Very few conservatives are “anti-government.” We believe government should be limited in scope, in order to maximize the freedom to make your own decisions and live according to your own values. But we also recognize that protecting that freedom is impossible without government.
By definition, that means coercion. What distinguishes government from the other social institutions that make up a society isn’t public spiritedness or organizational flowcharts or periodic elections. Other institutions have one or more of those features. What makes government unique is that if you do not fund and obey it, you can be fined or arrested. For conservatives, government turns tyrannical when push comes to shove, when it exceeds its proper, constitutional bounds.
If you think “government should” and “society should” are indistinguishable ways of beginning a sentence, it will be challenging for us to have a conversation about politics and public policy. We have a language barrier.
I believe human beings have many moral obligations to each other. In most cases, however, your failure to discharge your moral obligation cannot justify me or anyone else using force to compel your obedience. Aggregating all of us as individuals into “society” doesn’t change the calculation of justice. We can ask you to do the right thing, we can present arguments and evidence in an effort to convince you. But to resort to force would be to treat you as less than a moral agent, as less than fully human.
Some people take this line of argument so far that they deny a role for government at all in a just society. They are mistaken (and rare). Government is inevitable and necessary because human beings are flawed creatures with temptations, inherent in our unchangeable human natures, to break the very rules that allow civilization to flourish.
There has always been violence. There has always been envy. Indeed, there has been and will always be good-faith differences of opinion about the practical application of the rights to one’s life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. Think “you got your chocolate in my peanut butter” kinds of disputes. They will not always result in a nicely wrapped candy treat. Sometimes they will escalate into debilitating and dangerous violence.
Government’s proper role, then, is to maximize freedom. That means passing laws and issuing rules that define and uphold our rights, deter and punish acts of force and fraud, and facilitate private, voluntary agreements. It means safeguarding the interests of those who are not in a position to conduct their own affairs, such as minor children and those with severe disabilities. Most conservatives also believe that means ensuring the provision of certain public goods that make a free society functional and sustainable, such as education — although they typically reject the idea that these services must be delivered by government monopolies.
Conservatives frequently disagree among themselves about the details, naturally. And in recent years, some have even argued that modern American conservatism has put too great an emphasis on freedom at the expense of community cohesion, moral standards, or national greatness.
Still, if you would understand the origins of today’s most contentious public disputes — from Medicaid expansion and fiscal policy in North Carolina to Medicare for All and religious liberty in national politics — you have to start with the basics. At root, these disputes aren’t about facts and figures. They aren’t about administrative competence or political probity. The origins lies upstream of all that. They spring from differences in definitions.
Does that mean conservatives and progressives have nothing of consequence to say to each other? No. We can debate specific policy alternatives, perhaps finding instances of agreement. And I’m going to continue to explain what I mean by “government.” I assume progressives will continue to insist that government is just a name for “the things we do together.” Perhaps one side or the other will have an epiphany. At the very least, the conversation may lead to less mutual recrimination and demonization, which would be most welcome.