In the pursuit of happiness

The other day the hashtag “I’m hard Left” trended on Twitter, and, as you might expect, it attracted some rather ironic, and amusing, responses. One of the sincere tweets (I don’t recall the author) went something like this: “I’m hard left because I dare to demand fairness and equality for everyone in one of the richest countries in the world”. To “dare” to “demand” this, with the full knowledge of all that this “demand” demands – bravery like this is sadly all too rare these days, is it not?

However that may be, our heroic tweeter points us towards an important question: What is the purpose of government?

A respectable opinion is that “the purpose of government is to provide those services that are not provided by the market”. This is, as it happens, the opinion of the respectable Friedrich Hayek.

Unfortunately for those of us who would like government to be limited – and there must be very few people who are happy for government to be entirely free – the services that are not provided by the market are at all times infinite; there is always one more thing that could exist but which currently does not.

But perhaps our respectable opinion is merely a little loose. Let us tighten it up a bit. “The purpose of government is to provide those services that cannot be provided by the market”.

This tighter version, while it is prima facie much sturdier, is only superficially so. For how can we know a service cannot be provided by the market other than by the fact that it currently is not provided by the market? (Historical accidents play a large and interesting role here, of course. For instance, for a very long time we believed that delivering letters was something that only the government could do. Most of us no longer believe this.) So our new, tighter formulation ultimately resolves into the old, loose one – and suffers from precisely the same defect.

If “is” is of no help, perhaps “ought” can come to our rescue. “The purpose of government is to provide those services that should be provided, but, for whatever reason, the market does not provide”.

But this proves to be no better than our last two attempts. What should be provided is a question that honest men can, and frequently do, honestly disagree upon; fortunately whenever a man puts forward his own preferred candidate, his fellows can put forward their preferred candidates, too. For example, a popular opinion is that the government should protect us. But if the government should protect us from ill health by way of a health service, surely it should protect us against the pernicious effects of ignorance by way of an education system. And if it should protect us against ignorance, why shouldn’t it protect us against bad luck by way of some sort of insurance system? There is no limit to the services that the government should provide.

The unspoken premiss in each of these attempts is what the great Leo Strauss, in ‘Natural Right and History’, termed “political hedonism”. Whereas classical political philosophy had it that government was to make men virtuous, modern political philosophy has it that government is instituted to make men happy. Perhaps, given the unpleasant side-effects of this premiss, we might do well to reconsider employing it.


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