The Purpose of the State

You know summer is indeed over when Parliament goes back to work. For some, this signals little more than the return of bickering background noise, while for others, this signals a passionate call for a return to arms. Regardless of the extent to which we pay attention to what goes on, and regardless of the extent to which we engage, as it begins to unfold we would do well, I believe, to reflect on what the role of the state is and what it should be. What is its task and in what areas should it intervene?

There are many disagreements over this most important question, with answers varying from “as much intervention as possible” to “as little intervention as possible”. I suspect, however, that a great many parliamentarians go about their business on an issue to issue basis, mostly out of good will no doubt, but also without being able to provide a principled and robust explanation as to why the intervention to which they hold dear, be it an action, policy, or program, should even finds itself within the jurisdiction of the state in the first place.

Interventionists generally believe that society’s ills are the result of design-flaws within its power structure. Such flaws allow the wrong people to wield power, hence the contempt with which the term one-percenter is uttered. In their view, this deficiency inevitably leads to exploitation, and it prevents society from progressing and from reaching its full potential. With a deep concern for progress, therefore, interventionists see the state as the only instrument powerful enough to remedy such flaws. Consequently, in an effort to give the best and brightest the necessary tools to lead and carry us forward, state power should grow and its reach should expand.

Non-interventionists generally believe that society’s ills are the result of man’s capacity for evil. With no delusions of utopia, they believe that even a good, bright, and well-intentioned man can end up betraying his constituents by abusing his powers and by making poor decisions. With a deep concern for liberty, therefore, non-interventionists see the state as the ultimate instrument of oppression, given its power to enact and enforce law, and given its monopoly over the legitimate use of force. Consequently, in an effort to protect freedom, state power should be restrained and its reach should be limited.

Interventionists in all political parties have had a fair amount of success at expanding state power in the last half-century. Canada, for instance, has seen its federal and provincial governments dramatically expand with the creation of various bureaucracies and programs designed to carry us into the bright new age of the modern state. Similarly, government power in the United States has grown as a result of expanding both the welfare and warfare state.

These paternalistic interventionist policies, however, have resulted in oppressive levels of debt, dysfunctional and unsustainable programs, increased dependency on the state, and the concentration of power in the hands of fewer and flawed men. It is curious to watch the many pro-intervention politicians, media personalities, and political pundits, who lament about how awful and dangerous they believe President Trump is, and never for a moment question that perhaps it was a bad idea to favour such concentration of power in the first place.

There is, of course, a multitude of ways to frame this discussion beyond interventionist vs non-interventionist, not to mention the endless in-between positions as well. Nevertheless, when it comes to the underlying principles and beliefs on which world-views are constructed, the belief that a certain system or power structure can wipe away the evil and depravity that dwells within the human heart makes for a shaky and unstable foundation upon which to build a society.

Liberty is where our focus should be; and only by keeping power structures divided can it flourish; and only where it flourishes can true progress be made.

(Kevin Richard is an independent Quebec writer and a regular contributor to