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If you listen to most conservatives you’d come to the conclusion that government can do no right, and that it’s a generally bad thing or at best a necessary evil in life. I’ve probably sounded a similar note at times. But when we do we betray an unrealistic if idealistic view.

Conservatives would do well to remember that government was ordained of God in the first place. If it’s a “necessary evil,” than it is so because real evil exists in the world and government is there, or is supposed to be, as a means for limiting the extent or impact of evil, thus protecting the collective good. And government defends and when required exercises coercive force in criminal justice (law and order) or international relations, including war. This is government’s negative function—drawing lines when it must to assure certain things don’t happen.

Government is also a positive invention. It’s not just a divinely ordained institution to stand in the gap between good and evil but is also a means of promoting the general wellbeing. At its best, government maintains an environment where all may experience liberty and justice, and government is a means by which people may work together for the common weal.

The Founders recognized government’s potential for limiting wrongdoing and providing an environment in which freedom may be freely exercised. They also recognized government’s potential for advancing the good, what later was called positive or progressive government.

In the Preamble of the US Constitution it says: We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

 The debate today turns on how government should “insure domestic tranquility” or “promote the general welfare.” Conservatives argue government should establish law and order internally, protect borders externally, and pretty much let it go at that. Liberals tend to argue in favor of activist government—a “do something” government to “make things happen.” I’m somewhere in between.

Last December the Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation (CALM) Act, sponsored by Representative Anna Eshoo (D, CA), was signed into law. The law goes into effect a year from now, but in the meantime it’s already making a positive impact. It sets limits on how loud (decibels) television commercials can be relative to the programs underwritten. In a quite useful way the law deals with a problem that affects the general public—ridiculously ever-louder advertisements. It’s a problem businesses would not likely have resolved on their own. Actually, businesses created the noise “arms race.” The law empowers the Federal Communications Commission to assure a reasonable auditory standard is maintained.

In my estimation this is government getting it right. Sure, businesses could have eventually toned down their advertising decibels. Maybe consumers would have reacted away from loudly advertised products. Maybe, given enough time, laissez faire would have worked its magic without government engagement. But somehow I don’t think so. In this instance, at least, government’s positive action created a common good.

The trick in government getting it right is not No Government versus Total Government. It’s maintaining limited government of, by, and for the people. In the end, it’s not about government for government’s sake. It’s always about the people and how government can best contribute. Government is servant, not the master.


© Rex M. Rogers – All Rights Reserved, 2011

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