My esteemed colleague has posited the question of all questions: what is the purpose of government? Nothing like a nice, light inquiry to start things here, eh?
I take the basic premise of my answer from the Gettysburg Address. It seems to be a safe bet, to start. After all, slap our 16th president’s name on the cover, and a history book will shoot to the bestseller list in a flash. In seriousness, Lincoln delivered the most succinct, beautiful description of our government in one brief phrase. Our government is ‘of the people, by the people, for the people.’
In order to appreciate its beauty, we have remember how it was delivered (according to eyewitness reports). Today, even Disney’s late Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln presented it with the wrong emphasis. We tend to focus on the prepositions, probably because they’re what changes and they automatically draw our attention. But Mr. Lincoln didn’t deliver the speech that way. He emphasized the most important part of the phrase: the repeated noun.
Government is of, by and for the people. And I’m sure this isn’t a controversial statement on its surface. But as I’ve explored its implications, I find it leads me into opposition with my conservative friends. I understand the minimalist approach to government, that it exists solely to guarantee our security and freedom, and that it works best when it steps aside to allow people to be their best, unhindered by government intervention. I agree that in some cases, this is the best possible role for the government to play.
But it’s not always the right role, and quite often, it’s the worst.
A government established of the people must take its orders from the people. Their values must shape its actions. While that requires a firm foundation that binds the people together as a community, it also requires a level of flexibility as that community grows and changes. The America of 1789 is not the America of 2009. That shouldn’t distress us too greatly. We’ve rejected slavery, institutionalized misogyny, class-based elitism and many more evils. It should distress us a little. We’ve embraced evils our Framers never dreamed were possible, from abortion to the atom bomb. But in all of this, our government still represents us, the living who live in the legacy of the past. It’s the struggle to reject what’s bad of our past and embrace what’s good of our present that keeps its role in motion.
A government established by the people must act in the people’s best interest. Sometimes that interest is to stand aside and wait to be called into action. Sometimes, that role is to intervene, to defend its people not just from external threats, but also from themselves. Lest you think I’m advocating an Orwellian Big Brother, let me clarify something.
Government works best when it encourages its people to be good. Government can never take the place of the true source of Good, and cannot be trusted to define that Good either, but that is no excuse for government to remain morally neutral. Just as it must step aside to allow religious organizations to act charitably without hindrance, it must intervene when strong members of society exploit the weak. And it should never facilitate that exploitation.
And government is for the people. Its purpose must be to facilitate the success of its citizens, financially, politically, personally – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (of course in the Aristotelian sense). If government regulation hinders that success, it must be examined. If its absence hinders that success, it deserves the same scrutiny. The needs of the Wall Street executive must be tempered by the needs of the homeless veteran. We can’t reject either for the sake of the other.
Because government isn’t an institution. It’s people. People designed its structure, and people enact its policies. There’s nothing faceless about it. It cannot stand aside and only intervene when faced with foreign invasion or the latest crime wave because government is the people. And while it can’t take the place of a church when it comes to moral guidance, or a school when it comes to education, it can’t be separated from them either. Our president attended our schools, and our congressmembers attend our churches.
So what is the purpose of government?
That’s a very good question.