Why do we need government anyway? It seems we argue about how government should be – smaller if Republican, bigger for Democrats – but we seem to ignore the greater question about the need for government in the first place. History and philosophy provide some of the answers.
The deeper question about the need for government goes back to differing concepts of human nature. Is it capable of great virtue and concern for the common good as the Greeks and Romans believed, or is it as Thomas Hobbes described it in his book “Leviathan”: “For amongst masterless men there is perpetual war, every man against his neighbor”?
Hobbes believed humans form governments for self-preservation, out of fear. The founders of the U.S. Constitution understood well Hobbes’ view of human nature being self-centered and capable of great evil. All they had to do was to examine history. They understood and agreed with Hobbes that all humans have natural rights.
Some of those rights are loaned to a sovereign to afford protection and peace to a commonwealth. If the sovereign provided protection, then the people had the obligation to obey. If the sovereign was unable to protect the people, then the covenant between a leader and his subjects ended and every man was on his own.
In such a state of nature, or period of anarchy, life was, as Hobbes famously noted, likely to be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”
Governments exist today on all levels – local, state and national – to protect us from our neighbors and at the same time they exist to allow us to exercise our freedom that comes from our belief in Natural Rights: “Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Happiness.”
The nation’s founders also believed in the duty each individual has toward his community. This struggle between rights and responsibilities is what we read about daily in our media.
Each political party claims to want to give us more freedom to “live the good life” as Aristotle remarked. But defining who belongs to the privileged citizens often means some are excluded. Each party proposes different means to attain that security and freedom for those who support that party.
Republicans claim less government, other than police power, gives us the right mix. Democrats strongly differ and claim that in such a government with less power, the rich and powerful dominate over the poor and weak. Democrats have the solution that bigger government affords greater liberty and opportunity to the larger group of people because it protects us from those who want to dominate us.
Republicans retort that big government is really the bully, not the rich and powerful.
Neither party can see that the truth lies in the middle. To admit that the other’s perspective might have some validity is to take away the edge of partisanship. Both parties know that in order to obtain power through elections their opponents have to be portrayed as Hobbes viewed human nature – as selfish and self-seeking.
Both, at the same time, like to portray themselves as the Greeks and Romans saw good leaders as being: virtuous, responsible and seeking the common good.
Since all of us have minds to think and reason, our job as voters is to discern who is the most truthful and virtuous in their claims. Unfortunately, emotions, not reason, usually govern our actions and decisions. Both parties play on emotions over reason, because that’s how elections are won.
The founders understood that for the Constitution to work properly it required that its citizens – “We the People” – be intelligent and discerning. They understood that the people needed to be educated to see through the selfishness and fear to the truth.
Good government is absolutely necessary to provide safety and freedom. Good government comes from realization of the evil each and every one of us is capable of and at the same time it comes from understanding how we can attain the liberty we all desire.
Good government comes through us, the voters, acting intelligently.