In Jefferson's time, the everyday lives of people more closely resembled that of the ancient Greeks and Romans that modern society. It didn't really occur to them that government, on any level, should regulate much activity aside from coordinating trade, handing relations with other nations, and making sure the postal system worked. But even in Jefferson's time, the advance of scientific knowledge was beginning to raise difficult questions which, on occasion, required government to intervene.
Between the time he wrote the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and was elected Governor of Virginia in 1779, Jefferson served as a member of the state legislature. In this capacity, he found himself authoring a bill that regulated the activities of people who were carrying out smallpox inoculations, a new and wonderful procedure that helped to greatly reduce the scourge of the dreaded disease.
The problem was that there were no rules governing who could perform smallpox inoculations or how the procedures should be done. Literally anyone could show up in a town, claim to be a doctor, and start performing the procedures, even if they had not the slightest idea of what were doing. It might be a reputable physician, it might be a well-meaning idiot, or it might be a fraudulent scoundrel who couldn't care less that his activities actually caused become to die of smallpox, so long as he got his money and left town fast.
In order for this kind of problem to be solved, society needed some sort of judge to determine who could and couldn't carry out smallpox inoculations, and how they had to be done. Ideally, individual citizens should do this themselves, but in practice this wouldn't work, because the average Virginian had not the slightest clue as to what smallpox inoculation worked or what it involved. There was only one conceivable answer, and that for the Virginia state government to regulate the practice.
Jefferson, of course, didn't like the idea of government intruding into people's lives, but in such cases as this there simply was no alternative. Failing to have the state government regulate smallpox inoculations would have allowed incompetent and fraudulent practitioners to run amok all over Virginia and cause misery. While it is obvious that the activities of government must always be carefully monitored and strictly limited, it is equally obvious that there are cases in which government intervention is both necessary and desirable.
This fact is even more true for us, as we live in a world vastly more complex than that which Jefferson inhabited. In a time of rapidly advancing science and technology, of instantaneous communications and swift transportation, we must face the question of whether to allow government to intervene much more often than Jefferson did. As the power of humanity expands to heights that would have appeared magical to people of the late 18th Century, we now have the ability to solve human problems that would have astonished our forebears. But with this power come difficult questions regarding the role of government in our lives.
In December of 2003, within less than a week, two equally powerful earthquakes, measuring roughly 6.6 on the Ritcher scale, struck on opposite sides of the world. One hit in California, where it caused some property damage and killed two people. The other struck in southern Iran, where it completely obliterated the town of Bam and killed more than 25,000 people. A major part of the reason for the difference in damage and casualties was that government regulations regarding building codes were in place in California, but were not in Iran.
Since the beginning of 2010, two events in the United States have highlighted the need for reasonable government regulation: the Upper Big Branch coal mine disaster in West Virginia and the Deep Water Horizon Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Both were tragedies that cost human lives, and the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has left the region environmentally devastated. In both cases, the disasters could have been avoided had the regulatory standards already in place been properly enforced.
The Deepwater Horizon oil spill also could have been rendered much less damaging had the United States adopted a common sense regulation used by our neighbors in Canada. By law, Canadian offshore oil drillers are required to simultaneously drill relief wells to a near-complete level as they drill their main well, so that in the event of a rupture of the main well, the relief well can quickly be used to stop the damage. Because there was no such regulation in the United States, BP didn't start drilling its relief well until after the leak had begun, resulting in months of uncontrolled erupting of oil into the ocean. Only the most dogmatic members of the Libertarian Party would sincerely assert that we would not be better off had the United States adopted the same rule as Canada before BP started drilling its well.
In a complex world, a reasonable level of government regulation is a necessary evil. The trick is to choose very carefully which areas should be open to government regulation, and then choose very carefully the level of government intervention to be allowed. Certain areas should be completely off-limits to government intervention altogether, and even when we make the decision to allow a role for goverment regulation, we should keep it to the absolute minimum necessary to achieve the required aims. Once the door to government regulation is open, it must citizens must monitor it like a hawk to ensure that the regulation in question does not expand past that point, and terminate it immediately when it is no longer necessary.
The current level of federal regulations is patently ridiculous and intrudes into far too much into the ordinary lives of citizens. In particular, it expands the power of the federal government into areas that are the proper responsibility of state and local governments. Rolling back this tide will be a major task for 21st Century Jeffersonians in the 21st Century.
It would be nice to go back to Jefferson's time in which there was so little need for government intervention that a person might live their entire life without encountering the federal government, or even the state government. But that's not possible, because we no longer live in Jefferson's world. Our task, therefore, is not to abolish government, but to make government the servant, rather than the master, of the people.