What is the supreme function of the state?

Enoch Powell said that the supreme function of the state was to protect against preventable evils. I’m not sure how well that meshes with the idea of limited government. The set of “preventable evils” is indefinite, so on these grounds there is no limit to the powers we might wish to give to the government on the promise that they will protect us from evils. I think rather that the state must be limited to enforcing the laws and defending the country against attacks.

Powell’s remarks came in the context of his objection to immigration. Immigration gave rise to culture clash, which must be prevented. The problem I see is this: who is the government to say how the country’s culture should be managed or preserved? Should the government also be micromanaging the lives of individuals to ensure conformity with what the government sees as correct cultural behaviors? Perhaps Powell and his paternalist supporters would agree with that, but I do not.

As with my previous post, I’m interested first of all in natural rights and in finding government policies that carry out the state’s proper function of keeping the peace without limiting rights. One right I see is the right of freedom of association. I think that I or any fellow citizen has the right to associate with anyone, employ anyone, provide housing to anyone or give to anyone I please. So I can’t allow the government to forbid an employer from hiring a foreigner over a citizen, or from renting an apartment to a foreigner rather than a citizen. This is one reason I can no longer support the economic nationalism of Trump and other immigration restrictionists.

That being said, in a welfare state, which includes the US, things are not so simple. The taxpayer generally ends up paying for immigrants in many ways: through direct benefits; or, where immigrants don’t qualify for direct handouts, through taxpayer-supported healthcare or education, both of which immigrants in the US avail themselves to a great degree, often causing financial problems for many jurisdictions. However, the libertarian objects not only to welfare for foreigners, but welfare for fellow citizens, as well. While I can’t support the progressive support for both open borders and welfare, neither can I support the nationalists’ desire to keep their welfare while shutting out foreigners. In both cases, the state is being given too much power, by taking wealth from some and giving it to others.

Note that I do NOT believe in the “right to travel”. I think this right only extends as far as your personal property, or on territory that belongs to no one. I don’t believe the government “owns” the territory of the US, and I don’t believe the people collectively own it through the government. But at the same time, I can’t allow that foreigners have some natural right to cross our borders without being checked at all, if only to ensure that they are not threats to the country. Whether that squares with my ideas about the natural right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure is a good question which I will continue to think about.


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