Debating First Principles: Demos vs. Ayn Rand on the Proper Role of Government

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Starting March 10, WNYC's Brian Lehrer will be moderating First Principles, a series of three debates on the moral underpinnings of today's politics. The event co-sponsored by Demos, The Ayn Rand Institute and It's A Free Country.

The opening debate explored the question: "Government: What is Its Proper Role?"

»» Take the 20 Question First Principles Poll on the Proper Roll of Government

»» IAFC Bloggers Offer Their Takes on the Proper Role of Government

»» Debate II: Freedom - For Whom and From What?

Watch the First Principles Debate: What is the Proper Role of Government?


 


Yaron Brook is the President of the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights, a division of the Ayn Rand Institute. He speaks about Ayn Rand's ideas around the world and is frequently interviewed on television and radio. Ayn Rand was a philosopher and novelist, whose most acclaimed work is "Atlas Shrugged."

Miles believes the proper role of government is determined by whatever a society collectively decides it wants government to do. I believe the proper role of government is not determined by majority sentiment but by the moral truth that “each individual's life morally belongs to him.”

Miles contends that a government limited by the principle of individual rights would lead to a society ravaged by tainted food, pollution, sickness, and economic insecurity.

Hardly.

When I wrote that “the only proper, moral role of government is to protect the rights of each individual against coercive interference by others,” that certainly includes protecting rights against those who sell tainted (i.e., fraudulent) food or who pollute the land, water, or air of others.

My objection to the FDA is its coercive power to control drug development, drug testing, and what drugs go on the market. Similarly, my objection to the EPA is its coercive power to control property development and evict property owners on the basis of things that have nothing to do with pollution. Miles's blanket endorsement of the FDA and EPA conflates government rights-protection (using force in retaliation against force) with government rights-violation (using force in initiation against peaceful, rights-respecting citizens).

The same is true of his characterization of Medicare and Social Security as not force but "insurance.” If these were in fact genuine insurance programs, they could be offered by private companies on the free market (not to be confused with today’s government-distorted market), and we would be free to take them or leave them. But we aren’t; Social Security and Medicare are force--they take some 15% of the earnings of employed individuals, without their consent, and give the individual no choice about how to save, invest, or spend the money.

What would we do without such programs? Thrive.

Consider: The early government of the United States, the most limited government in human history, gave rise to a society of unprecedented prosperity, goodwill, and harmony. Why? Because freedom gives individuals the ability to create and exchange values to the best of their ability. When individuals agree, they can cooperate in magnificent ways on whatever scale they choose (as the hundreds of millions of cell phone and computer users do every day). When they disagree, they can go their separate ways. Without Social Security and Medicare, individuals would be free to provide for their health and retirement in far more rational ways, such as buying health care in a free market with true price competition, or putting their retirement savings in non-Ponzi-schemes.

Miles and I disagree on two fundamental questions: Can a majority vote away the rights of an individual and thereby control his life? And is the “will of the people,” expressed through government edict, sovereign, or is the life of each individual, with his rights to liberty, property and the pursuit of his own happiness, beyond the reach of government, i.e., something on which no majority and no vote may lawfully trespass?

Miles characterized my view as “an individualized view of rights and freedom,” which is true. What then does his view of government amount to? A collectivistic one—and it is collectivism that he must morally defend.


Miles Rapoport has been the President of Demos since 2001, and recently became President of The American Prospect magazine. Prior to joining Demos, he spent ten years in the Connecticut legislature, and then served as Secretary of State from 1995-1998. Rapoport is a frequent commentator on the role of government and its potential to foster increased opportunity and prosperity among all.

Yaron Brook takes the most limited and individualized view of rights and freedom possible, and says that government’s only role is to defend the rights of one individual against coercive interference by another—entirely ‘freedom from.’

But an entirely different frame of freedom is possible, and far more relevant today. It is a more affirmative view, the ‘freedom to’ achieve happiness and well-being, and if one supports that view, government’s role in paving the way for those possibilities is far more robust.

Yaron’s examples of government overreach are almost unbelievable. The FDA, which ensures foods are not poisonous and toxic? The EPA, which prevents chemicals from spewing without limit into the air we breathe? These are not examples of government as our master. They demonstrate a government that serves as protector of our rights.

And the claim that Medicare and Social Security are examples of programs that steal from some and hand it to others? Disregarding the fact that they are insurance programs that we all pay into, these are the fundamental guarantors of a retirement free of destitution. It’s hard to believe they are equivalent to stealing.

Government’s proper role is to help individuals and communities achieve the fundamental elements of a good life for us all. Government allows us to plan together, and its ability to function effectively contributes to our prosperity.

While arguments should not be won or lost by fragmentary references to our founding documents, the preamble of the Constitution states that government’s purpose is “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common Defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” Sounds like a pretty important role to me.


Yaron Brook is the President of the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights, a division of the Ayn Rand Institute. He speaks about Ayn Rand's ideas around the world and is frequently interviewed on television and radio. Ayn Rand was a philosopher and novelist, whose most acclaimed work is "Atlas Shrugged."

As Republicans and Democrats feud over what should and shouldn’t be cut from budgets, an underlying question is surfacing: What types of activities should and shouldn’t the government be engaged in? What exactly is the role of government?

A definite answer to this question gave birth to our country. Jefferson’s Declaration announced to the world a new view of government. No longer was government seen as a sovereign master lording over the individual. Instead, the individual was sovereign and his rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, unalienable. Government was servant of the individual: “to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men.”

America today is but a distant echo of the Declaration. The government increasingly sees itself as master commanding its subjects. Through an alphabet soup of regulatory agencies, for instance, it tells us what we can and cannot eat (FDA), manufacture (EPA), trade (FTC), and say (FCC). Walk into your local Costco and look at the plethora of government permissions it needs to display just to operate one store. Then of course there are the huge government programs designed to take the property earned by some and hand it over to those who didn’t earn it (Medicare, Social Security). And now the government sees itself in charge of the whole economy, manipulating interest rates and the money supply, bailing out some companies and letting others fail, and spending trillions of taxpayer created wealth.

What makes government government — as against a debating society, a suggestion box, or a corporation — is that you are not free to go against its verdicts. Behind every law, judicial decision, executive order, tax form, and regulation is the ability to force you to obey it, under threat of seizing your money, throwing you in prison, or even taking your life. When the government proposes some new “benefit” for “the people,” like Medicare, there is no getting around the fact that it is engaging in what is called “stealing” when done by private citizens. But what if it’s done in the name of the “will of the people?" It’s still force, and might doesn’t make right — anymore than the “will of the people” in Athens to kill Socrates was right.

In our view, the only proper, moral role of government is to protect the rights of each individual against coercive interference by others. In doing so, government recognizes that each individual’s life morally belongs to him, and its sustenance and happiness are his responsibility. In future posts, we’ll elaborate on how this American principle, properly applied, is the key to solving our policy problems.


Miles Rapoport has been the President of Demos since 2001, and recently became President of The American Prospect magazine. Prior to joining Demos, he spent ten years in the Connecticut legislature, and then served as Secretary of State from 1995-1998. Rapoport is a frequent commentator on the role of government and its potential to foster increased opportunity and prosperity among all.

“What is the proper role of government?” is a critical question. How we view the role of government ultimately derives from a larger question: “What kind of a society do we want to live in, and how do we achieve it?” In classical philosophy, individuals came together to create a social contract, a set of shared understandings about the kind of society in which they wanted to live.
 
Throughout our history and to this day, there have been certain fundamental principles and values about what America should strive to be for all its inhabitants. What basic opportunities should every person have access to in order to live a dignified life? These include, by no means exhaustively:

  • The rule of law, and protection against physical harm, disaster, and theft.
  • An economy with growth and opportunity.
  • An education to enable a full life.
  • Access to health care as it is needed.
  • Opportunity for employment at fair wages.
  • The ability for our children to succeed.
  • An old age free of destitution

Today, we face nothing less than the dismantling of the social contract that has made us a decent country with opportunity for all. The agenda being promoted is virtually not at all about solving deficit problems, or about keeping taxes low, or stopping excessive government spending, or limiting public employee pensions, though these are all prisms through which the agenda presents. They are a smokescreen for a far more troubling agenda, which springs from a worldview that places private wealth over public good, consumerism over civic responsibility, and corporate success over the common good.
 
America today is as or more unequal than during the Great Depression. Huge numbers of people are economically struggling or insecure. The question we face now is whether our signal achievement, a broadly shared prosperity and a middle class society, can survive.
 
Our belief is that it can — we can — but only if we have a government with the ability, the funding, and the public support needed to countervail the forces pulling us apart, and effectively work for the common good.