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Home Blog What are the duties of government?

What are the duties of government?

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Later this week comes the budget and its much-trailed cuts. There has, sadly, been little discussion in this particular connection of what government is actually FOR. This is strange because in a more general way the subject is hotly contested, with a strong argument being put forward that governments are entirely unnecessary.

There is a powerful idea around at the moment that government is a bad thing per se and it is desirable that it should be as small as possible. This is, amongst other things, a reaction to the all-controlling socialist regimes that were a dominant feature of the last century, the so-called nanny states of the past decade and, in Europe, the growing power of the European Union. Is it possible to define an irreducible minimum of duties that only the state can do? What corresponding duties do they imply for the individual? And what are the rights that arise from these duties? I would suggest that the following are the absolute minimum duties of the state, and the corresponding duties of the individual.

STATE’S DUTY
INDIVIDUAL DUTY
DEFEND THE REALM
PERFORM MILITARY SERVICE IF NEEDED
MAKE LAND AVAILABLE
KEEP THE LAND IN GOOD ORDER
COLLECT THE RENT OF LAND
PAY THE RENT OF LAND
APPLY JUSTICE
OBEY THE LAW
DEAL WITH EMERGENCIES
SUPPORT ONESELF AND FAMILY, IF ABLE

Is this comprehensive or sufficient? It makes no mention of activities which it is assumed are the responsibility of the state, such as the education of children, care of the sick or the relief of poverty, or even the provision of roads, railways and land use planning.

A few points are worth noting. Making land available and keeping land in good order implies some sort of land use planning, even in the most rudimentary form. Thus, an occupier of upland land would have a duty not to chop down trees without replacing them. This would give protection to communities living within the watershed, who are vulnerable to flooding if tree cover is removed.

Making land available also implies that means of access are provided in the way of transport infrastructure. Most important of all, it ensures that everyone has the basic means of supporting themselves and their families. Where such a state prevailed, how much need would there be for the relief of poverty which is one of the biggest expenses of the modern state?

Applying justice implies that governments make just laws and administer them effectively. If laws are unjust, it is not reasonable to expect people to obey them. Supporting oneself and one’s family, if able, implies that there are circumstances in which this may not be possible, due to natural disasters, sickness or other events. There has to be some kind of safety net in place.

It would be worth bearing all of this in mind when forming a judgement on the Chancellor's proposals later in the week.
 

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