The Proper Role of Government

Ezra Taft Benson 

BYU Speeches of the Year



After that very generous introduction, that I appreciate very much, I had a rather humorous thought: I thought, “If I could just pass away now, a lot of fuss and bother could be avoided because my eulogy has already been said.” Seriously, it is a signal honor, a very great pleasure, and a challenging responsibility to speak to this choice group tonight. Humbly and gratefully, I approach the important assignment. I am not here to tickle your ears, to entertain you. I shall speak to you frankly and honestly. Because of the nature of the message which I bring to you tonight, I have committed most of it to writing. And as has been said, I will discuss with you the very vital subject of the proper role of government.


America – Not Just Another Nation


With all my heart, I love this great nation. I have lived and traveled abroad just enough to make me appreciate rather fully what we have here. Having traveled in some fifty nations, on both sides of the Iron Curtain, having met with leaders of the free world and also the Communist world, I have a conviction in my heart that this is the greatest nation under heaven. And I am convinced that the God of Heaven raised up the Founding Fathers and established this land, this great country. This is not just another nation. This is not just one of the family of the nations of the free world. This is a nation with a special mission to perform for liberty-loving people everywhere.

With all my heart, I proclaim that this nation has a spiritual foundation and a prophetic history. And fortunate are we who hold citizenship in this blessed land. I stand before you tonight humbly grateful to God for the blessings we all enjoy as citizens of these free United States of America. I am grateful for our Founding Fathers who were raised up, with the courage to give their lives, with the unselfishness to give their fortunes, and the vision to pledge their sacred honor in order to establish a new kind of government of their own choosing where men might be free. I am additionally grateful that these Founding Fathers had the faith and humility to accept the divine inspiration so necessary in setting forth the Constitution as the foundation of their new republic.


Correct Principles Lead to Correct Choices


Men are often asked to express an opinion on a myriad of government proposals and projects. All too often, answers seem to be based not upon solid principle, but upon the popularity of the specific government program in question. Seldom are men willing to oppose a popular program if they themselves wish to be popular, especially if they seek public office. Such an approach to vital political questions of the day can only lead to public confusion and legislative chaos. Decisions of this nature should be based upon and measured against certain basic principles regarding the proper role of government. If principles are correct, then they can be applied to any specific proposal with confidence. Unlike the political opportunist, a true statesman values principle above popularity, and works to create popularity for those political principles which are wise and just. 

I should like to outline tonight, in clear, concise, and straight-forward terms, the political principles to which I subscribe. These are the guidelines which determine now and in the future my attitudes and actions toward all domestic proposals and projects of government. These are the principles which, in my opinion, proclaim the proper role of government as envisioned by the Founding Fathers in the domestic affairs of the nation.


The Source of Man’s Unalienable Rights


It is generally agreed that the most important single function of government is to secure the rights and freedoms of individual citizens. But what are those rights? And what is their source? Until these questions are answered, there is little likelihood that we can correctly determine how government can best secure them. Let us first consider the origin of those freedoms we have come to know as “human rights.” Rights are either God-given, as part of the divine plan, or they are granted by government, as part of the political plan. Reason, necessity, tradition, and religious convictions all lead me to accept the Divine origin of these rights.

If we accept the premise that human rights are granted by government, then we must be willing to accept the corollary: that they can be denied by government. I shall never accept that premise.


The True Meaning of Separation of Church and State


I support the doctrine of separation of Church and State, as traditionally interpreted, to prohibit the establishment of an official national religion. But this does not mean that we should divorce government from any formal recognition of God. To do so strikes a potentially fatal blow at the concept of the Divine origin of our rights, and unlocks the door for an easy entry of future tyranny.

If Americans should ever come to believe that their rights and freedoms are instituted among men by politicians and bureaucrats, then they will no longer carry the proud inheritance of their forefathers, but will grovel before their master seeking favors and dispensations – a throwback to the feudal system of the dark ages.

We must ever keep in mind the inspired words of Thomas Jefferson as found in the Declaration of Independence, of which I am sure you are all familiar.


We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.           


Man is Superior to the Government


Since God created man with certain unalienable rights, and man in turn created government to help secure and safeguard those rights, it follows that man is superior to the creature which he created. Man is superior to government and should remain master over it, not the other way around. Even the nonbeliever can appreciate the logic of this relationship.

A government is nothing more or less than a relatively small group of citizens who have been hired, in a sense, by the rest of us to perform certain functions and discharge certain responsibilities which have been authorized. The government itself has no innate power or privilege to do anything – its only source of authority and power is from the people who created it. Keep in mind that the people who have created their government can give to that government only such powers as they themselves have. They cannot give that which they do not possess.


The Principles Which Underlie the Proper Function of Government


            What powers properly belong to each and every person in the absence of and prior to the establishment of any organized governmental form? A hypothetical question? Yes indeed. But it is a question which is vital to an understanding of the principles which underlie the proper function of government. This is discussed somewhat in Section 134 of the Doctrine and Covenants.


The Government Cannot Be Delegated a Power Which the People Do Not Possess


In a primitive state, there is no doubt that each man would be justified in using force, if necessary to defend himself against physical harm, against theft of the fruits of his labor, and against enslavement by another. Indeed the early pioneers found that a great deal of their time and energy was being spent defending themselves, their property, and their liberty. For man to prosper, he cannot afford to spend his time constantly guarding his family, his fields, and his property against attack and theft. So he joins together with his neighbors and hires a sheriff. At this moment, government is born.

The individual citizens delegate to the sheriff their unquestionable right to protect themselves. The sheriff now does for them only what they had a right to do for themselves – nothing more.

But suppose pioneer A wants another horse for his wagon. He doesn’t have the money to buy one, but since pioneer B has an extra horse, he decides that he is entitled to share his neighbor’s good fortune. Is he entitled to take his neighbor’s horse? Obviously not. If his neighbor wishes to give it or lend it, that is another question. But so long as pioneer B wishes to keep his property, pioneer A has no just claim to it. If A has no proper power to take B’s property, can he delegate any such power to the sheriff? No. Even if everyone in the community desires that B give his extra horse to A, they have no right, individually or collectively, to force him to do it. They cannot delegate a power they themselves do not have.


The Limits of the Proper Function of Government


The proper function of government is limited only to those spheres of activity within which the individual citizen has the right to act. By deriving its just powers from the governed, government becomes primarily a mechanism for defense against bodily harm, theft, and involuntary servitude. It cannot claim the power to redistribute the wealth, or force reluctant citizens to perform acts of charity against their will. Government is created by man. No man can delegate a power he does not possess. The creature cannot exceed the creator.

In general terms therefore, the proper role of government includes such defensive activities as maintaining national military and local police forces, for the protection against loss of life, loss of property, and loss of liberty at the hands of either foreign despots or domestic criminals.

It also includes those powers necessarily incidental to the proper function, such as:

1)                          The maintenance of courts, where those charged with crimes may be tried and where disputes between citizens may be impartially settled. 

2)                          The establishment of a monetary system and a standard of weights and measures so that courts may render money judgments, taxing authorities may levy taxes, and citizens may have a uniform standard to use in their business dealings.

If it were up to me as an individual, to punish my neighbor for violating a given law, would it offend my conscience to do so? Since my conscience will never permit me to physically punish my fellow man unless he has done something evil, or unless he has failed to do something which I have a moral right to require him to do, I will never knowingly authorize my agent, the government, to do this on my behalf. When I give my consent to the adoption of a law, I specifically instruct the police (the government) to take either the life, the liberty, or property of anyone who disobeys that law. Furthermore, I tell them that if anyone resists the enforcement of the law, they are to use any means necessary, yes even jail or death, to overcome such resistance.


How Should We Decide Which Laws to Support or Oppose?


These are extreme measures. But unless laws are enforced, anarchy results. We Americans should recognize that government is no plaything. It is an instrument of force. And unless our conscience is clear that we would not hesitate to put a man to death, or to put him in jail, or to forcibly deprive him of his property for failing to obey a given law, we should oppose that law.


The Constitution and Legitimate Government Activities


The Constitution of the United States, an inspired document, is a solemn agreement between the citizens of this nation which every officer of government is under a sacred duty to obey. The Constitution provides that the great bulk of the legitimate activities of government are to be carried out at the state or local level. This is the only way in which the principle of self-government can be made effective. The smallest or lowest level that can possibly undertake the task is the one that should do so. Only if no smaller unit can possibly do the job, should the federal government be considered. This is merely the application to the field of politics of that wise and time-tested principle of never asking a larger group to do that which can be done by a smaller group. The smaller the governmental unit, and the closer it is to the people, the easier it is to guide it, to correct it, to keep it solvent, and to keep our freedom.

Thomas Jefferson explained it this way,


The way to have good and safe government is not to trust it all to one, but to divide it among the many, distributing to everyone exactly the functions he is competent to. Let the national government be entrusted with the defense of the nation and its foreign and federal relations; the state government with civil rights, law, police, the administration of what concerns the state generally; the counties with the local concerns of the counties, and each ward direct the interests within itself. It is by dividing and subdividing these republics from the great national one, down through all its subordinations, until it ends in the administration of every man’s farm by himself. By placing under every one what his own eye may superintend, that all will be done for the best. What has destroyed liberty and the rights of man in every government which has ever existed under the sun? The generalizing and concentrating all cares and powers into one body.


            Remember that the people of the states of this Republic created the federal government. The federal government did not create the states.


The Simple Test


A category of government activity which not only requires the closest scrutiny, but which also poses a great danger to our continued freedom is the activity not within the proper sphere of government. No one has authority to grant such powers as welfare programs, schemes for redistributing the wealth, and activities which coerce people into acting in accordance with a proscribed code of social planning. There is one simple test: Do I, as an individual, have the right to use force upon my neighbor to accomplish this goal? If I do, then I may delegate that power to my government to exercise on my behalf. If I do not have that right, I cannot delegate it.

There are times when this principle of the proper role of government is most annoying and inconvenient. “If I could only force the ignorant to provide for themselves, or the selfish to be generous with their wealth.” But if we permit government to manufacture its own authority and to create self-proclaimed powers not delegated to it by the people, then the creature exceeds the creator and becomes master. Who is to say, “This far and no farther”?


Redistribution of Wealth is Legalized Plunder


What clear principle will stay the hand of government from reaching farther and yet farther into our daily lives? Grover Cleveland said that, “Though the people support the government, the government should not support the people.” Once government steps over this clear line between the protective or negative role, into the aggressive role of redistributing the wealth and providing so-called “benefits” for some of its citizens, it becomes a means for legalized plunder. It becomes a lever of unlimited power, which is the sought-after prize of unscrupulous individuals and pressure groups, each seeking to control the machine to fatten his own pockets, or to benefit its favorite charities. All with the other fellow’s money, of course.

Each class or special interest group competes with the others to throw the lever of government power in its favor, or at least to immunize itself against the effects of a previous thrust. Labor gets a minimum wage, so agriculture seeks a price support. Consumers demand price controls, and industry get protective tariffs. In the end, no one is much farther ahead and everyone suffers the burdens of a gigantic bureaucracy and a loss of personal freedom.

With each group out to get its share of the spoils, such governments, historically, have mushroomed into total welfare states. Once the process begins, once the principle of the protective function of government gives way to the aggressive or redistributive function, then forces are set in motion that drive the nation toward totalitarianism. No government in the history of mankind has ever created any wealth. People who work create wealth.

James R. Evans, in his inspiring book The Glorious Quest, gives this simple illustration of legalized plunder:


Assume for example, that we were farmers and that we received a letter from the government telling us that we were going to get $1,000 this year for plowed up acreage. But rather than the normal method of collection, we were to take this letter and collect $69.71 from Bill Brown at such and such an address, and $82.47 from Henry Jones, $59.80 from Bill Smith, and so on down the line, that these men would make up our farm subsidy. Neither you nor I, nor would 99% of the farmers of this country would walk up and ring a man’s doorbell, hold out a hand and say, “Give me what you have earned even though I have not.” We simply would not do it, because we would be facing directly the violation of a moral law: thou shalt not steal. In short, we would be held accountable for our actions. The free creative energy of this choice nation created more than 50% of all the world’s products and possessions in the short span of 160 years. This is a miracle of achievement. The only imperfection in the system is the imperfection in man himself.              


            The last paragraph in this remarkable Evans book which I recommend to all, reads, “No historian of the future will ever be able to prove that the ideas of individual liberty practiced in the United States of America were a failure. He may be able to prove that we were not yet worthy of them. The choice is ours.”


Government Cannot Guarantee Material Gain


            Now according to Marxist doctrine, a human being is primarily an economic creature. His material well-being is all-important. His privacy and his freedom are secondary. The Soviet Constitution reflects this philosophy in its emphasis on security. Food, clothing, housing, medical care – the same things that might be considered in a jail. The basic concept is that the government has full responsibility for the welfare of the people. And in order to discharge that responsibility it must assume control of all of its activities. It is significant that in actuality, the Russian people have few of the rights supposedly guaranteed to them in their Constitution, while the American people have them in abundance, even though they are not guaranteed. The reason is that material gain and economic security simply cannot be guaranteed by any government. They are the result and reward of hard work and industrious production.

            Unless the people bake one loaf of bread for each citizen, the government cannot guarantee that each will have one loaf to eat. Constitutions can be written, laws can be passed, and imperial decrees can be issued, but unless the bread is produced, it can never be distributed.

            Why then, do Americans bake more bread, manufacture more shoes, and assemble more TV sets than Russians do? They do so precisely because our government does not guarantee these things. If it did, there would be so many accompanying taxes, controls, and regulations and political manipulations, that the productive genius that is America’s would soon be reduced to the floundering level of waste and inefficiency now found behind the Iron Curtain. And I’ve seen it with my own eyes in several countries.


The Prosperity Formula


The principle behind this American philosophy can be reduced to a rather simple formula – and one that we should never forget. First,

1)      Economic security for all is impossible without widespread abundance.

2)      Abundance is impossible without industrious and efficient production.

3)      Such production is impossible without energetic, willing, and eager labor.

4)      This is not possible without incentive. And,

5)      Of all forms of incentive, the freedom to obtain a reward for one’s labors is the most sustaining for most people. Sometimes called “the profit motive,” it is simply the right to plan and to earn and to enjoy the fruits of your labor.

6)      This profit motive diminishes as government controls, regulations, and taxes increase. To deny the fruits of success to those who produce. I have sometimes said that our great American way of life is based on three solid pillars (we might say four because at the basis of all of it is spirituality). But these three pillars are first,

1.      Private enterprise - the right to venture, the right to choose.

2.      Private property - the right to own, and,

3.      A market economy – the right to exchange, the right to sell your own labor or the products of your own hands.

All of these are absent under Communism.



Communism/Socialism Will Destroy A Nation


            Any attempt through governmental intervention to redistribute the material rewards of labor can only result in the eventual destruction of the productive base of society - without which real abundance and security for more than the ruling elite is quite impossible.

            What happens to a nation which ignores these principles? Former FBI Agent, Dan Smoot, succinctly points this out:


England,” he said, “was killed by an idea – the idea that the weak, indolent, and profligate must be supported by the strong, industrious, and frugal to the degree that tax consumers will have a living standard comparable to that of tax payers. The idea that the government exists for the purpose of plundering those who work, to give the product of their labor to those who do not work. The economic and social cannibalism produced by this Communist/Socialist idea will destroy any society which adopts it and clings to it as a basic principle. Any society.” 


            Fortunately, many in England are beginning to see the truth of this basic statement.


What About Those Less Fortunate?


            Now, this may sound heartless and insensitive to the needs of those less fortunate individuals found in any society, no matter how affluent. “What about the lame? The sick, and the destitute?” is an often voiced question. Most other countries have attempted to use the power of government to meet this need. Yet in every case the improvement has been marginal at best, and has in the long run created more misery, more poverty, and certainly less freedom than when government first stepped in. As Henry Grady Weaver wrote in his excellent book, The Mainspring of Human Progress,


Most of the major ills of the world have been caused by well-meaning people who ignored the principle of individual freedom (except as applied to themselves), and who are obsessed with fanatical zeal to improve the lot of mankind in the mass through some pet formula of their own. The harm done by ordinary criminals, murderers, gangsters, and thieves is negligible in comparison with the agony inflicted upon human beings by the professional do-gooders who attempt to set themselves up as gods on earth and who ruthlessly force their views on all others, with the abiding assurance that the end justifies the means.              


            America has traditionally followed Jefferson’s advice of relying on individual action and charity. The United States has fewer cases of genuine hardship per capita than any other country in the world now and throughout all history. Even during the Depression of the 1930’s, Americans ate and lived better than most people in other countries do today.


Three Factors That Give Us Hope to Fight Socialism


            In reply to the argument that just a little bit of socialism is good so long as it doesn’t go too far, may I say that history proves that the growth of the welfare state is difficult to check before it comes to its full flower of dictatorship. But let us hope that this time around the trend can be reversed. And by people such as you. If not, then we will see the inevitability of complete socialism, probably within our lifetime.

            Three factors may make a difference and give us hope: First,

1)      Sufficient historical knowledge of the failures of socialism in contrast to the proven success of free-enterprise. Second,

2)      Modern means of rapid communications to transmit this information to a large literate population. And third,

3)      A growing number of dedicated men and women actively working to promote a wider appreciation of these concepts.

The timely joining together of these three factors may make it entirely possible for us to reverse the present trend. We hope and pray that this will be the case.


Surgery is Required to Remove the Cancer of Socialism


            How is it possible to cut out the various welfare state features of our government, which have already fastened themselves like cancer cells onto the body politic? Can drastic surgery be performed without endangering the patient? Drastic measures are called for. No compromise actions will suffice. Like all surgery, it will not be without discomfort, and perhaps even some scar tissue, for a long time to come.

But it must be done if the patient is to be saved. And it can be done without undue risk. Not all welfare state programs currently enforced can be dropped simultaneously without causing tremendous economic and social upheaval. The first step toward restoring the limited concept of government should be to freeze all welfare state programs at their present levels, making sure that no new ones are added. The next step would be to allow all present programs to run out their term with absolutely no renewal. The third step would involve the gradual phasing out of those programs which are indefinite in their term. The bulk of the transition, I believe, could be accomplished within a ten-year period and virtually completed within twenty years.


Declaration of Principles


In summary, and with due appreciation to Dr. Merlin Anderson and other libertarian patriots, the following declaration of principles are those which I would like to give you in summary, and to which I subscribe as an independent American for Constitutional government. First,

1)                          I believe that no people can maintain freedom unless their political institutions are founded upon faith in God and belief in the existence of moral law.

2)                          I believe that God has endowed men with certain unalienable rights as set forth in the Declaration of Independence, and that no man, no legislature, no majority, however great may morally limit or destroy these. That the sole function of government is to protect life, liberty, and property. And anything more than this is usurpation and oppression.

3)                          I believe that the Constitution of the United States, as I’ve already indicated, was prepared and adopted by men acting under the inspiration of Almighty God; that it is a solemn compact between the people of the states of this nation which all officers of government are under duty to obey; that the eternal moral laws expressed therein must be adhered to or individual liberty will perish.

4)                          I believe it a violation of the Constitution for government to deprive the individual of either life, liberty, or property, except for these purposes:

                                                                           i.      punish crime and provide for the administration of justice,

                                                                         ii.      protect the right and control of private property,

                                                                        iii.      wage defensive war and provide for the nation’s defense. And,

                                                                       iv.      compel each one who enjoys the protection of government to bear his fair share of the burden of performing the above functions.

5)                          I hold that the Constitution denies government the power to take from the individual either his life, liberty, or property, except in accordance with moral law; that the same moral law which governs the actions of men when acting alone is also applicable when they act in concert with others; that no citizen or group of citizens has any right to direct their agent, the government, to perform any act which would be evil or offensive to the conscience if the individual were performing the act himself outside the framework of government.

6)                          I am hereby resolved that under no circumstances should the freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights be infringed. In particular, I am opposed to any attempt on the part of the federal government to deny the people their right to bear arms, to worship and pray when and where they choose, or to own and control private property.

7)                          I consider ourselves at war with international Communism, which is committed to the destruction of our government, our right of property, and our freedom; that it is treason as defined by the Constitution to give aid and comfort to this implacable enemy.

8)                          I am unalterably opposed to socialism, either in whole or in part, and regard it as an unconstitutional usurpation of power and a denial of the right of private property for government to own or operate the means of producing and distributing goods and services in competition with private enterprise, or to regiment owners in the legitimate use of private property.

9)                          I maintain that every person who enjoys the protection of his life, liberty, and property, should bear his fair share of the cost of government in providing that protection. And that the elementary principles of justice set forth in the Constitution demand that all taxes imposed be uniform, and that each person’s property or income be taxed at the same rate.

10)                      I believe in honest money – the gold and silver coinage of the Constitution, and a circulating medium convertible into such money without loss. I regard it as a flagrant violation of the explicit provisions of the Constitution for the federal government to make it a criminal offense to use gold or silver coin as legal tender or to issue irredeemable paper money.

11)                      I believe that each state is sovereign in performing those functions reserved to it by the Constitution, and it is destructive of our federal system and the right of self-government guaranteed under the Constitution, for the federal government to regulate or control the states in performing their functions or to engage in performing such functions itself.

12)                      I consider it a violation of the Constitution for the federal government to levy taxes for the support of state or local government; that no state or local government can accept funds from the federal and remain independent in performing its functions. Nor can citizens exercise their rights of self-government under such conditions.

13)                      I deem it a violation of the right of private property guaranteed under the Constitution for the federal government to forcibly deprive the citizens of this nation of their property through taxation or otherwise and make a gift thereof to foreign governments or their citizens.

14)                      I believe that no treaty or agreement with other countries should deprive our citizens of rights guaranteed them by the Constitution. And lastly,

15)                      I consider it a direct violation of the obligation imposed upon it by the Constitution for the federal government to dismantle or weaken our military establishment below that point required for the protection of the states against invasion, or to surrender or commit our men, arms, or money to the control of foreign or world organizations of government.


Now these things I believe to be the proper role of government. We have strayed far a field. We must return to these basic concepts and principles, to these eternal verities. There is no other way. The storm signals are up. They are clear and ominous. As Americans, citizens of the greatest nation under Heaven, we face difficult days. Never since the days of the civil war one hundred years ago has this nation faced such a crisis.


In Closing


In closing I wish to refer you to the words of the patriot Thomas Paine, whose writings helped so much to stir into a flaming spirit, the smoldering embers of patriotism during the days of the American Revolution. He said this:


These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will in this crisis shrink from the service of his country. But he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered. Yet we have this consolation with us: that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly. Tis dearness only that gives everything its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price on its goods. And it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as freedom should not be highly rated.


            Those words are appropriate today, and I am sure, touch the hearts of all of us. That spirit is needed as it was needed then. And it is heartening to see a group of young men and women on whom the responsibility will rest taking an interest in these vital issues. I intend to keep fighting. My personal attitude is one of resolution, not resignation. I have faith in the American people when they have the facts. I pray that we will refrain from doing anything further that will jeopardize in any manner our priceless heritage. This is a choice land. If we live and work so as to enjoy the approbation of a Divine Providence, we cannot fail. Without that help, without adhering to these basic concepts we cannot long endure. As true Americans, let us put our courage to the test to be firm in the conviction that our cause is just; to reaffirm our faith in all things for which true Americans have always stood. Let all Americans arouse themselves and stay aroused. We must not make any further concessions to Socialistic Communism at home or abroad. We do not need to. We should oppose these evil forces from our position of strength – for we are not weak. There is much work to be done. The time is short. Let us begin in earnest now. And may God bless our efforts, I humbly pray.     


Back to Ezra Taft Benson Socialism Viewpoints

Back to Classic Talks


Make a free website with Yola