Thursday, March 17, 2011

Citizenship and the Proper Role of Government

In the meantime, while I was working out an answer to Brett’s challenge (read yesterday's post, or the comment after my March 8 post), Perth made a brief rebuttal, focusing on the individual vs. collective differences between, say, health care and defense—which does come to the essence of the question. But I wanted to cover more, to deal with Brett’s implication that essentially everything a government does, based on majority approval, is still coercion for whoever doesn’t approve. So here’s my attempt at a larger answer.

The contract between the people and the governmental entity is not exactly the same as a contract between a person and a commercial enterprise. There are implications about perpetuity and citizenship that make the difference. Also, when we’re dealing with the US federal government, the contract is not simply between individuals and nation; it is between states and nation, retaining their sovereignty, and allocating only those rights that need to be handled by all the units at once.

The creation of a government is not a majority opinion coercion; it is an agreement between all the people and the government being created by them. Think of our founding—virtually all citizens within the independent confederated original states did want to belong to the union. (Those who didn’t are what we call Canadians.) And, as important, the states that the individual people had created prior unanimously contracted to create the federal government.

It is the people who join together to create a governmental entity: a township, a county, a city. If granted authority by the people, those units can join together to become a state—a sovereign entity. At our founding the sovereign states realized that individually they were weak and would succumb to invasion, piracy, or trade difficulties. And they also had difficulty trading freely among themselves. But by uniting, their combined strength gave them abilities as a larger sovereign nation, strength that protected them all. Intent is spelled out in the Preamble:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

At the lowest level the Constitution (the contract) is essentially agreed upon by all members to become citizens. (It may look more complicated, but if a person agrees to go by a majority opinion in his village, then he is giving his consent, even if he would have preferred a different outcome. So he isn’t compelled.) The original contract has limitations, spelled out in the charter documents. Once the entity is created, all those agreeing to it have citizenship in it. This is consensus, not majority rule.

The agreement, or contract (you could use the word covenant—a two-way contract) is between the people as a whole and the entity they created. They may, in that agreement, allow the entity to join with other similar entities as needed to form a larger governmental unit; the original states were authorized to join together to form the United States.

Individual people change. People emigrate, and give up their citizenship. New people born into the community inherit their citizenship (thus the phrase “to ourselves and our Posterity”); that means they also inherit the terms of the contract. If those with inherited citizenship don’t agree to the stipulations of the contract, they must either seek for legal means to amend the contract (amend the Constitution), or they must abide. Or they can emigrate and renounce their citizenship.

New people immigrate in. They must go through a process to learn the terms of the agreement and gain citizenship. For example, when you buy a home in a community with an HOA, you sign covenants agreeing to the rules, thus becoming a citizen with voting rights and other privileges, along with obligations, in the HOA. A renter isn’t a citizen—no voting rights, but is still required to obey certain standards by the landlord, who has made them clear in the rental contract, so as to keep his commitment to the HOA. Similarly, when you move into this country, you go through a process to earn citizenship, to become naturalized, at which point you have access to all the rights and privileges of natural born citizens (except for becoming president). [Note: it’s the process to earn citizenship, to understand and consent to the contract, that is at issue with illegal immigrants. How can an entity maintain the contract when numerous people demand the benefits but do not understand or sign on to the contract? Making the process less onerous is another issue, but the privileges of citizenship should only be afforded to those who agree to the contract.]

The point is, individual citizens may change, but “We the People” as a whole are the ones to keep the contract with the governmental entity. So if an individual in our day happens to disagree with a portion of the original contract, his opinion doesn’t matter. By virtue of enjoying citizenship, he has de facto agreed to the terms, whether he claims to be coerced or not.

Now, back to the issue of the proper role of government. The original argument is that the people can only grant to government those natural rights they have in the first place. The confusion comes because I point out that, because you have the right to protect your life and property, you have the right to join together with others who hold that right, and contract with someone (a sheriff at the town level, for example) to provide protection for you. So I will clarify by saying when you create a governmental entity to do this task, this is different from simply hiring, say, a security guard service to watch over your adjoining properties, a service you can choose not to purchase at any point the contract legally allows. You create the governmental entity and grant it the authority to protect itself (the way you protect your own self). By creating the entity, you have consensus from all citizens to combine for this security reason. No one is coerced to pay for it; everyone has consented, and everyone benefits equally.

What about health care? You do indeed have the right to care for your health, and you do indeed have the right to combine with others to pay someone to care for you all; this is what insurance companies, HMOs, and various other commercial entities that provide health services are about. In each of these cases, you choose to participate—there is 100% consensus. No one is forced to sign the contract. And if you don’t like this service, you can change to another.

Can you do that when you create a governmental entity? Let’s see. You have the right to protect your personal health, but your neighbor doesn’t have the right to require you to pay for his. So, you have the right to grant the governmental entity the right to maintain the health of its body (why you can argue that there are reasons for caring about plagues, epidemics, water purity, and the like). But you don’t have the right to grant the entity to force some individuals to pay for the care of other individuals. This is Perth’s argument: the entity is created by the whole to benefit the whole, not to benefit individuals within the whole over and above other individuals.

In the contract grant to the federal government, there is no majority, small or large, that has power to usurp rights from the minority. The entity was created to protect all equally. If the US Defense Department protects the borders of the country, it protects the borders of the whole entity, the whole nation, not just, say, the border of Montana but not the border of Arizona. (Right now it is failing to protect the Arizona border and has essentially ceded 60 miles of highway to Mexico, a loss to us all as a whole.)

The governmental entity is essentially power, so a wise people grant the entity only those powers that it must in order for the whole unit to flourish—protection of life, liberty, and property and the structures to support that—law and justice system, standards weights and measures, and standard monetary units, for example. Some units may agree on infrastructure in the common lands to facilitate commerce. But “We the People of the United States” were careful to limit the reach of the federal government. In no case do we grant a majority, say 60%, the right to coerce the minority 40% to pay for services to which they have not consented. When that has happened (and I grant that it has), that has been usurpation. There may be elements of the military budget that you can argue do not qualify as what you’ve consented to, but Defense of the nation—insuring domestic tranquility (lawful peace between and among the states) and providing for the common defense—are agreed to by all citizens. For a citizen to refuse to meet his obligation to pay his share of the common defense is to renege on the contract, which is why the government has authority to then enforce the contract.

But I think we agree the real problem is not how to enforce citizenship obligations, but how to stop the government usurpation.

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