The value judgements of government

I listened to a radio program yesterday where callers were discussing their feelings about hate crimes, and whether it makes sense for offenders to get double or triple the punishment when an act is said to be rooted in discrimination against a protected group.

I didn’t agree wholeheartedly with what the callers or the panel was saying. And as the conversation evolved, I realized what was bothering me about the idea – that the legislation allows the government to make a value judgement on our behalf. While typically the justice system punishes actions, with hate crimes they are attempting to determine whether a crime was bias motivated and mete out extra punishment based on that determination. And it’s the government that gets to determine which groups deserve this protection, potentially to the detriment of other groups.

I understand the reasoning for such laws to be that by punishing more severely for bigotry, the government is saying that the action is not OK in our society. There is some perceived greater societal harm that comes from such acts that makes it worth taking extra steps to deter and punish. To be honest, I’m not sure how I feel about that.

A lot of the callers were making the First Amendment/slippery slope argument, saying that if we allow regulation based on thought where does that end? But the path my thoughts took extended to something bigger, to the role that the government plays in our lives and society at large.

In our representative form of government, we basically authorize others to make decisions on our behalf. Letting the government decide what’s important to us gives them a lot of power, and it makes the justice system vulnerable to political influence, with laws alterable by the whims of the current office holders.

Is this the way the system was designed to work? What if we don’t agree with the value judgement they have made? How do we come to a consensus on areas where society does not agree? What do we do as the values of a society change?

As with many other things, I take issue with giving this power to the government. I’d prefer they treat people equally, including criminals, just as I’d prefer they didn’t determine that particular people or relationships have more value than others. That owning a home or having a child is worth incenting. That certain substances are OK to use and some are not. That it’s OK to redistribute income between groups. That some subjects are important for kids to learn and not others. I guess it’s just the libertarian in me questioning (as always) how we got to this point of authorizing that power.

While thinking about this over my lunch break I came across an interesting piece called Social Welfare, State Intervention, and Value Judgments. It argues that the state cannot govern without making arbitrary value judgements, and thus discriminating against some for the benefit of others. It also purports that this becomes more acceptable when the state is attempting to economize on the value judgement. “Any activity, process, or institution will create gainers and losers and ultimately requires extra-economic criteria for its evaluation.”

With that in mind, some governmental decisions make much more sense than if economics were not considered. But is this really how legislators govern? If so, then what of the hate crime legislation? Is there an economic motivation for dis-incentiveizing bigotry?

I also ran across a book called, Government: servant or master? that attempts to answer some of the questions I’ve got swirling around in my head. From the back cover, “The authors do not shrink from debunking the exaggerated prestige of democratic government which instead of being a guarantor of private rights regularly violates them on the debased pleas of “public interest”.”

Too much to deal with in one blog posts, but definitely a topic I intend to explore further.