What is the Purpose of Government? Part 1: Abandoning Assumptions

On my list of things that are actually the worst, assumptions rank somewhere between the musical Cats and wet napkins. Unfortunately, unlike nonsensical musicals and damp paper products, assumptions are necessary for the world to function.

It’s impossible for one human to know everything so we rely on others to fill in the gaps. I have to assume history books are accurate, teachers are trustworthy, and journalists are honest to create a belief system. This is how we function efficiently in the world.  We take people at their word.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in an election season. Most of us haven’t been to a campaign rally or personally met a candidate. We form our conclusions second and thirdhand—from televised debates, news coverage, and conversations with friends.

The assumption the two largest political parties are making in this election is that if they lose, the results will be catastrophic. There are a few problems with this line of thinking:

  • It demonstrates a profound lack of faith in the American people, and places an extraordinary amount of rhetorical power on the office of the President
  • It encourages dichotomous thinking by branding anyone who votes for the opposite side as ignorant
  • It fails to offer compelling reasons to choose a candidate, instead relying on the weaknesses of the opposition to encourage participation

At the core, these apocalyptic pronouncements stem from a firm belief that there is a right and wrong way for the government—not just an individual politician—to work.

This apocalyptic line of thinking is completely unconvincing for those these campaigns most need to sway. People who have spent years entrenched in bipartisan battles are unlikely to be moved. It is the young, the undecided, and the unaddressed who need to be motivated, and these groups require something more than broad assumptions to base their vote upon.

If Hillary Clinton is so obviously evil, Bernie Sanders so obviously delusional, and Donald Trump so obviously incompetent, why have millions of people voted for each individual? Why do the American people have such different ideas about what will bring on an apocalypse? To argue without evidence that these millions are ignorant fools is to insult the intelligence of those entrusted with voting and decidedly unhelpful for those who have yet to pick a side.

I’ve decided to write through these questions on this blog. I want to move beyond the assumptions I’m routinely fed and look at the foundational beliefs propping up these assumptions.

To begin, I decided I needed to create a working theory of the purpose of government. I put the question out on Twitter and received mixed responses:

 

These responses give a glimpse of the tools people use to talk about government. We make jokes because it’s an impossibly divisive subject matter. I don’t like talking about politics because it’s difficult for me to come to any conclusions. Also, I have a bad habit of making people cry at the dinner table so it’s much more comfortable for everyone if I stay silent.

However, personal discomfort and a lack of conclusions is not a good enough excuse to  ignore the intellectual responsibility of voting. Thought without action is vanity, and action without thought is selfish. It is action-oriented critical thinking that has the potential to produce meaningful results. This is one attempt at achieving this goal. 

To start off, I surveyed what some of history’s most revered political thinkers have theorized about the purpose of government:

Aristotle

“When states are democratically governed according to law, there are no demagogues, and the best citizens are securely in the saddle; but where the laws are not sovereign, there you find demagogues. The people become a monarch… such people, in its role as a monarch, not being controlled by law, aims at sole power and becomes like a master.”

Plato

Democracy, which is a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder, and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequaled alike.”

 

Alexis de Tocqueville

“Our contemporaries are constantly wracked by two warring passions: they feel the need to be led and the desire to remain free. Unable to destroy either of these contrary instincts, they seek to satisfy both at once. They imagine a single, omnipotent, tutelary power, but one that is elected by the citizens. They combine centralization with popular sovereignty. This gives them some respite. They console themselves for being treated as wards by imagining that they have chosen their own protectors. Each individual allows himself to be clapped in chains because that the other end of the chain is held not by a man or a class but by the people themselves.”

George Washington

“The basis of our political system is the right of the people to make and to alter their constitutions of government.”

Thomas Aquinas

“But public authority is committed to rulers in order that they may safeguard justice. And so they are permitted to use force and coercion only in the course of justice, whether in wars against enemies or in punishing civilian criminals.”

Thomas Jefferson

“The care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only legitimate object of good government.

James Madison

“The diversity in the faculties of men from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government.”

David Hume

“We are, therefore, to look upon all the vast apparatus of our government, as having ultimately no other object or purpose but the distribution of justice.”

Alexander Hamilton

“Why has government been instituted at all? Because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice without constraint.”

The general consensus is that government exists to protect its citizens. Later this week, I’ll look at the reason citizens need protecting and how this protection should be delivered is up for debate.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about the purpose of government, and if you have any questions about the election you’d like to see explored please let me know.

PS: Keep up with the latest Think Curiouser posts by subscribing to our email list here.