There was an interesting discussion here yesterday on the responsibilities of government. I thought that it might be a useful exercise to examine what I think the lower bounds of government are, i.e., in which cases government must take action.

Libertarians generally believe that government should be limited to be as small as possible. This does not mean that there should be no government; it sets a baseline from which we can judge where we deviate from individually.

Hobbes, in Leviathon, makes the case that we must have a social contract with one another, else only the monsters amongst us will flourish and survive. Therefore, the basic need for government is to provide for our safety. This can be done by maintenance of the armed forces, and for police and fire services. It should be noted that the safety function doesn’t imply that the nation can fight preemptive wars. Instead, libertarians generally believe in just war theory which basically argues that wars should be self-defensive in nature, and should be fought with enough power to defeat any enemy, but not necessarily to devastate them. It’s a little like the lamented Powell Doctrine.

Eventually, the limits upon governmental purview have expanded. Now, there are also a number of other basic functions of government besides the physical safety function.

First, government has an umpire function. That is, when two parties enter into a contract, then government, through the courts, is needed to arbitrate the dispute. As well, some people (not you or me, obviously) are bad people. As a society, we must set up some way to punish and incarcerate them. Thus, we also need a court system and a prison system.

Second, government must provide for public goods. These, as we know, are goods or services for which everyone wants to consume, but nobody wants to or can absorb the cost. Common examples are roads or national defense. The reason government must provide for public goods is that if people had a choice and refused to pay (free riders), they still can’t be excluded from the benefits of them. Therefore, government has the right to collect taxes.

Third, government can correct negative externalities. So, pretend that St. Louis entered a contract with a sewage treatment plant that it could throw all of the raw sewage into the Mississippi River ten miles south of town, it might be a valid contract, but people in New Orleans (once they sobered up) might not like it. So government can rule such contracts invalid.

Fourth, government has the sole right to mint money. This is a necessary function, since it provides for the free exchange of goods and services, obviously. Otherwise, we would all be reduced to barter in order to receive that which we do not make ourselves, which would inherently limit economic growth.

I’m not writing this to say that that is ALL that government should do. That’s a decision that each of us should make. Also, we need to remember that in our system of government some functions belong to the federal government, while some are provided to the states.