Kentuckian President Abraham Lincoln prayed that “government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the face of the earth” in the Gettysburg Address.
We citizens have the right—the duty—to insist on “good government.” We also have the duty to recognize that even good, well-intentioned people can differ on the definition of what makes government “good.”
What we sometimes lose track of in the rhetoric (or political advertisements) of the day is that whether we want more or less government, all government is not evil. If we believe that all government is evil or that government is a “necessary evil,” we leave the path of our constitutional founders; that is, the “rule of law,” and fall into anarchy, the absence of government.
Our society requires government as a fundamental necessity. Why? Let’s see what our founders thought the answer was. In the Preamble to our Constitution, our founders listed six functions of a national government:
1.To form a more perfect union—government must be fair across different state boundaries to preserve the union.
2.To establish justice—to protect those who obey the law and punish those who do not.
3.To insure domestic tranquility—to give those law abiding citizens the opportunity to live peaceful lives in their own conscience.
4.To provide for the common defense—since all life is sacred, to defend our union from external threats to life.
5.To promote the general welfare—all of our elected officials and public servants are servants for the general good. Special interest groups should not receive special treatment.
6.To secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity—as stated in the Declaration of Independence, blessings are endowed by our Creator, not a privilege granted by the government. It is not up to the government to provide these blessings, but to secure them, including the blessings of life, liberty, and property.
As James Madison said in The Federalist No.51, in February, 1788:
If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.
Peter Wehner, deputy assistant to President George W. Bush and co-author of City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era posits that governments have four vital functions in our lives:
1.Order. . . .Without it, we can hardly expect things such as justice, prosperity, and virtue to flourish. . .
2.Justice. . . .Justice has been defined as the quality of being impartial and fair, the equal treatment of equals, and living in accordance with the natural law and the divine plan. . . . at the core of justice is the belief that everyone, no matter at what station or in what season of life, has inherent dignity and rights. This is not only a private concern but also a public one.
3.Virtue. . . .The founders understood that the need for virtue is greatest in free societies because they depend on self-government, on citizens who govern themselves and their passions, and who lead decent, law-abiding lives. . . .[L]aws and government policies can affirm, or weaken character-forming institutions like the family.
4. Prosperity. Government should champion an economic system that leads to growth, wealth creation, and human achievement. Wealth creation, after all, is a moral good, is helps ameliorate poverty, misery, and mass death. It makes charity and generosity possible.
On a practical level, if we work outside our homes, how do we get to work? On a highway? On a sidewalk? Who builds and maintains them? Who determines qualifications for drivers to protect us while on roadways or sidewalks?
If you are retired, you’ve earned the right to collect social security benefits, collected and paid by the government.
If you are disabled from working, the primary source of income where one cannot earn it for oneself is social security disability—transfer payments from earners to non-earners through the government.
Who keeps us safe from those whose violate the law if not local and state police departments, paid for by government?
Who determines what our criminal laws are? Who houses those who have violated those laws? Who determines innocence or guilt? Our court systems, our law enforcers, our juries all perform government functions.
On a local level our friends and relatives serve us as public officials and work hard to be good stewards of taxpayer trust and funds, as part of “the government.”
I think all of us would agree that these are necessary functions. While we may be cynical toward a particular government or a particular party and its ability to get us where we want to be, outright contempt for government does not serve us as citizens of that government. It can only lead toward anarchy and ultimate dissolution of our government.
As we begin a new year, let’s pause and reflect on what government means to us and what we as individual citizens in a civil society can do to help improve that government for all of us, regardless of labels or political ideologies.
Thank you for the opportunity of serving you as a government-paid public servant.