This question is key because it will influence everything we discuss hereafter. What we need right now is a framework for what circumstances would cause us to agree to government regulation and what wouldn’t. As I see it, there are four times when government is needed:
1) To protect the public from those seeking to do intentional harm.
2) To protect those who cannot help themselves.
3) To prevent externalities.
4) To make markets possible.
This one is easy. This is about police powers and protecting against foreign enemies. The principle is simple: it is destructive to society and wasteful to make individuals protect themselves from criminals or foreign armies. The role of the government is to keep people safe in their lives and their property AND the exercising of their rights so that society may function.● Intentional Harm
This one comes in two flavors, helping people who genuinely need it and protecting people who cannot protect themselves.● Those Who Cannot Help Themselves
The idea behind welfare and unemployment is that good people will find themselves hitting upon hard times at points in their lives. Those people need help until they can get back on their feet. Helping them is a valid role for government because it ensures the smooth functioning of society. I know conservatives hate this, but frankly, that’s the way the public wants it. Conservatives need to learn to accept that because whining about these programs and trying to kill them will only scare people. Instead, conservatives need to focus on the word “cannot.” This should not be read as “will not.” In other words, conservatives need to tell the public they have no intention of ending these programs, but they want to make them stronger and more fair by designing them to make sure that only those who actually cannot help themselves qualify. Moreover, they need to include incentives to get people off the program again as quickly and as easily as possible. So change the rhetoric from these people being lazy or leaches to talking only about helping those “who genuinely need help” and talking about “helping them get back on their feet again.”
The other half of this is demonstrated by the concept of caveat emptor. Big Business conservatives and some libertarians hide behind this idea like it’s something noble: let the buyer beware. But the public doesn’t accept it, nor should they. The government has a role in stopping deceptive practices. It has a role in stopping abusive and predatory practices as well. This goes back to the idea of the government helping those who cannot protect themselves. It is one thing to say “you bought something cheap, so you have no right to complain when it breaks” but it’s another when the person buys something that is falsely advertised or contains a genuinely hidden danger or creates a hazard of which reasonable people could not be aware.
The problem here is that conservatives conflate frivolous claims with genuine claims and they turn that into a policy of trying to dismantle things like FDA inspectors who should be monitoring the safety of the food supply or the EPA which should be protecting us from polluters, or consumer protection agencies who should be trying to stop scams and predatory business practices. It is an intellectual nonstarter to tell the public they need to do intensive research to know that their beef is safe, that their bank didn’t defraud them or that their car won’t explode. Nor does the public want to hear that a business has the right to poison the air. Conservatives need to accept that the public wants protection, and they need to focus on making the things the government does more reasonable.
This is the hardest for conservatives to accept because they’ve been programmed by Big Business and by misguided libertarians to ignore this. An externality is when a person engages in an activity but doesn’t bear the full price of their actions because they can shift the harm they do onto third parties. Pollution is the perfect example of this. If my factory belches out smoke that makes your land unusable, that is an externality.● Externalities
If you believe in property rights (or in fairness if you’re a liberal), then you should believe that people should be made to pay the full price for the harm they do through their externalities. Otherwise you basically accept the idea that I can make you pay for my choices. Making sure people pay for their own externalities is a proper role for government. Indeed, where possible, the law should simply allow the aggrieved party to be made whole by the courts. BUT that’s not always practical, and sometimes, its a lot better for society to stop the harm before it happens. In those instances, government regulation is justified to prevent people from forcing others to bear the cost of their own externalities.
As an aside, thinking libertarians should actually be fine with this. For while the lunatics say, “I should be able to do anything with my land,” the reasonable ones will realize that your rights stop when you start taking away your neighbor’s rights.
Finally, there are times when government regulation is necessary to create a market or to make it run smoothly. This is particularly true where you have a chicken and egg problem.● The Creation of Markets
These four instances are the times when government is good and government regulation is necessary. Conservatives need to grasp this and readjust their thinking. They need to realize that the public wants these things and opposing them will only scare the public. So they need to accept them... get over it... and refocus their policies on making sure these regulations are as narrow and limited and harmless as possible while still achieving what the public wants.
They also need to learn to flip this around. Think about this. Regulations that don’t fit these principles are things we should oppose and we will be on safe ground doing so because we have a clear reason for justifying it: “this does not protect the public.” Similarly, this gives us a framework to attack regulations created by interest groups as “cronyism” because we can point out how the proposed regulations don't help the public, but instead help individual companies or donors.
By adopting a solid philosophical framework for when regulations work, we can control the debate while simultaneously putting and end to the public’s being terrified that conservatives want a polluted planet, unsafe toys, and a public at the mercy of predatory business. Moreover, we can flip this around any time to expose the Democrats as stooges for cronies and fools who can’t protect the public. This gives us a framework for defining when the government should act rather than us always trying to defend Democrats advances.
** If you want to tell me to look at the constitution, then forget it. That ship sailed. The constitution is dead. Moreover, it doesn’t say what you think it says. The constitution has all these little spots in it like “promote the general welfare” and “regulate interstate commerce” which have opened the door to pretty much unlimited power.