Government’s role: Providing services or protecting individual rights?

First Published: 2015-03-29

For many, government exists to look after us by providing various services: health care, education (both K to 12 and post-secondary), licensing (of daycares, restaurants, selling of food, liquor and tobacco; driving, gambling, etc.), old age security, advising and funding for business. The list goes on; government services are pervasive, and they keep expanding, requiring higher and higher spending.

Take the case of my home province, Alberta, which for the last forty years has been ruled by the so-called Progressive Conservative party (with the emphasis on “progressive”). With the exception of a brief period in the early 1990s, when then-Premier Ralph Klein drastically cut government spending to slash the ballooning deficit and eliminated the ever-growing debt, the Alberta (so-called) Conservatives have significantly increased spending year after year, as Mark Milke writes in an informative column. Alberta spends more per capita than any other Canadian province, on all those “services” above, and on many others. The spending has been funded primarily by the high royalties extracted from the thriving oil and gas industry, the economic engine of the province. The provincial income tax rate has been the lowest in the country—a 10% flat tax—and there is no provincial sales tax.

The end to the government spending spree has been anticipated ever since the oil prices–and Alberta’s royalty revenues—collapsed last year. A few days ago, the government released its new budget. Did it contain any significant spending cuts in recognition of the new economic reality? No (as Mark Milke details in his column). Instead, the government resorted to tax increases—first time in almost 30 years—and eliminated the flat tax, and yet, increased the deficit to a record high. According to Premier Prentice, Albertans deserve all the services that they have become accustomed to in our oil-wealthy province.

But the Premier is wrong: what Albertans deserve is liberty to decide how to earn a living and how to use the proceeds of their productivity. The prevalent idea of government as the “service provider” that knows best how our money should be spent is wrong. It is wrong because it conflicts with our ability to survive and flourish. How?

Our primary means of surviving and flourishing is thinking. To thrive and to be happy, we must think, based on reality, to solve “the problem” of survival and flourishing: How to create the material values that we require, through what kind of work or business? Which values are important to our life and happiness: work, family, other relationships, travel, recreation? How to allocate the money we earn, to achieve these values? The only way to achieve values is to think and act on our thinking, for example, by identifying the line of work we want and then pursuing it.

The only way our pursuit of values, of our survival and flourishing, can be restricted is by others initiating physical force or fraud against us. Obviously, if someone enslaves us, we cannot pursue our life and other values. Or, if someone steals our property, our pursuit of values is thwarted or prevented altogether. This is exactly what the government does when, instead of letting us decide how to live our lives and spend our money, it taxes us and decides how our money is to be spent. This is the total reversion of the proper role of government, first identified by John Locke and enshrined in the Constitution of the United States as the protection of our individual rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness.

In the span of just over 200 years, the United States and other governments that recognized individual rights, even partially, have begun to violate those principles. Given the lack of recognition and defense of individual rights, it is no wonder that the Alberta government is escalating that violation. But the only way for Albertans, or citizens of any other jurisdiction, to return to liberty and prosperity, is to revolt against their tax-and-spend governments and demand they perform their only proper role: protect our individual rights and leave us free to live, produce,  trade, and pursue happiness.

First published at How to be Profitable and Moral: A Rational Egoist Approach to Business and posted here with the kind permission of the author.

Jaana Woiceshyn teaches business ethics and competitive strategy at the Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary, Canada. She has lectured and conducted seminars on business ethics to undergraduate, MBA and Executive MBA students, and to various corporate audiences for over 20 years both in Canada and abroad. Before earning her Ph.D. from the Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, she helped turn around a small business in Finland and worked for a consulting firm in Canada. Jaana’s research on technological change and innovation, value creation by business, executive decision-making, and business ethics has been published in various academic and professional journals and books. “How to Be Profitable and Moral” is her first solo-authored book.


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