One of the more serious problems facing us in the United States is defining the scope of government. This is not a matter of defining what the government can do, but rather what it should do. Much of the current backlash against the existing federal system – whether by marijuana advocates, (medical and other) sex educators, free speech groups, privacy groups and others is a response to a perceived change in the scope of government.
Currently, most significant legislation put in place by the government falls into five categories. These are, roughly, as follows:
- Regulations to Protect People From Each Other — Laws against murder and armed assault, protections against fraud, regulations against improper product labeling, noise regulations, pollution control, and other similar legislation
- Regulations to Maintain Government Capabilities — This includes funding the military and police, taxes and tax regulations, and other similar laws
- Regulation to Build and Maintain Shared Infrastructure — Regulations put in place to maintain roads, courts, sewers, water distribution, public buildings, telecommunications infrastructure and other similar activities
- Regulations to Protect People From Circumstance — This includes Social Security, Federal Disability Insurance, Medicare, Welfare, Food Stamps and other related programs, as well as hurricane relief and FEMA.
- Regulations to Protect People From Themselves — Laws against the consumption of certain drugs, laws against prostitution or hiring a prostitute, regulations governing end of life issues, etc.
- Regulations to Protect Society From its Members — Restrictions on who may or may not marry, restrictions on hate speech, laws against some sex acts, controls on literature and images that relate to sexuality, regulations controlling what types of content can be published or broadcast, and other related regulations
One of the deeper debates we are having today, as a society, is what the proper scope of government is. We are asking ourselves, and each other, whether it makes sense to put someone in jail for possession of a substance that is directly harmful only to the person who is taking it. We are asking ourselves whether we want government making decisions about our personal lives, our choice of life partners, and many other things. Despite the religious tone of many of the people making arguments on both sides, this is not a religious debate, but rather a debate about what decisions should be made by the government, and what decisions are left to individuals.
From what I have seen to this point, the strongest and least controversial arguments for government intervention are in cases where it is protecting people from each other. This is especially true when a mostly unbiased court system acts to prevent large differences in financial or social standing between people from producing a difference in outcome. For example: if a rich person strikes a poor one, we expect, as a society, that the rich person will still face criminal charges despite the difference in economic standing. In cases where this hasn’t happened, most people were disgusted with the outcome.
In contrast, recent Texas regulations against the sale of dildos is widely ignored – or at least worked around. The laws against oral and anal sex that are on the books in several states are, largely, ignored – and the very few recent attempts to enforce them are widely regarded as politically motivated actions with no real underlying merit. This is because most people see these as personal issues, and attempts by government to regulate in these areas as inappropriate.
Life isn’t easy, and it’s very clear the each of us is faced, sooner or later, with the need to make difficult choices — choices with real consequences in our lives and the lives of those we care about. Sometimes these choices are about whether to start a pregnancy – or end one. Sometimes they are about end of life decisions when life is, in many ways, a tragedy rather than a blessing. Sometimes they are about who to share your bed with – or your life. Intelligent people who care very deeply about these issues can often disagree about how an individual situation should be handled, and whether the government should be involved in the decision.
At this point, the only thing that sensible people should all agree on is that the scope of government is a legitimate subject for debate on both a state and national level – and that people who would whittle down its traditional perquisites are not anarchists – but, rather, people who have a different view of what government should do. We need to stop stigmatizing advocates for a government with a smaller scope – whether their subject is sex or drugs – and start listening. The question is only going to become more important – not less.
 — In one area, the abortion debate, I wasn’t able to place the laws and proposed laws using this system. This is because, from my standpoint, one of the major subjects of debate is whether the law belongs in the first category or the sixth. Very good arguments can be made for both positions – but it should be noted that, as described in the article, the sixth category presents a far weaker argument in favor of restrictions than the first category does.