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Public Affairs or Social Control

How to view the role of government in our lives.

by James Leroy Wilson
December 16, 2004

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In the supposed cultural divide in America, there is, I believe, a division that is not “Left or Right.” I don’t think it has been well-articulated, but what got me thinking about it was a question asked by David Brin:

With whom would you ally? Which of the following persons would you listen to?

Person A, who agrees with my long-range dreams and goals, but disagrees profoundly with my program for getting there.


Person B, who agrees with my near-term political agenda and despises the same opponents, but has a very different image of what kind of society we should eventually arrive at.

For years, I assumed the Republican Party conformed better to my libertarian beliefs because they at least claimed to favor lower taxes, less government, and federalism. But put this way, I wonder - even if the Republican Party remained faithful to conservative rhetoric (which it presently does not) - do I really want to live in a “conservative” society or a “liberal” one? Specifically, in a world and nation of constant cultural, ethnic, and scientific change, do I want to enjoy the ride as we go forward or pessimistically do my best to resist it?

I am, though a short-run pessimist in today’s political world, a long-range optimist. As a believer in individual freedom, how could I not be optimistic? I believe an open, tolerant society will be a prosperous and moral one, a “good” society. Removing the restraints on individual freedom is, to me, the most important thing we can do today to secure a better life for those who come after us.

Which brings us to the division I referred to within both the Left and the Right, Democrats and Republicans. It has to do with the basic role of government, of the State, in our lives. Some, on both the Left and the Right perhaps never thought of it before, but would probably agree:

Government is the instrument to address public affairs. Public affairs are essentially, the securing of rights through community consent. Some may object, “Our rights are granted by God (or reason, or natural law), not by government!” But in the practical sense, this just isn’t so. Your right to exist, to live, pretty much is based on the community recognition of the right. A potential criminal does not harm you in part because of the penalty the community would impose on him. So it goes with not only your right to your own human form, but also to your right to land, to the earth’s resources.

Public affairs, then, properly addresses our rights, what the community recognizes as something belonging to us and to no one else. Questions that can properly be seen as “public” include:

Pollution, environmental control, land rights, use of broadcast signals, abortion, stem cell research, cloning, euthanasia, custodial rights of children, age of consent/responsibility, diplomacy with other governments, and “public goods” that the community concludes requires public rather than private support and administration.

There is, of course, profound disagreement in all of these areas. My own prescriptions favor as much private property ownership as possible, and for government and “public services“ such as they exist, to be as locally-controlled as possible. This tends to place me on “Right” but there are others who would fall to the “Left.” on these issues. My point is that these issues address genuinely public concerns regarding our right to exist, and to possess the means of survival.

In other words, whether your prescriptions fall to the Left or to the Right, once these questions are settled, whatever it is you do with your own life is nobody else’s business. Especially not the government’s business. These issues are complex enough, and no one answer would probably work for any particular community. But they can be discussed using science and reason.

I don’t know how many people, once they think about it, belong to this group that views government as the exercise of public affairs. Probably a minority. Again, I don’t think many people have thought about it that much. The problem is, public affairs just isn’t sexy. But social control is very sexy.

Social control is the concept that restrictions on your behavior benefit not only you, but society. Taxation that pays not just for public goods and services, but transfers wealth from some segments of the population to others, in order to create a “just” society.

The Public Affairs view is that government secures rights, complicated as that might be. The Social Control view is that the individual must be restricted and taxed in order to create a better society, a better Culture.

Wars on Drugs, Tobacco, and Obesity, whether waged from the Left or the Right, reflect a social-control mindset. The fracas over marriage, which is not a “public” issue, reflects the statist mentality of both advocates and opponents of gay marriage. Some social control-freaks believe in banning casinos, or chain discount stores, from their communities, while other control freaks would exercise “eminent domain” and take from previous landowners in order to actually build the casino or store on the government dime.

Social control freaks, on either the Left or the Right, just refuse to accept that cultural values and economic prosperity can evolve just fine without the intervention of government. The Greater Good, whatever it is, does not need either protection or help, nor do “Christian values” or “secular values” or any other set of values, unless they’re false. Political jargon such as Equality, Democracy, the Flag, the Founding Fathers, Judeo-Christian tradition, only serve to elevate the State to a level of religious devotion and sacrifice, which clouds the reason necessary for healthy discussion of public affairs.

It is my hope that those who esteem human rights and liberty, on either the Left or the Right, will take on and de-bunk the unreasonable and intolerant beliefs of the control freaks who control our political system.

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