The basic question of politics is “What should the government do?” Some people say that it should command and direct the population. They don’t usually put it quite that directly, but that’s what it amounts to. If the government thinks something is a good idea, they say, it should make people do it. If it thinks it’s a bad idea, it should forbid it.

The Declaration of Independence presents a very different answer. It says we have “certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men.” The government, says the Declaration, should protect our rights, not dictate our actions.

We can see the difference between these views in little things as well as big ones. Sometimes the little ones make it clearer. For instance, there’s a bill in the New Hampshire Legislature which would ban soda in children’s meals. It’s a perfect example of the first, or authoritarian, view of government. The Legislature (if it passes the bill) doesn’t like soda in children’s meals, so it will order restaurants not to serve it and customers not to buy it.

The rights-based, or libertarian, view of government asks whose rights would be violated by selling soda. The children’s? No. The parents’? No. The restaurant’s? No. Thus, there is no legitimate reason to ban it.

The authoritarian view of government assumes that the rulers are better suited than we are to make decisions for our lives. Are they wiser than we are? Are they better informed about your needs than you are? Do they have a better claim on your life than you do?

Try even asking with a straight face if Congress and Donald Trump are wiser than other people. It’s equally silly to think that people in Washington or Concord understand your life or needs better than you do. As for the notion that your life belongs to the government and not to you, it’s left a legacy of millions of deaths all over the world.

People who want to command and control others love the philosophy of authoritarianism. Some of them sincerely believe they can run your life better than you can. Others just want power. Whether they’re delusional or openly malicious, their efforts end in the same place. The only way to hold them back is to limit the government’s role to defending people’s rights against any harm done by others.

— Gary McGath