What is the Purpose of Government?

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Why do people need to be governed? How successful are various forms of government, and why did the framers of the U.S. Constitution form a representative republic?

Human beings are not perfect and will cause trouble in the absence of laws and an institution to enforce them. Therefore, the primary purpose of government is to keep order. History provides various examples of governance, and some curious mixtures to boot. Monarchies, democracies, theocracies, and republics litter the historical landscape. Most of these governments were inadequate at best, some were no less than evil, and none perfect, but of all that have existed, one is unique–that of the United States of America.

In the struggle for American independence, the Founding Fathers faced a monstrous dilemma. That is, how does a nation avoid the tyrannies of monarchy, from which they sought to remove themselves, and avoid the anarchy of democracy? In other words, how would they embrace liberty and maintain order at the same time?

The Fallibility of Man

Most of the Framers of the U.S. Constitution understood the fallibility of mankind and the imperfection of moral character. It was this Lockean understanding that led the Framers away from outlining a pure democratic government in which the populace could be goaded, sheep-like, through vacillation to vacillation after the demagoguery and flattery of opportunistic leadership.

Man is, by his nature, selfish. This selfishness, unchecked in a community, is destined to anarchy. A pure democracy would do little to suppress those who wished to sacrifice the good of others for their own wants.

The Problem with Monarchies

A monarchy, especially a benevolent one, could be suited to the job as long as the monarch’s empire wasn’t too vast. Justice often needs to be swift in order to assure the people that evil will be checked and their lives can be lived in safety. On the other hand, kindness and mercy need to be meted out just as swiftly to prevent citizens from sinking into despair. Too large an empire makes swift action virtually impossible for a central authority.

Even if a monarch could manage the affairs of a populous nation with perfect justice and mercy, theirs is the government of a single lifetime, dependent on an equally benevolent successor for the continued good of the people. An unlikely event in the best of circumstances.

Government is a Necessary Evil

In short, government is a necessary evil. Without government, anarchy and chaos ensues. Too much government is, on the other hand, oppressive, and in the extreme, tyrannical.

The Founders first attempt at documented self government, the Articles of Confederation, was a little too reactionary in its avoidance of central authority. The desire to leave King George III behind blindly trampled the need for a cohesive union. With the ratification of the Constitution in 1789 the U.S. became a nation that could maintain a military when needed, pay her debts, develop credit and trade relationships overseas, and function as a nation of States instead of a loosely organized, often cynical, collection of self interests.

The United States wasn’t suddenly perfect, she possessed serious, even treacherous, flaws–slavery being an obvious example. But in their wisdom, the Framers drafted Article Five, the Amendment Clause to the Constitution. This innovation, devoted to a document written expressly to limit government, assured the Constitution’s existence to the current day, making it the framework of the longest running, continuous form of documented government in existence. Consequently we are, as John Adams famously said, “A nation of laws, not of men.”

Sources:

  1. Common Sense, Thomas Paine; New American Library Publishers, New York, NY
  2. The Summer of 1787, David O. Stewart; Simon and Schuster, 2007, New York, NY
  3. Applied Economics, Thomas Sowell; Basic Books, 2009, New York, NY
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