Traditional government functions

President Obama’s said recently that “when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.” There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don’t do on our own. I mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service. That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires.” My friend Bob Flott, in response, writes: “The difference resides in how we define the functions of government. Fighting fires rests among those duties grouped under ‘Public Safety.’ Those are things for which we pay taxes that we want government involvement. That we want government putting out fires does not lead to the concept that we want government involvement in every aspect of our lives.”

I agree with Bob, but I would phrase the point about government functions a little differently. Saying that firefighting is a proper function of government because it’s a subset of public safety is unsatisfying to me. It simply boosts the level of generality; it doesn’t actually answer the question (why is public safety any more proper a function of government than firefighting?), and invites expansion (if public safety is a proper function of government, anything that can be characterized as public safety is a proper function of government; smoking is a public safety issue, ergo–&c.). I prefer to answer: Because in the anglo-american tradition, firefighting has been understood to be a role properly assumed by the government, just as certain other functions are traditionally understood to be proper to government (providing tort remedies, for example, or maintaining the security of the border, or penalizing certain antisocial behaviors through the criminal code). Other activities, by contrast, do not have strong foundations in tradition; government-run healthcare, for example.

This focus on tradition rather than theory answers not only the question “why firefighting” but also the question “why firefighting but not emergency medicine.” It also avoids misplaced arguments about the coherency of a system that has been delineated by history and experience, not logic.

To be sure, the idea is not to rigidly and myopically fix our eyes on the past. If something is genuinely new, the lack of any traditional practice is not conclusive against it, although it encourages caution and circumspection. For example, it is not a persuasive argument against the Apollo program that we hadn’t been to the moon before! But truly novel cases are rare, and typically there are analogs whence we can draw guidance. We had not been to the moon, but the crown had sponsored the colonization of the new world and fostered innovation; we had not had to deal with infrared technology before, but we had dealt with searches. 1 The weaker the analogy from tradition, the more we must do our own thinking. Yet too often, we start and end with ourselves. That is a problem in theology; it is significantly more so in politics. To my mind, the pervasive error of the modern age is its desire to seek in theory what history explains adequately; to refuse to look backwards before moving forwards; “the total contempt,” as Burke put it, “of all ancient institutions when set in opposition to a present sense of convenience or to the bent of a present inclination.” The first test of whether a proposed action should be held a proper function of government, it seems to me, as it presumably did to Blackstone, 2 is whether we have always held it to be a proper function of government.

The difference resides in how we define the functions of government. Fighting fires rests among those duties grouped under “Public Safety.” Those are things for which we pay taxes that we want government involvement. That we want government putting out fires does not lead to the concept that we want government involvement in every aspect of our lives. As a small business owner, I find myself struggling to stay afloat in spite of the government, not because the government is helping me.

Notes:

  1. See Kyllo v. United States, 533 U.S. 27 (2001).
  2. See 1 Blackstone’s Commentaries 67 (1765) (“nothing being more difficult than to ascertain the precise beginning and first spring of an ancient and long established custom … in our law the goodness of a custom depends upon its having been used time out of mind”).