If we are to define the role of government in a free society, we must first specify the needs a government is expected to provide. Defense from foreign enemies and protection of property, including the enforcement of private contracts, are clearly legitimate functions of government. But when we come to two other functions of government—providing a substitute for voluntary cooperation when it appears impossible to achieve, and providing for irresponsible individuals— the justification is much less clear-cut. In a free society people should be able to take risks but should not be able to force others to pay the consequences.
If the proper limitations of government action were observed, the government would not do many things it now does. We should not resort to government regulations until we have adequately explored the possibilities for coordinating our activities through voluntary means. If we understood the implications of our own values, we would not allow ourselves to be “front men” for values we oppose, merely because we are confused about the meaning of freedom and the legitimate role of government in a free society.
As Milton Friedman puts it, “It’s often forgotten that a corollary to freedom of speech is freedom to listen. Freedom of speech does not mean the right to force anybody to listen to what you have to say. Freedom of speech means the freedom to stand up, and hire a hall and offer to speak, and let anybody come who wants to listen to you. (It’s) a very sharp contrast to that kind of freedom is the freedom that was suggested back in the days of World War II by Franklin Roosevelt, when he spoke of the four freedoms and spoke of the freedom from want. That’s a very different kind of freedom.”
Hear what else he has to say about the role of government in the podcast above, Milton Friedman Speaks – The Role of Government in a Free Society.