'Big government' versus 'small government' is a popular theme of the moderate and the conservative in today's political arena. 'Effective government' is the popular mantra of today's self-proclaimed 'progressives.' The coercive power of the government has always been a great concern of libertarians, whether they are left-leaning or right-leaning in their thinking. Yet none of them really address the issue of just what government is and what government should be. This is a question that is frequently danced around, taken for granted, or dismissed entirely depending on the political leanings of the people having the discussion. Liberals believe that government should be in the business of defining and solving problems, while conservatives believe that government's only real role is maintaining order in a chaos of 'capitalist' 'freedom'. I've written about 'freedom' before, and addressed the conflicting notions of volia and svoboda as they apply to the debate over the free market and capitalism. To recap, very briefly, 'volia' is the concept of absolute license to do as one pleases without any obligation to outside authority, while 'svoboda' is analogous to what the classical liberal thinkers called 'the Social Contract', the idea of individual freedom intermingled with one's responsibility to society and society's responsiblility to itself and its members.
Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary defines government thusly:
1. The act of governing; the exercise of authority; the administration of laws; control; direction; regulation; as, civil, church, or family government.
2. The mode of governing; the system of polity in a state; the established form of law.
3. The right or power of governing; authority.
4. The person or persons authorized to administer the laws; the ruling power; the administration.
5. The body politic governed by one authority; a state; as, the governments of Europe.
6. Management of the limbs or body.
7. (Gram.) The influence of a word in regard to construction, requiring that another word should be in a particular case.
Obviously, we can dismiss the anatomical and grammatical definitions of the word for the purposes of this discussion. We can safely assume no one in politics means either of them. My personal thought is that when conservatives, moderates, and libertarians talk about 'government' they usually mean definition three, four, or five or some combination of the two. Liberals frequently mean the first or second definition, or a combination of them both, and think of government less as an established authority than as a means by which society excercises authority over itself. The classic word for this advanced by the Founding Fathers and many other since is 'self-government.' As Abraham Lincoln said it, government 'of the people, by the people, for the people.' This is a significant gap of thought, even if it appears relatively minor.
Let me put this more simply. When a conservative says, 'government doesn't solve problems,' what he means is 'solutions cannot be forced from a position of authority.' Conversely, when a liberal says, 'the government must become involved,' what he really means to say is, 'we, as a people, must take concerted action to solve this problem through our political and social institutions.' This is a much more significant difference in philosophy than it appeared in the first place. It's not merely about differing philosophies of government, it is about totally different ideas about what government even is. To a conservative, government is an outside authority to maintain order. To a liberal, government is consensus action by the people themselves.
Either of these philosophies can be dangerous. The former is how the kings of France got their heads cut off, what laid the foundations for Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, and got the tsar shot. The latter is the source of the historical abbatoirs of the French and Bolshevik revolutions.
In my view, 'good government' is a complex interaction between the members of a society to define and regulate themselves as a society. If the complex interaction of 'good government' does not exist, then there is a vacuum left that will be filled by someone or something else. In the absence of viable democracy, for instance, someone will take over and establish despotism. Many of use the word 'government' to describe those most heavily involved in this interaction, but anyone who votes, protests, or speaks their mind is part of it. This interaction, or some poor subsititute for it, will always exist. Anarchy is not a sustainable state of being. Either society will order itself, or someone will order society. My apologies to all the hard-core libertarians out there, but these are the simple facts of human nature.
For a broad sweep of reasons, economics is one of the chief social occupations of mankind. We have physical, emotional, and spiritual needs and we must meet those needs. This leads to another complex interaction between the members of society, to meet those needs, that can be varying called 'the economy' or 'the market.' This interaction will, like government, always exist in some form. It is a necessity of human existence. The problem is that it, like government, is a venue of human interaction. There is no way of doing way with the interaction of the market, people will always have needs and they will never meet those needs 'for free', so Marxism is as unsustainable a fantasy as anarchy. Socialist utopia and libertarian utopia are equally unviable, because society will always seek to somehow order itself and the market cannot provide that order. The market is merely part of the social interaction. So rather than use the term 'the market', which is heavy with false images of concrete meaning, I will use the term 'business.'
At the core of society is the individual. It is the individual's interactions with his fellow individuals (including government and business) which make society happen. Society cannot exist without individuals to interact, but no two individuals are identical. Everyone wants something different from that interaction. Because utopia is not possible, there will always be individuals who do not get what they want or need from society. Because society is made up of individuals, however, it is reponsible to its members... even when they are not having their needs met... coupled with a duty to meet those needs as best as it can. When it cannot, society suffers as a whole because of the lost contribution of those individuals. More importantly, the individuals who are having their needs met by society have a greater responsibility to that society in return. This is simple capitalism, no one gets anything for free.
If this sounds socialist in conception, it certainly is. However, all due apologies to John Galt, there really isn't an alternative. If society does not function in a healthy fashion, then it will function in an unhealthy fashion and everyone will suffer. If everyone were to become non-participatory, society would break down, anarchy would follow, and totalitarian order would be imposed by someone to end the anarchy. That is simply the inevitable reaction of nature, to fill a vaccuum.
So we have three choices: the healthiest society possible, a willfully unhealthy society, or social disintegration followed by a society in which none of us wish to live.
People will never stop being individuals, as history has shown. Even in purported collectivist utopias, individual needs cause some to seek greater individualism. Even in absolutist utopias, individuals desire independence of mind and feeling.
I believe in natural rights, free will, empirical thought, and an ordered universe. Though my spiritual awareness flickers between Christianity and quasi-Deism as I attempt to apply an empirical standard to existence, I believe in the divine ordination of both natural rights and free will. We are individuals because we are meant to be individuals with independent thoughts, desires, ambitions, and fears. We are meant to make our own choices based on those individual drives. I also believe in central moral principles: our freedom to act stops when another is deprived of their freedom to act by our action.
How does all this apply to business, government, and society?
Society exists because one of the needs we all share is the need for human contact and because people can help one another meet their individual needs more effectively than people can meet their needs alone. If mankind truly desired absolute self-reliance, there would be no community or society. Individuals are independent beings sharing an interdependent world. This is simply the way it is. We can preach self-reliance and responsibility all we want, and true responsibility is certainly a virtue and irresponsibility certainly a dangerous vice, but we need each other. The community needs its members to exist and its members need the community to satisfy their needs. If this were not so, they would not have created the community in the first place.
Societies exist because of individuals and have a responsbility to protect their members and cooperatively administer to societal needs while allowing/empowering individuals to do their best to administer to individual desires. This is where business and government come into play.
Business is the mechanism by which society meets its needs and enables its members to meet their individual desires. Because the essential nature of this activity is selfish, self-interest will drive business more often than altruism. Because self-interest can be dangerous when not enlightened, and human nature does not always live up to its own better angels, business cannot be left in a vaccuum.
Government is the mechanism by which society defines its values, establishes and maintains social order, and acts to defend the rights of its members. These rights are best defined as defined in the Declaration of Independence: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Government can also be a threat to the very rights it is intended to establish, however, and the rights it defends are not granted by the government. They are natural to individuals, part and parcel with free will. The government cannot give rights to anyone, it can only take them away. This is the fundamental reason for the massive concern for human rights around the world and in the US, the fact that society has been all too lax in its responsibility to guarantee the rights of all its members. Because humans are imperfect and not always enlightened, government requires mechanisms of control to guarantee individual freedoms.
Society, made up of its individuals, must have full control of government. As long as government is serving society, it is serving its purpose: 'big' or 'small' government is not an issue. As soon as government fails to serve society, it is not serving its purpose and must be adjusted: once again whether it is 'big' or 'small' is irrevelevent.
Business must be subject to society, through the mechanism of government, because it is too important not to be. This is not a rejection of the capitalist economic system, but it is a rejection of the religion of capitalism in which business is granted absolute power. We know from history that we cannot give government absolute power, that society must regulate its own excesses through democracy, revolutions, etc. Why, then, do we insist we can give business absolute power? We say 'the market' and pretend we are speaking of something concrete, but we are really just talking about the human mechanism of business. As the government must be subject to society and society must be responsible to the individual, so business must be responsible to government.
The individual reponsibility to society, the societal responsibility to the individual, and the responsibility of business to both are all interlinked. Fascism, Communism, anarchy, or any other utopian system is impossible because of this linkage. We can all only do the best we can, there is no perfect system to maintain it all for us and there will always be human failings for which we must compensate when we can, as best we can. Government is the mechanism through which society fulfills that web of interlinked responsibilities.
If that's socialism, then socialism beats any alternative anyone has offered so far.