When the colonies decided to break from England, in the Declaration of Independence they claimed “… when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government.” Seeing how government, to them, had become such a burden, why did they then set about creating a whole new government? That too, is answered in the Declaration. “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…it is the Right of the People … to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” The purpose of government then, according to Thomas Jefferson, who was the primary author of the Declaration and our third president, is to secure our rights. It is not to grant the rights, but to secure, or protect our rights so that we may be both safe and happy.
In The Federalist #51, James Madison identified another reason for government - men are not angels. What did he mean by that? Whether you believe angels are real, divine creatures, or just fabrications of a shared mythos, simply put, men are flawed and do not do good by choice. Russell Kirk identifies this in his Conservative Principle #6 as man’s imperfectability. If we are left to our own devices we will, by nature, infringe on the rights of each other.
There can hardly be any debate about this issue. Honest people all know that we are not perfect creatures, especially when it comes to how we relate to each other. One only has to read a history book or watch the news to discover, if one were living in a cave and not aware, the various ways that people can be cruel to one another. If we then accept that man is imperfect, why do we need government? Is it not there to protect the guardrails that a society has erected to protect itself? When Jefferson claimed government was to secure our rights, it was to protect us from ourselves, so that we could live in “safety and happiness”. Our government theoretically has no more power than the individual. I say theoretical because it has been a long time since government was actually of the people, for the people and by the people. Jefferson claimed that government derives its just power from the governed. In theory, any power that government has, we ourselves have individually but grant the government our power to act on our behalf. For example, individually, we have the right to protect our homes and families. When we grant the government the ability to protect us, we allow for the creation of police forces and the military. It is implied that we also allow it the means to build those agents of enforcement or protection. We do not have the right to walk up to our neighbor with a gun and take his money – the government should not have that right either, unless it has been specifically authorized by us.
Our Constitution institutes three branches of government – the legislative, the executive and the judicial. One branch creates laws, one branch executes them, and one adjudicates them. It could be implied from this structure that government should be about justice. If government is put in place to protect our rights, then the implication is that when our rights are violated, the government should step in to rectify the situation. Therefore, it should have the power to both make laws to outline the framework by which those rights are protected and to enforce those laws. If the laws rightly define how people should interact with each other in order to protect our rights, then enforcement of those laws is just. Lack of justice was one of the reasons the colonies felt it necessary to break from England as it was specifically called out as one of the abuses in the Declaration. Jefferson said King George had “obstructed the Administration of Justice by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers.” Noted American author H.L. Mencken said, “If you seek peace, work for justice.” When those who threaten our rights are brought to justice, peace, or as Jefferson said, safety and happiness, will follow. But when our rights are violated, when injustice is allowed to continue, society suffers until the wrong is made right.
We should also understand how government operates at a practical level. While government is the set of guardrails that society erects to protect itself, if you strip away everything government is supposed to do, to get to what it actually does, you’ll see that guardrails are also needed to protect society from government. Anything government does costs money. While many think government just prints money up when it needs it that is a poor understanding of how government works. There are two ways that the government comes by the money it uses to operate. The first method actually is through the printing of money, but it is not the preferred method and is dangerous for many reasons, not the least of which is that it devalues the currency and causes inflation. The primary means of funding government is taxation of its citizens. And while you may have heard or believe (the lie) that taxation is voluntary, try not paying Uncle Sam on April 15th to find out just how involuntary it is. We as citizens grant government the right and authority to collect funds from us, in the form of taxes, to use force if necessary to fund itself so that it can ensure compliance with the laws. So, government is nothing more than the authorized application of force. Get that? It’s the power and authority to, with one hand, hold a gun and point it at your head, with the other outstretched, palm up expecting payment. We give it that power in order to enforce social and moral order. Thomas Paine, often called the Father of the American Revolution and author of the pamphlet Common Sense, astutely recognized that, in its best state, government is a necessary evil, while in its worst, it’s an intolerable evil. In both cases, it merely exists to restrain our vices. It is not instituted to perfect society or create a perfect society.