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Sunday, February 10, 2013

Is the purpose of government to maximize revenue?

 

Andrew Gelman gets writefully (pun intended) upset at this statement:

Adam Davidson writes:

So much debate about government policy is based on economic statistics that come out of the market. But the goal of government is not just to maximize revenue.

Maybe Davidson meant it ironically; maybe Davidson has just read far, far too many economics blogs. Maybe he’s writing this too close to deadline. Whatever the reason, he’s setting up a stupid strawman of an argument. But this also provides a good opportunity to look again at the sweeping words of the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

These are sweeping words that point us to the legitimate functions of government. They aren’t very specific, or course – a preamble shouldn’t be very specific.  It’s unclear what “promote the general Welfare” might mean in specifics, and “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity” seems an interesting choice for a society that kept slaves.  But it’s a set of ideals that define a set of broad hopes for our future.