What Is Government’s Role?

Americans love to defend liberty–and oppose government actions that they believe intrude on that liberty. (Granted, all too often they are perfectly willing to have government limit other people’s liberties, especially when those other people don’t espouse the same religious beliefs they hold, but that’s a subject for another day…)

We’re just emerging from one of those periodic, heated debates, triggered by “patriots” offended by government’s effort to prevent the spread of a deadly disease. Again, I’m not spending many pixels on the anti-mask, anti-vaccination folks, because (with very few exceptions) they are so clearly wrong–not just on the science, but on the role of government–not to mention remiss in discharging their most basic obligations to other humans. People who don’t believe public health is a public good that governments are bound to protect are beyond the reach of logic and reason.

In many other areas, we get into various shades of gray. There are plenty of issues that raise legitimate questions about the proper role of the state. I’ll admit to qualms, for example, about things like seat belt laws and similar”nanny state” measures, meant to protect individuals from their own heedless or self-destructive behaviors.

I was recently prompted to think about the proper and improper use of government authority when I read a recent “Eye on the Pie” column written by my friend Morton Marcus. Marcus, for those of you unfamiliar with him, is an economist and former director of the Indiana Business Research Center at Indiana University. In this particular column, he defended governmental “intrusion” on the most hallowed of rights: property rights. He argued (I think persuasively) that your house may be private property, but it also has characteristics of a public good.

My house can be seen by anyone driving down my street. Unless I go to great trouble, I can not stop you from seeing my house. I can’t charge you for looking at my house.

But what you see of my house influences your opinion of my block and the price you’d pay to live near me.

Broken windows, leaky roofs, sagging gutters, piles of trash, and abandoned furniture are not inviting signs of habitation. Such a house may be a fire hazard and a danger to its neighbors.

At the same time, if my house has rats or unhealthy conditions, it may pose a health hazard not only to my family, but to yours as well. My children play with your children. I meet you in the grocery. We family may be carriers of disease, my house a public health menace.

Governments have limits on private behavior when public health and safety are at risk. Yet, we’ve seen great resistance to action that infringes on presumed private rights.

We don’t enforce building codes. We allow structural deterioration and abandonment. We don’t insist houses have adequate insulation from the cold of winter and the heat of summer to protect residents from chronic illness..

Our collective neglect is excused because we believe we’re protecting the poor and/or elderly who cannot afford repairs or adequate weatherization.

Yet our housing stock is one of the most vital aspects for the economic development we seek. Our state provides funding to restore abandoned, old movie theaters, but does little to resurrect declining houses.

Our reluctance to infringe on the “rights” of a property owner conflicts with the community’s need to preserve its critical assets.

Morton argues that there are many negative consequences of not treating housing stock as a public good: decay of our central cities, abandonment of our smaller towns,  encouragement of urban sprawl and environmental degradation.  He blames the  “infatuation with the myth of unlimited private property rights.”

Of course, as any lawyer will confirm, there are few if any rights that are “unlimited,” and property rights are no exception.  Laws against nuisance, and minimum upkeep regulations–neither very well enforced, unfortunately–are meant to protect the considerable investments people make in their homes.

Morton’s column raises some thorny issues: does government have an obligation to ensure that people’s homes are humanly habitable? How far does that obligation extend before it becomes an unconstitutional invasion of property rights? What about the rights of homeowners whose properties are adjacent to homes that have been allowed to deteriorate?

If we are talking about property values, it is interesting to note that, in historic areas that are subject to more stringent government regulation, values are not only stable, but tend to be higher.

I’m not entirely sure where I come down on what are often very technical/legal questions of property regulation, but I am sure that these are precisely the sorts of questions our elected officials ought to be debating–rather than worrying about my uterus, Jewish space lasers, or being “replaced.”


  1. Thanks. This is timely for me. I have a couple of new neighbors and some old ones that bother me. One new family thinks it is a good idea to park one (or more) of their cars on the front lawn. Another has a junk car ($1,000 car with $5,000 in damage) on their driveway for a year now. Yet anther has a backyard barn with gaping holes in the roof. Goodness knows WHAT is living in there after many years of no viable roof. I hesitate to call the Indy government as i doubt anything will come of it. And of course, the folks with barking dogs. I do not want the area to go downhill, yet I am conflict avoidant. What to do?

  2. Yes, they should be debating these issues in the public square where the press cab ask them questions, but they won’t. They rarely attend election debates anymore. Those elected to office send out press releases but won’t answer questions from the press.

    Therefore, how does one codify a law?

    Today, corporate lawyers write the laws with campaign donations attached to them – literally. Citizens read the laws after they have been approved or before something leaks out about the issue.

    Our district rep doesn’t call the district together to talk about issues. Instead, they attend council meetings, and if you sign up to talk, you have 3 minutes. It’s timed. This is the same process in Washington, except more lawyers are involved.

    We call it a democratic process, but it’s not. So give it a try in your city or state.

  3. We used to live in a private development in Morgan County which had a homeowners’ association. The “rules” issued by that association covered many of the things mentioned in today’s post, because they affected the value of every one of the about 300 homes in the development. Those rules were (and I am sure still are) a demonstration that the things I do or do not do, affect my neighbors. Unless you live in a cabin in (say) Canada’s Northwest Territory, many miles from anyone else, your actions (even on your own property) are not entirely private.

  4. Our county, as others, long ago enacted an anti-funneling ordinance which prevented unlimited development of property for residential use on our many natural lakes in the Northeast corner of the state. This is to help reduce the strain on the health of the lake by preserving what little remains of wetlands around the lake that filter the rain runoff before draining into the lakes (between 75-85% of all wetlands have been lost to development and agriculture over 180 years). Lake property owners love this ordinance as well because it limits the supply of lake properties and has increased their value over time, significantly more than non-lake residential properties.

    But then a funny thing happened. A couple of existing lake-shore property owners built structures on their backlots with garage storage on the first floor and a residence on top – one or two bedrooms and/or sitting area, a bath and possibly a small kitchen. The county plan commission reacted to this by introducing an amendment to the building ordinance by severely restricting what plumbing fixtures could be installed in a back lot garage.

    You would have thought the British were coming based on the response from lake property owners. Battle lines were drawn. Full-page letters to the editor were written and published and huge showings of opposition at the plan commission meetings were organized. Not only were the proposed restrictions defeated, the provisions of the existing ordinance were even weakened! Since then a 6-bay garage has been built on our little lane with a full home built on top of it and several other structures with upstairs apartments as well.

    It turns out that was is good for the gander wasn’t so good for the goose after all and that only funneling from non-family members contributes to the decline in water quality on our lakes over the last 50 years.

  5. “Americans love to defend liberty–and oppose government actions that they believe intrude on that liberty.”

    “Governments have limits on private behavior when public health and safety are at risk. Yet, we’ve seen great resistance to action that infringes on presumed private rights.”

    The “Me generation” has reached adulthood without maturing; this comprises much of what we are seeing in Trump’s White Nationalist MAGA Republican party today. Primarily comprised of the “haves” who want to keep the “have nots” in their place economically, physically and politically. My granddaughter and her neighbors in Flat Rock, IN, just went through over two DAYS without power; all had to throw out all food in refrigerators and freezers. They don’t qualify for help that those in major weather disaster situations get…partially and eventually. Government has no role that protects them or aids them in these situations or provides food for families. Not enough government in this situation.

    patmcc has again pointed out a major problem in all neighborhoods except the wealthy. Local governments do have zoning regulations giving them the power to step into these situations she described but, as I have learned in my small neighborhood, they are ignored by those with the responsibility to demand cleanup to protect neighborhoods and more importantly the people who live in them. A few weeks ago I opened my front door to see a large rat on my front porch; one of the results of City zoning inspectors ignoring repeated reports of the source of the problems. Two houses across the street can best be described as “outdoor hoarders”; both are safety and fire hazards.

    Moving higher up the pecking order of government; look at the U.S. Senate’s role in government since 2010, especially McConnell’s continuing powers. The laws, rules, ordinances, responsibilities are all in place but forcing those in office to carry out their Oath of Office have no one governing them. WHO is the government’s role in this situation? We watch daily as democracy, civil and human rights are slipping from our grasp; this situation has escalated since Trump released his “Hounds of Hell” on this nation and maintain their role from a minority position. “What Is Government’s Role” in controlling Donald Trump?

  6. Flipping this perspective, if not the government, who? There is an answer to that.

    Michael – Amen to the difference that many are uneducated about: between licentiousness and liberty.

    Todd – “We call it a democratic process … give it a try in your city.” INDEED, we should host public discourse in the local coffee shop or restaurant. And we should conduct district or state conventions for independent and third party candidates to speak and answer questions. That’s one answer that I’ll get busy and implement.

    Another solution would be if Christians actually gave a damn about their neighbors. Where are the churches? If they were doing their job, there would be no rundown houses … or empty ones.

    The problem isn’t American government, where everybody is focused. The problem is We the People.

  7. About seat belts. Years ago when it first became the law to use them, I sat in my car with a very good friend in a shopping mall parking lot where we argued about this until we were blue in the face. In the end she put on her belt because it was MY car. But there are big ramifications of not wearing one. For instance, the expense to the passenger, her family and the medical system of an accident, the interruption or loss of employment which affects not just the passenger but her place of work, the interruption of other drivers’ trips, depending on where she is thrown through a windscreen, etc. etc. I do think the law serves the public good.

  8. Today I will play village philosopher > What citizens will tolerate in terms of government intrusion into their lives varies with random externalities. Thus. for instance, during wars and depressions we will put up with War Production Boards, WPAs, higher taxes, military drafts, commodity rations, power saving blackouts etc., all clothed in terms of sacrifice for the common good.

    Local government zoning and rezoning and contractural overrides in condo projects are common examples of rights we may have had but bargained away to others via rules and regulations adopted for the supposed benefit of all.

    After man discovered fire, I imagine with experience that fires were forbidden in caves in a (very) early example of (very) local government overreach into the lives of such dwellers in the name of public health. Today we have quarantine and other such obstacles on our freedom to wander about the community. Take the heated issue of wearing masks, for example.

    We have become far more sophisticated since man lived in caves in our evaluation of the interplay between citizen and state as politicians in democracies who depend upon the vote bring every conceivable issue redounding to their self interest into play touted as good public policy.

    Our task in setting the stage for good public policy? Reduce externalities, thereby reducing opportunities for government overreach and intrusion into our liberties.

  9. Here’s another question. Is it appropriate for a government to use eminent domain for the benefit of corporations?

  10. The stunning beauty of democracy is simple. The governed elect people who manage society in ways that bring us what we believe are good investments of our taxes. The things that improve not only today but tomorrow. The things that keep us safe and comfortable.

    Unfortunately that puts us at the mercy of our capability to judge other people, their intentions, their ability, their problem solving ideas.

    Therein lies the question of, is democracy sustainable due to continuous erosion of those judgement abilities by politics made much more pervasive and persuasive by our need for continuous entertainment.

    “The term First World refers to the developed, capitalist, industrial countries, generally aligned with NATO and the USA.” In other words, democracies. Communist bloc countries are the second world and exploited countries are the third world.

    We have always expected second and third world countries to be temporary and on their way to someday joining us in the first world. Apparently second world countries believe that their ways will be the direction we will go in over time.

    Perhaps the war in the Ukraine is the beginning of the great transition to resolve which direction ultimately triumphs.

  11. Pubic health issues do press into the sphere of home-ownership. Debris, trash, and weeds create an environment to breed mosquitoes and rodents. Poorly maintained gutters breed mosquitoes. We once had a public housing project in the neighborhood, where it turned out the deteriorating fake pebble siding was friable asbestos. Under court order the slumlords were required to remediate the hazard and they chose to declare bankruptcy instead.

    Several years later, one of those nearly restored buildings was on a Christmas home tour, and one of the people on the tour turned in the home owner for an un-covered electrical outlet, and that started a legal process through the Indianapolis environmental court.

    That said, the way unsafe housing is treated in this country is to punish the owner regardless of intent or ability to pay. If you are renter, that punishment usually trickles down in harsh ways. With this system in place, getting the government involved to ensure housing safety seems like it should be a last resort.

    I still often wonder way we have an affordable housing shortage in a city like Indianapolis. I drive through inner city neighborhoods where the properties are so poorly maintained that I wonder if the houses are habitable. At the same time, houses turn over with no basic upgrades in things like insulation or electrical systems.

    I know it does not have to be this way. Other counties have figured it out. I remember spending two weeks in Sweden driving from one side of the country to the other, and about the 12th day of the vacation we drove by a house that looked like it had just experienced a bad fire, and we both realized that was the first abandon building we had seen in that entire time.

    What combination of hellish polices have we put in place that intentionally drive people to “new” houses, but still made as cheaply as possible, built in former farm fields, that in 20 or 30 years look like those inner city neighborhoods they fled from?

  12. Joann Green, The Indianapolis Environmental Court suffers from the save slow starvation that property tax caps have imposed on all cities in Indiana. It is a backlogged, and they slowly grind through cases. Your example is exactly why that weed and trash ordinance exists. Enforcement is another matter and may take months or years to resolve. This is especially true if the owner of the property is some out of state corporation that can afford to hire lawyers to block and delay any actions, and the occupant is only a tenant

  13. We have a “Social contract” with our government. But, the laws and regulations that gov’t creates in attempting to make this work are vulnerable to all sorts of value judgments, and interpretations.

    I live in a condominium, and the governing association has various rules and regulations which I have agreed to abide by. I see this as a form of “Social contract,” and expect my neighbors to abide by the same rules and regulations, and expect that doing so, on all parts, will benefit all of us, here. Deteriorating homes will not be tolerated, visible “junk” collections have not been tolerated.

    The bottom line seems to be that this is very small scale, and involves very clear and detailed rules and regulations, and trying to scale it up to larger, or more open communities would raise all sorts of problems, which is what today’s topic is all about.

    There are no easy answers, especially in culture that has not fully grown out of its “Cowboy” mentality, one that can somehow believe that Ayn Rand’s rantings are worth half a damn!

  14. Government seems to pick on private owners in cases of private domain i.e Rocky Ripple currently, engineers can’t figure a way to safeguard the area against flood without destroying homes on the riverbanks? It might cost a little more, but it was done in the past.
    Businesses on Madison Corridor(Indpls) board up and abandon buildings they built, leaving deteriorating unsafe eyesores.
    CSI (railroads) demand a lot from inner city, like long waits for local traffic and unwalkable conditions at crossings due to trash/litter/filth. If you complain about this to the City they say it’s CSI’s responsiblity & visa versa. Seems like the railroad is making a lot of money at our expense.
    We need our local government officials to demand more consideration for citizens in the process of their doing business. Indiana citizens are more than work horses.

  15. Congress does debate a lot, and about a myriad of subjects, but Jewish uterine medical lasers that assists hormone replacement therapy is not one Ive listened to yet! I understand the frustration though.

  16. I frequently see bikers in this part of coastal SC and they are not wearing helmets and the women are frequently wearing shorts, tank tops and flip-flops. Now, I guess it’s their right not to wear protective clothing – the state does not require helmets. But if they crash and sustain a traumatic brain injury and have to go on disability, whose $$$$ are going towards their upkeep in this world? I believe that all of us deserve to be granted care from the government due to unavoidable injuries and diseases, but I don’t feel the same about folks who CHOSE to disregard simple safety measures like helmets and vaccines. The ones who went to the hospital with COVID and didn’t get vaccinated when they should have, took up beds and treatment time away from folks coming to the hospital for true acts of nature – contracting COVID even though they got vaccinated, heart attacks, stroke etc. I think some forms of rationing are called for — like the chronic alcoholic who is not a candidate for a liver transplant, etc. A level of personal choice/freedom needs to correspond to a level of responsibility.

  17. My friend was thrown through the windshield of the car she was riding in. She also went through the windshield of the other car and the impact killed the passenger in the other car!!! This happened in the 60’s when windshields (and cars in general) were not as safe as modern cars. However, had she been wearing a seatbelt, she might not have needed numerous surgeries and not have to live with the guilt about the person who died.

  18. Pardon me. I referred to the Railroads as CSI in earlier post. I meant CSX as the offending business. Glad that I live in a Democracy, where I can complain without threat of retaliation from the Government!

  19. I tend to agree with Kathy M
    My idea of bikers is that they should be able wear whatever they want if
    1) they have insurance to cover any and all damage and injury sustained by themselves and/or others
    2) they must sign an organ donor card – they are a great source of organs when they bash their brains on the pavement

    Some people think we were unfair to Mary Mallon (AKA Typhoid Mary) but given the number of COVID deaths, I wouldn’t mind banishing the unvacinated to Mississippi or Idaho or Mitch McConnell’s home – some may think that this last one violates the 3rd Amendment, but given a “strict constructionist/originalist” reading, the Constitution never mentions COVID

  20. I read in many forums how HOAs are anti-“freedum”, and people would never live where there is one. Fine. That’s one of the big benefits of choice. IMHO, an HOA (and a church board of directors) is one of the finest examples of direct democracy going right now. You have a good opportunity to learn who the people are running for office; you can be directly involved in every meeting and decision; and if you don’t like what’s being decided, you can run for office and have even more input into decisions.
    What one does regarding upkeep (and by extension, garish displays of garden gnomes, house colors, or automotive yard decor) DOES directly impact both the neighbor and neighbor hood.

Comments are closed.