When discussing `Negative’ vs. `Positive’ government I like to use the illustration of two types of basketball games, in one game the referee theoretically runs up and down the sideline and only enters the game when a predetermined infraction occurs by one player fouling another. While one team might have net advantages on paper, the game played better by either team determines the outcome. In the other game rather than the ref `standing down’ and restricted to only engage when an infraction occurs, the ref is allowed to manage the game to determine the outcome. So if team A on paper is more skilled than team B, the ref can call the game to the advantage of team B to create a more `Just’ outcome. In 2007 shock waves were sent through the sport of basketball when Tim Donaghy a professional referee for the NBA was accused of gambling and `fixing’ games. Serious allegations in the state of Arizona contend that Donaghy had miscalled two road games against the Phoenix Suns when they played the LA Lakers and the San Antonio Spurs. The league itself was called on the carpet as an FBI investigation was under way. Sportscasters and fans alike were bewildered and never could imagine that NBA games could be fixed or players and refs becoming actors playing a part like in professional wrestling. There has been disinterest and disenchantment as ticket sales have plummeted and the league has attempted to repair its reputation over the last few years. While sports lovers understand the differences in talent and teams that are favored or lacking, they like the spontaneity of the game and root for the underdog and bristle at league or game favoritism.
In a `Negative’’ government system, government is limited in its powers to `protect’ or `promote’ individuals or groups based partially on JS Mill’s `Harm’ Principle from his essay `On Liberty’, “That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” Another rather macabre illustration of Positive government is from Kurt Vonnegut’s short story Harrison Bergeron, Vonnegut foresees a dystopian world of government equality, “The plot is set in the year 2081. Due to the 211th, 212th and 213th Amendments to the Constitution of America, all Americans are mandated equal. “They were not only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way.” In America no one is more intelligent than anyone else; no one is better looking or more athletic than anyone else. In order to stop any sort of competition in society these measures are enforced by the United States Handicapper General”. The very strong were burdened with weights and objects to severely limit their strength, the intellectuals were encumbered with drugs to distort their minds and understanding, and the beautiful wore masks or the appearance of their beauty was marred.
The `US Handicapper General’ today is Cass Sunstein, Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, who through his legal and behavioral science background determines the best `Positive’ laws to meet the outcome goals of Social Justice and Equality.
While those in favor of a government that manages the game toward a certain outcome and manipulates behavior towards that end, there are others who believe that the outcome and unintended consequences of a Positive government are tragic and result in less liberties and freedom for each individual. Ludwig Von Mises, the author of Human Action proffers that it is because of the inequalities of men that voluntary association, exchange and cooperation can occur. That when we attempt, even if for altruistic intentions (if possible) to rebalance mankind based on skill sets, intellect, physical prowess, etc that it distorts the abilities of free and voluntary exchange and association to bring peace and harmony to society. Class system strife is the result of Positive government interventions and not the socio-economic differences that will always exist in society. A strong man and an intelligent man can pool their resources and work together. A poor man and a rich man can agree upon employment conditions and work together. While this may sound simplistic and I’m sure you can think of examples of exploitation, in a freer market with more choices, bad actors (employers, business owners) are held in check by the decisions of the consumers and workers.
The budget and debt battle of 2011 has taken on many themes, pitting the rich against the poor, the elderly against young workers, but isn’t it really about the size and function of government? As we’ve discussed, today’s government is Positive in nature, as it looks to manage the behavior of individuals in order to produce societal outcomes – which never happens. Federal US Education budget has grown at more than 2 times the rate of inflation and the US is at the bottom compared to other nations. Poverty is still unacceptably high (as measured by Fed) even after decades of the `War on Poverty’. The question being asked today by many is not only what are the legitimate functions of the federal government but also couldn’t private resources take care of the social ills of society much better than government?