Walter E. Williams

Having been deserted by her husband, my mother worked. That meant that my one-year-younger sister and I often lunched by ourselves during our pre-teen years. Being bigger and stronger than my sister, quite often there wouldn't be a fair division of the food, especially the desserts.

Coming home from work, Mom would be greeted by sob stories about my lunchtime injustices. There came a time when Mom got fed up with the sibling hassles -- but she didn't admonish us to be more caring, fair, sensitive and considerate of one another. She just made a new rule: whoever cuts the cake (pie, bread, meat, etc.) gives the other person the first selection. With that new rule in place, you can bet that when either my sister or I cut any food that was to be divided between us, the portions probably didn't differ by one microgram.

You say, "That's a nice story, Williams, but what's the point?" The point is that the principle underlying Mom's rule is precisely the kind of rules necessary to promote a civilized society. In general, the kinds of rules that we want are those that promote justice, whether it's our best friend or our worst enemy who happens to be the decision-maker. In the case of Mom's rule, it didn't make any difference whether I hated my sister's guts that day, or she hated mine, or whether my sister was doing the cutting, or whether I was -- the cake-cutting outcome was just.

This year, billions of dollars and billions of hours will be spent campaigning for this or that candidate in our national elections. Can we argue that the nation's welfare is served best by picking the "right" person? I think not. The nation's welfare is served best by focusing not on political personalities, but on neutral rules of the game and their even application and enforcement.

Think for a moment about sports -- say, basketball. Teams play one another. One team loses and the other wins, but they and their fans leave the stadium peacefully and most often as friends. Why? The game's outcome is seen as fair because there are fixed, known, neutral rules evenly applied by the referees. The referee's job is to apply the rules -- not determine the game's outcome. Imagine the chaos on the court and among the fans if one team had its paid referees to help it win, while its opponent had theirs.

In the political arena, the Framers gave us reasonably fair and neutral rules of the game, otherwise known as the United States Constitution. If our government acted, as the Framers intended, as a referee and night watchman, how much difference would it make to any of us who occupied the White House or Congress? It would make little, if any. It would be just like our basketball game example. Any government official who knew and enforced the rules would do. But increasingly, who's in office is making a difference, since government has abandoned its referee and night watchman function and gotten into the business of determining winners and losers.

In many places around the world, the prospect of, or the result of, national elections leads to all manner of violence and mayhem. Why? Because the political arena plays a much larger role than ours in determining winners and losers, and in some cases who wins can literally mean life or death. We need only to look at the history of countries in Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Where governments decide winners and losers, the most effective coalitions are those based on race, religion, region and ethnicity -- the bloodiest coalitions in mankind's history.

So which is it: Do we want government as referee and night watchman or the decider of winners and losers?


Walter E. Williams

Dr. Williams serves on the faculty of George Mason University as John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics and is the author of 'Race and Economics: How Much Can Be Blamed on Discrimination?' and 'Up from the Projects: An Autobiography.'
 
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