Hurricanes and the Moral Purpose of Government
One of the images that people saw on television during the flooding of New Orleans was the shocking spectacle of impoverished African-Americans left behind by the flood and by government’s negligence.
by Fred E. Foldvary, Senior Editor
The botched rescue raises some deep questions. What is the moral purpose of government? Does the government have the moral duty to rescue people when a disaster strikes?
The concept of a “moral purpose of government” implies the existence of a unique morality that is universal to humanity, otherwise the justification for government would arbitrarily depend on the local culture. The foundation of this universal ethic is the complete moral equality of all persons, regardless of race or sex or age. Moral equality has two logical conclusions: the self-ownership of each person, and an equal right to what is not created by self-ownership.
Equal self-ownership implies that there be no superior-inferior relationships. It is morally evil for one person to be the master of another. That applies to government officials. Government is not some holy god that wisely and benevolently guides human affairs. Government is people, and the people of government are not magically endowed with any greater moral status just because they wear a crown or are flanked by flags or have a picture of an eagle behind them.
There is no moral authority for government other than to enforce the universal ethic. It is morally evil for one person to coercively impose his will another person such as by murder, theft, trespass, fraud, or threats of force. When government agents implement morality by enacting and enforcing laws prohibiting coercive harm to others, these agents are doing nothing more than what individual persons have a moral right to do, and therefore such action is morally legitimate.
Note that the moral legitimacy of government does not come from democracy or from a long-ago written constitution. Moral purpose and legitimacy can only come from morality itself.
Government has two moral purposes. The first is to prohibit and penalize coercive harm to others. The second moral purpose of government is to act as the agent of the people to secure the equal right to the benefits of natural resources, those not created by human action. This equal benefit cannot be obtained by an equal physical possession. The benefits of nature can be measured by the rent they generate, what people in a market pay to hire and use these resources. Equality is satisfied by collecting the natural rent of what is not created by self-ownership, and distributing this rent to as large a community as feasible, either in cash or in wanted services.
In a pure free market, people would associate in communities such as homeowner associations, condominiums, land trusts, apartment buildings, and shopping centers. These would typically be financed not by taxes on income or sales, which are intrusive and create disincentives, but by dues or assessments on the members. Services such as streets, security, fire protection, and parks increase make the territory more productive and attractive, raising the land value and land rentals, and this increase in site values can be tapped to pay for the services.
If that system implements the first moral purpose of government, it would not restrict peaceful and honest enterprise. Competitive schooling would let parents and students choose the best schools and promote excellence in education. A market with no taxation or restriction of peaceful human action would substantially eliminate mass poverty. Wages would be substantially higher, and the worker would keep his whole wage. By tapping land rent for social services, a great source of economic inequality would be eliminated.
Local communities can adequately provide for their own protection from natural disasters by maintaining higher-level associations to coordinate disaster prevention and relief. State and county-level governance would obtain financing from shares of the rental value of natural resources such as oil, as well as the rents based on territorial location. Local control would better respond to local conditions both because the knowledge is localized and because the incentives would be stronger locally.
The root cause of poverty and governmental failure is that instead of preserving and equalizing the benefits of nature and respecting the wages of self-owners, government does the opposite. The failure to understand the moral purposes of government is the fundamental cause of the racial imbalances, the vulnerableness of the poor, and the failure to adequately rescue people from the Katrina catastrophe.
-- Fred Foldvary
Copyright 2005 by Fred E. Foldvary. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, which includes but is not limited to facsimile transmission, photocopying, recording, rekeying, or using any information storage or retrieval system, without giving full credit to Fred Foldvary and The Progress Report.
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