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What is the Purpose of Government?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Aug 05, 2011

In my latest In Depth Analysis (The Question of Government Size and Scope), I discussed four issues that should be kept very much in mind before we reflexively turn to government, especially the highest level of government, to solve our problems. But one thing I deliberately avoided in that essay was a consideration of the purpose of government in the first place. I’d like to address that briefly here.

A libertarian view would accord government a very small role, and the more extreme would argue that government is, in fact, completely unnecessary. A liberal view of government— it is interesting how these terms libertarian and liberal have developed—a liberal view would accord government a very large role, and the more extreme would argue for state control of just about everything, as in socialism. In the one view, government is barely to be tolerated, at best a necessary evil; in the other, it is a great good which prevents people from doing all kinds of bad things to themselves.

There are a range of less doctrinaire positions in between, but sometimes I think that libertarians and liberals both view those who are in government and those who are not as different sorts of beings, not sharing the same human nature, as if government will consistently do good when the populace is evil, or government will consistently do evil when the populace is good. Paradoxically, even the extremes can shift over time. For example, in the United States until the twentieth century, there tended to be a strong predisposition to keep government under close control, complete with checks and balances, so that the liberty of citizens would be preserved wherever possible. Since then, almost the opposite idea has taken hold, with an emphasis on government as the chief means of improving the condition of the populace, and perhaps even improving human nature itself.

But in the midst of all these attitudes, predispositions, and mood swings, we really ought to stop to ask ourselves: What, in the abstract, is the actual purpose of government? In both classical political theory and Catholic social teaching, government is not seen as a necessary evil, but neither is it seen as any sort of panacea. Both traditional sources of political theory recognize that man is a social being, that there is necessarily a public order through which we organize our common life together, and that the purpose of government is to secure the common good—not the individual good of each citizen, but the good common to all.

Thus it falls to government first and foremost to secure the peace of those within its jurisdiction. I don’t mean extended concepts of peace which hold that there is no peace when one person has problems that another doesn’t have, or when any person suffers. I mean freedom from physical attack, both external and internal—that is, the protective functions of the army and the police force.

Second, it falls to government to secure justice, that is, to be a public power which protects the basic personal and property rights of its citizens. This is typically needed to protect those who are weaker against those who are strong enough to trample on their rights, perhaps by excluding some citizens from the necessities of life, by stealing what rightfully belongs to another, or by forcing some to—in effect—operate under a different set of rules which places them at a distinct disadvantage.

The very basics of peace and justice, then, are typically required of any government which wishes to retain its claim to legitimacy. Beyond this, we get into questions of whether government involvement is necessary, or at least the best way, to secure certain advantages to the common good, such as the development of infrastructures conducive to the convenience and prosperity of all, or the establishment of regulations (traffic lights, speed limits, housing codes, whatever) which enhance public safety.

Now it is self-evident from even such a short list of the purposes of government that there is ample room for disagreement concerning whether government should be involved in this or that. Such questions must be settled through the use of prudence, fitting the best response to specific needs. Different societies will answer these questions in different ways.

But at the same time, all classical and Catholic theorists have recognized that the public sphere, over which government presides, is or ought to be a limited sphere. This is not only because significant power is inevitably concentrated in government, and such power is always potentially very dangerous, but because there are entities outside of government which are prior to it, and therefore have a claim to be respected by it. Among these entities are, first, the human person; second, marriage and the family; third, the Church; and fourth, such free associations of men and women for moral purposes which do not undermine the common good of the larger societies of which they are a part.

This is, in effect, a proper view of society, in all its natural richness. It recognizes at once that when government tends to supervene or replace the person, the family, the Church or the many associations (intermediary institutions) which arise naturally from groups of persons pursuing legitimate ends, then government oversteps its bounds. It usurps that to which it has no right. (Clearly some sort of moral code is necessary make these judgments properly, but that is well beyond the scope of this brief sketch.)

Moreover, when this rich view of the social order is accompanied by a proper understanding of the weakness of human nature, which is actually one of the most potent justifications for government, it also recognizes that what government can achieve is necessarily limited by these same weaknesses. That is, government is limited by the fact that imperfection is a natural and irremediable feature of human life. Thus when government seeks to systematically “engineer” reality according to some particular vision of the governors, it falls into utopianism, and again vastly oversteps its bounds.

Moreover, because government is a human enterprise, its ability to do whatever it undertakes is also inevitably compromised. The vaster its plans, the greater the chance of failure and even significant harm. These recognitions are, or ought to be, humbling to those who govern, and cautionary to those who turn to government for help. They ought to be first principles of political prudence.

In classical political theory, the critical emphasis on entities prior to government—and prior to the State—is frequently discussed in terms of personal liberty, and sometimes in terms of marriage and the family (the building blocks of the social order). In Catholic political theory, rights are emphasized in connection with duties, and marriage itself is raised to a supernatural dignity. But this emphasis on prior entities is also extended more richly in the principle of subsidiarity, which states one of the key socio-political demands imposed by human dignity: That each human need should be addressed with the maximum participation of those affected and, therefore, at the lowest level possible for success; and that higher levels of organization (including government) should, when necessary, support and assist lower levels, rather than supplanting them.

There is much more in Catholic social teaching about what is necessary for a rich and reasonably successful social order. But my focus here is on government, and it seems to me that we cannot address concerns about government unless we begin to think more clearly about where government fits in the larger social spectrum, and about the particular, defined and limited role government is supposed to play. In other words, we must think carefully and clearly about the distinct purposes of government.


Previous in series: The Question of Government Size and Scope
Next in Series: Government, Natural Law, and the Modern State

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Show 2 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Aug. 06, 2011 12:14 PM ET USA

    We need to change the minds and hearts of those in office as well as the rest of us that vote them into office. The danger here is to lament how bad things are rather than stepping into the arena and be a part of the effort for good. While there is definitely need for pruning our society / way of life does not have to end - our society does not have to follow the ~200 year break down theory. We can make a difference for the good of us all.

  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Aug. 06, 2011 9:58 AM ET USA

    Good article. Less is more or so the saying goes. But the allure of power calls people to government who set about growing their power and it seems they do not consider the damage that concentrating too much power in government could have on society. One reason for this is the people in power become wealthy and are in essence above the law. Our government needs non-professional senators and reps that return to their constituents and live among them to suffer or savor the laws they created.

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