may generally believe in limited government regulation, but also believe that the government should promote Christian values because he or she is Christian and feels that is a good thing to promote.
Yet if we do generalize and distill these examples into the broader question, particular themes do emerge. The three most likely responses look like this:

Freedom Above All

The “freedom above all” crowd are typically in the libertarian camp. They believe that most drugs (certainly marijuana) should be legal, the government has no business in education, and attempts by the government to impact public health are typically ham-handed and cause more harm than good due to their secondary effects.
That’s a caricature, but generally people in this bucket see the ideal government as one with the least involvement possible. This does not mean they are anarchists, as critics can portray them. They just believe that government should stay out of regulation as much as possible, but certainly know that there are situations where the potential downside of human nature does justify action. So while they may broadly believe in the right of citizens to own firearms, they may likely agree that assault weapons don’t need to be in the hands of citizens, or that the government generally shouldn’t make drugs illegal, but should take steps to prevent usage of highly addictive and destructive drugs like heroine.
“Freedom for all” folks are typically for decriminalizing most drugs. Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
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Underlying this belief system is a skepticism of government and, in their opinion, the inescapable slide from some regulation to more regulation to “all” regulation. Hence, they do recognize that full freedom may have some downsides, but that sliding down the path toward more regulation presents more costs than appear on face due to the increased bureaucracy needed to enforce them and by making it easier to erode other freedoms in the future.
Criticism of this philosophy often rests upon the chaos (or simply downsides) that such freedom creates. Less gun control will result in more deaths, same goes if we were to legalize heroine. Critics also point to the unequal outcomes that reduction of standards or regulations usually creates – e.g. that reducing regulations in education will result in more really bad schools and really bad outcomes for students. A “freedom for all” thinker wouldn’t necessarily disagree with that, but rather would point to the reduced costs and increases in overall quality that a more free and nimble education sector would provide.

Protect Us From Our Worst Impulses

Next, we have those who do want a government to protect us from our worst impulses. This bucket captures much of the modern Democratic Party. Similar to the pragmatist with respect a safety net, this bucket attempts to walk a fine line between two more extreme positions. They are likely to feel that regulation is the right approach if it produces a sufficient positive impact relative to the cost. As such, things like gun control are more reasonable, and having the government apply standards for education and ensuring compliance is also a common sense step to ensure some degree of quality.
Broadly speaking, this group has a more optimistic view of government than the “freedom above all” crowd. That is not to say that they don’t recognize the costs of bureaucracy or restricting freedom. Yet because of their optimism they are more likely to look for and see positive externalities associated with regulation and less sure that the downsides will come to pass. So if they were looking at an issue like taxing soft drinks which does “restrict freedom,” they would focus more on asserting the long-term benefit of a healthier citizenry, and less worried about the downside that this could open the door for taxing other things in the future.
They also weight more heavily the benefits that providing higher base level of quality or safety has to the country as a whole, seeing that as an essential element to long-term improvement. They see the government as a tool we can use to better the country, and smart regulation as a way to slowly improve the offerings of the social contract.
Taxing soft drinks inhibits freedom, but it is a mild restriction that has long-term benefits for society, “Protectors” would claim. Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
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The criticism of this approach is alluded to by the beliefs of the “freedom above all” crowd. Regulations grow bureaucracy and have a tendency to build on each other. Further, regulation prescribes a “right” answer or behavior in cases where what’s right may not be clear or that people may disagree on. Critics would also say that this desire for protection undermines self-reliance and ultimately constrains overall progress in the name of a “safety” and “equality” that the government still isn’t all that good at ensuring.

Encourage the “Right” Lifestyle

Further down the line are those who believe it is the government’s job to prescribe and push actively for the right lifestyle. If we were to associate this with a political group, socially conservative Christians fall into this bucket. Their belief is that there is a correct approach to American life, and that the government should support those ideals. Critically though, they don’t necessarily see that as something to be regulated, but rather just things that should be encouraged or favored over other lifestyles. So while they may not want religion to be legislated, they may feel that religion and specifically Christianity should influence the government and its policies.
This bucket is relatively rare in intellectual circles, but it does exist in larger numbers than most intellectuals realize. A full 32% of the country views being Christian as a “very important” part of what it means to be American. These folks are more likely to feel that according full legal rights to gay marriage is wrong because they believe it is the wrong way to live.
A large portion of Christians in this country view its values as fundamental to national values. Photo courtesy of someone who had too much time on Twitter.
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The criticisms of this approach are all-too-obvious and all-too-true. Namely: there are very few “right” ways to live that we can all agree to, promoting one “right” way marginalizes and breeds resentment from anyone who lives another way, and that this approach is neither inclusive nor promotes true freedom. To anyone who falls in the other two buckets, they would see this is literally the worst of both worlds from a philosophical level, though may co-opt them when certain other views fall into alignment.

A Conclusion

As with the question of a sufficient safety net, these three buckets cover the general state of the world without capturing much of the nuance. This example is even more suspect to that nuance due to the broad array of political issues that this covers. Yet if you were just asked the question “how big a role should the government play in impacting how people live their lives?” then one of these statements should inherently appeal to you.
This matters for two reasons. One, it’s critical to examining your own views and identifying where your personal circumstance may by inviting hypocrisy. Two, being able to articulate why a policy could be an exception from an underlying belief structure is critical to convincing others of that position, even if you aren’t going to move them to seeing things from your philosophical point of view.
So where do you fall? Leave a comment below to keep the discussion going, and feel free to add your own nuance or points as to why you fall into one of these buckets!