3 Most Important Legitimate Services of Government

I like to look through the logs here and see what sort of searches brought readers to these pages from time to time. It’s mostly Arabs searching for…companionship…thanks to a few keywords in posts that came together in odd ways. [I have a feeling that sentence may come back to bite me in a similar manner. So may that sentence…anyway.] A reader earlier in the week was searching for “3 most important services government.” Interesting.

On reflection, I found myself thinking that there really are only 3 legitimate services of government. Everything else is at least slightly tainted from a moral philosophy standpoint and most other things are at least slightly inefficient from an economic standpoint. Of the three, one, in my opinion, should be a near monopoly of government and the other two progressively less so.

Government should defend us from foreign aggression. This is the primary, indispensable legitimate function of government. It’s the single function so vital and so uniquely suited to government that it may well be the defining characteristic of a legitimate government. The utopian world view of those anarchocapitalists who believe a private security firm capable of defending against potential threats on the scale of China, Russia and the combined forces of Islamic extremism is charming, but unrealistic. Further, it’s morally and philosophically unnecessary to assign this function to purely market driven action. A government which defends us against foreign aggression and does so thoroughly, forcefully and efficiently is the surest guarantee of our liberties and no threat to anyone else’s. Though the government’s failure at this basic task may leave citizens with no choice but to defend themselves and citizens should always have the option of planning for that possibility, if government is functioning it should have a near monopoly on this service.

Government should protect us and our property (an extension of our labor) from internal attacks. Those attacks don’t have to involve direct physical violence – fraud, theft and threats of violence are attacks in every sense. A legitimate government should at least be involved in this to the extent of providing a final arbiter in the courts and a final sword in the police. This function isn’t solely limited to government however. Citizens should always have the right to defend themselves and others and that includes citizens hired privately for specifically that purpose. In many cases private security services can provide more efficient protection than reliance on a one-size fits all police solution.

The third fully legitimate, and “most important,” service of government is in arbitrating disputes between citizens. But while it is a legitimate function, this is by no means a monopoly function of government or a function best provided by government. Private professional arbitration is increasingly common, as is mediation. Disputes can also be decided among members of any organization from the country club or homeowners association to a church. Neighbors could agree to take a dispute to the old lady down the road that they both feel will hear them fairly. A dispute can even be settled with a coin toss or other game of chance, skill, strength, intelligence, etc.

These are the three most basic, legitimate functions of government and by the time we get to the third we find that government is not the only, or even always the preferred, provider. The further we get from these three basics, the more inefficient government appears next to voluntary cooperation and competition. Does that mean it’s realistic to scrap every government service beyond these most basic? Do we need to privatize every street from the alleys to the interstates? Clearly not. But every decision to have government provide new services or to continue providing other services beyond these three should be evaluated in light of the increasing inappropriateness of government involvement. They should first be evaluated for efficiency and practicality. with an eye to whether the problem we hope to solve is greater than the problems we create. They should also be evaluated from a moral perspective, considering that any government action necessarily involves favoring one nominally equal citizen over another. Every service provided by government instead of the market should be designed, or redesigned, to be provided in the least intrusive and most efficient way and the more a service can be provided outside government, the more it should be.


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