Imagine for a moment what the world would be like if the art of political governance were treated like a game — baseball, cards, “Monopoly” or whatever — in which there was only one rule: anything goes.

What if you could discard the “instruction book” from the start and make things up as you go? If it “works,” do it. If it “feels good,” why not? If opposing players have a disagreement (an obvious inevitability) — well, you can just figure that out later.

What kind of a game would this be? Chaotic, frustrating, unpredictable, impossible. Sooner or later, the whole thing would degenerate into a mad free-for-all. Somebody would have to knock heads together and bring order to the mess.

Simple games would be intolerable played this way, but for many deadly serious things humans engage in — from driving on the highways to waging war — the consequences of throwing away the instruction book can be almost too frightful to imagine.

The business of government is one of those deadly serious things. And like a game run amok, it’s showing signs that the players don’t care much for the rules anymore, if they even know them at all.

Don’t think for a moment that by use of the term “players” I’m pointing fingers at politicians and somehow absolving everyone else of responsibility. In a sense, all of us are players; it’s just that some are more actively so than others — and of those who are active, some are more destructively so than the rest. At the very least, every citizen has a stake in the outcome.

The most profound political and philosophical trend of our time is a serious erosion of any consensus about what government is supposed to do and what it's not supposed to do. The “instruction books” on this matter are America’s founding documents, namely the Declaration of Independence and the original U.S. Constitution with its Bill of Rights. In the spirit of those great works, most Americans once shared a common view of the proper role of government — the protection of life and property.

Jefferson himself phrased it with typical eloquence: “... Still one thing more, fellow citizens — a wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government.”

Today, there is no longer any common view of the proper role of government or, if there is one, it is light years from Jefferson’s. Far too many people think that government exists to do anything for anybody any time they ask for it, from day care for their children to handouts for artists.

U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, is one who often blows the whistle whenever a bill is proposed that violates the spirit or the letter of the Constitution. How are his appeals received by the great majority of other members of Congress? “Like water off a duck’s back,” Paul once told me.

In a series of lectures to high school classes once, I asked the students (most of whom were seniors) what they thought the responsibilities of government were. I heard “provide jobs” far more often than I heard anything remotely like “guarantee our freedoms.” (In fact, I think the only time I heard the latter was when I said it myself.)

An organization called the Communitarian Network made news a while back when it called for government to make organ donations mandatory, so that each citizen’s body after death could be “harvested” for the benefit of sick people. A good cause, certainly, but is it really a duty of government to take your kidneys?

Americans once understood and appreciated the concept of individual rights and entertained very little of this nonsense. But there is no consensus today even on what a right is, let alone which ones we as free citizens should be free to exercise.

When the Reagan administration proposed abolishing subsidies to Amtrak, the nationalized passenger rail service, I was struck by a dissenter who phrased her objection on national television this way: “I don't know how those people in Washington expect us to get around out here. We have a right to this service.”

When Congress once voted to stop funding the printing of Playboy magazine in Braille, the American Council of the Blind filed suit in federal court, charging that the congressional action constituted censorship and the denial of a basic right.

The lofty notion that individuals possess certain rights — definable, inalienable, and sacred — has been cheapened and mongrelized beyond anything our Founders would recognize. When those gifted individuals asserted rights to “freedom of speech” or “freedom of the press” or “freedom of assembly,” they did not mean to say that one has a right to be given a microphone, a printing press, a lecture hall, or a Playboy magazine at someone else’s expense.

Indeed, the Founders’ concept of rights did not require the initiation of force against others, or the elevation of any “want” to a lawful lien on the life or property of any other citizen. Each individual was deemed a unique and sovereign being, requiring only that others either deal with him voluntarily or not at all. It was this notion of rights that became an important theme of America’s founding documents. It is the only notion of rights that does not degenerate into a strife-ridden mob in which every person has his hands in every other person’s pockets.

Millions of Americans today believe that as long as the cause is “good,” it’s a duty of government. They look upon government as a fountain of happiness and material goods. They have forgotten George Washington’s warning, “Government is not reason; it is not eloquence. It is [legalized] force. And like fire, it can either be a dangerous servant or a fearful master.”

Wisdom like that prompted Washington and our other founders to write a Constitution that contained a Bill of Rights, separation of powers, checks and balances, and dozens of “thou shalt nots” directed at government itself. They knew, unlike many Americans today, that a government without rules or boundaries, that does anything for anybody, that confuses rights with wants, will yield intolerable tyranny.

We have tossed away the instruction book. Until we find it again and give it life and meaning in our public lives, we will drift from one intractable crisis to the next. Something more important than any handout from the state — namely, our liberty — hangs in the balance.

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(Lawrence W. Reed is President of The Mackinac Center for Public Policy. This essay first appeared in the August 1994 issue of the Foundation for Economic Education’s monthly journal, Ideas on Liberty.)