What is government for?

José Azel
José Azel.

Renown journalist and scholar Nicholas Lemann asks in his latest book “American Democracy” five fundamental questions about our democracy that have yet to be fully answered. One of his questions is particularly thought-provoking in today’s sociopolitical setting: What is the government for? This is a question we answer indirectly with our political affiliations as Democrats, Republicans, or Libertarians with each party offering a different answer to the question.

Professor Lemann reminds us that “American democracy is dynamic, not static”. Over the decades our democracy has changed, and will continue to change, and not always for the better. But most importantly, he prompts us to appreciate that American democracy was designed by people who regarded centralized government with great suspicion and anxiety. The name of the new nation itself -The United States of America- communicated the desire for decentralized government power.

Indeed, a fundamental question in political philosophy pivots on what is, or ought to be, the proper relationship of the State to the individual. What should be the role of government in our lives?

For some, government should play an extensive and active role, using its coercive power to bring about a more egalitarian society. For others, the role of government should be anchored on the Founding Fathers’ conceptualization of a limited government concerned primarily with protecting our lives, liberty, and property. So, what is government for?

Let’s go back to the beginnings of our American Government where, in the Federalist Papers, advocating for the ratification of the Constitution, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison sought to assure a suspicious American public that the new government would not subjugate them. In Federalist No. 51 Madison argues that government is necessary as a reflection of our human nature:

“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 greatest difficulty lies in this: You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself.”

This passage by Madison echoes the Enlightenment thinkers, and in particular Baruch Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (1670) in which the philosopher describes the ultimate purpose of the state as being ‘not to dominate or control people by fear or subject them to the authority of another. On the contrary, its aim is to free everyone from fear, so that they may live in security…that they may retain to the highest possible degree their natural right to live and act without harm to themselves or others…Therefore the true purpose of the state is in fact freedom.’ (As cited in A.C. Grayling’s The History of Philosophy).

I should note that although Spinoza’s brilliant thinking influenced the Founding documents, he is rarely credited directly. Spinoza developed highly controversial ideas regarding the authenticity of the Hebrew Bible and was shunned and expelled from Jewish society. And, although Jewish religious authorities have repeatedly refused to lift the herem (ban) against him, Spinoza’s influence has been acknowledged by prodigies like Albert Einstein, Jorge Luis Borges, Isaac Bashevis Singer and others. Once, when asked if he believed in God, Einstein replied: “I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings.”

Here, Spinoza provides us with a succinct and powerful answer to the question of, what is government for? “…the true purpose of the state is in fact freedom.”

But if the true purpose of government is to promote and defend our freedom, we have lost our way. The supreme value of the Framers’ concept of government was that of a limited government leaving citizens free to pursue their idea of the good life without interference from the state provided they do not cause harm to others. In contemporary society we have redefined the purpose of government to include the provision of multiple social services and more. Today, we fail to understand that an expanded government requires diminished liberty.

Dr. Azel‘s latest book is “Liberty for Beginners.”

“The opinions published herein are the sole responsibility of its author”.