The Role and Nature of Governments and Constitutions

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Faith & Theology / Political Philosophy

I was asked in a recent interview what my view of the “ideal role” of government is.  My initial thought was that the answer ought to be an easy one.  But the more I considered the question the more I realized that perhaps there is no answer.

My political philosophy is heavily influenced by John Locke, according to whom the purpose of government is the protection of life, liberty and property.  But we must acknowledge that in pursuit of that goal concessions must be made.  This is where I part with many Libertarians.  The maximization of liberty is not an absolute principle—government authority can and does provide many great things to society.  For instance, the very Constitution that we love to hail as the greatest contribution to freedom in the history of mankind was created because of the need for more government.  The institutions and powers that it vested in the national government—and removed from states—served to strengthen and sustain our freedoms.

Modern provisions for basic food and drug standards, air travel regulations, and public education greatly increase our standards of living.  There is no worthwhile liberty without some sense of order and stability, thus through the institution of government we surrender a liberty that is absolute for one that is sustainable.

But admittedly, this creates a grey area in terms of the limits of legislative power.  Where do you draw the line?  Well, there doesn’t seem to be a universal “line” per se.  A society, by all principles of democracy, should be able to shape itself in whatsoever fashion, and by whatever values it may choose.  Additionally, unforeseen events and circumstances require us to allow flexibility in the law.  What seems like an overstep today may be a necessity tomorrow—desperate times call for desperate measures.  If this is true, where does that leave me in attempting to answer my initial question: what is the ideal role—or, let’s say, the true and justified role—and extent of government power?

To answer this, I begin with the most simple explanation for why God would allow one man to have control over another: to bring justice to a fallen world; reconcile the will and desire of God to humanity, in whatsoever capacity that a secular authority can achieve such.  That’s an important caveat.  Since the only mode of coercion available to secular authority is physical or financial subjection—a form of slavery—there are clearly limitations to its use.  One thing is certain: secular authority cannot change the heart. God works on the hearts of individuals separately, and others attempt to assist through counsel and prayer—this we call the “church,” which is a spiritual force and has no authority to use physical or financial slavery. Secular authority, however, does have such a power as a consensual agreement among people.

In summary, the church tends to the moral spirit, while the State tends to the correction of physical/material injustice.

Yet, this still does not give government license to arbitrarily dictate the actions of individuals.  Since any consent to particular laws and punishments is an agreement only between a portion of a population and not its entirety, then in order to retain the integrity of coercion by consent, those with the secular power to enslave must be restricted to a specified set of laws which is active as a mere condition of citizenship—a constitution that applies to every single member of society.  Individual laws can still be created, repealed or amended as needed to reflect the desires of the community, but these laws must ultimately yield to the pre-established constitution, upon which the approval of the entire community rests.

In conclusion, the ideal role of government—as a justified application of slavery—is to establish a set of agreed-upon principles and systems, within which all future use of force must operate. This allows a society the freedom to shape itself according to its best judgment of what is “necessary and proper”, but only within the boundaries of that system. If changes must be made to the original agreement, a full consensus must be met once again through a rigorous constitutional amendment process.

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