Needful Things


Viviane at TPM Cafe marvels, a bit awestruck, at the lapidary perfection of Rep. Rush Holt's pronouncement that "The essential role of government is to provide for its citizens in their time of need." She adds:

I'm amazed at the simplicity and the forcefulness of the concep--we have governments in order to help citizens in their time of need! That's the basic principle; everything else is policy details. I suspect we can agree on the principle, even if we disagree on the implementation of it.

"Simplicity and forcefulness" is one way to put it. "Vacuity" is another. As the post makes pretty clear, anything government does might, trivially, be characterized as a response to a need—for dispute resolution, domestic security, healthcare, or, presumably, the need to have your nose wiped when you've got a sniffle. Whatever "unifying" power this principle might have is a function of its meaninglessness: What counts as a "need"? Which is government responsible for? (Does anyone think it's literally any and all?) What if putative needs conflict? (One cute but basically apt definition of economics, after all, is the allocation of finite resources to infinite human wants and needs.) What sort of help should it provide and how? These aren't policy details to be hashed out at the margins; they're the whole content of an otherwise empty principle. One might add: a dangerously empty principle, since it leaves the scope of government pretty much unlimited.