Why Government (of Some Kind) Is Essential

A question that seems to burn in the minds of many in this time of governmental imprudence and overreach is, Why bother with government at all? Government on most levels seems increasingly to be characterized by moral intrusiveness, by economic aggressiveness, by technocratic manipulativeness.  Who needs it? Why ought not individuals be free – quite literally, unencumbered by outside attempts to compel them – to govern themselves?

It’s an important question. So important that it can’t be left merely to the private citizen’s Very Own Individual Opinion. Fortunately for us, being inhabitants of a civil order that has roots sunk deep in a millennia-long tradition of careful thought, we as private citizens aren’t left on our own with only our Very Own (Very Small) Individual Opinions on these important matters.

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), working within the larger framework of ancient Greek and Roman political thought as it had been taken up and expounded within the biblical Christian framework, offers this answer to the questions posed above. (The following citations are drawn from Chapter 1 of his On the Governance of Rulers, written between 1265 and 1267.)

…When a thing is directed towards an end [a goal], and it is possible to go one way or another, someone must indicate the best way to proceed toward the end. For example, a ship that moves in different directions with the shifting winds would never reach its destination if it were not guided into port by the skill of its helmsman.

A sensible analogy, it seems. Thus, he continues:

Man too has an end towards which all the actions of his life are directed, since all intelligent beings act for an end. Now every man is naurally endowed with the light of reason to direct his actions towards his end. If men were intended to live alone as do many animals, there would be no need for anyone to direct him towards his end, since every man would be his own king under God, the highest king, and the light of reason given to him from on high would enable him to act on his own. But man is by nature a political and social animal.

Aquinas here alerts us to the crucial importance of the doctrine of creation for proper political thought. What kind of creature is man? We have but to look anew at Genesis 1 to discover not only that one truism we all like – that we are “‘made in the image of God” – but that also “It is not good for man to be alone.”

Aloneness, the condition of being a solitary, self-defining creature not obligated to anyone else (because not able to be placed under obligation by anyone else) is not the condition in which God created us. Rather, we are social animals and so we cannot be “our own kings under God.” Should we attempt to be so, we are not only violating the terms of our created nature, but operating on a false definition of “political.” Politics is not the domain of solitary individuals constantly fighting to gain power over other solitary individuals, who must always resist such power claims in the name of “freedom.”

But let’s hear a bit more from Aquinas so that we may more properly approach the question Why bother with government at all?

Even more than other animals [man] lives in groups. This is demonstrated by the requirements of his nature. Nature has given other animals food, furry covering, teeth, and horns and claws – or at least speed of flight – as means to defend themselves. Man however, is given none of these by nature. Instead he has been given the use of his reason to secure all these things by the work of his hands. But a man cannot secure all these by himself, for a man cannot adequately provide for his life by himself. Thefore it is natural for man to live in association with his fellows.

All this may seem fine and proper, but it still doesn’t seem to answer the question Why bother with government at all? Here is why:

…if many men were to live together and each to provide what is convenient for himself, the group would break up unless one of them had the responsibility for the good of the group, just as the body of a man or an animal would disintegrate without a single controlling force in the body that aimed at the common good of all the members.  As Solomon says, “Where there is no ruler, the people will be dispersed.” [Prov. 11:14] This is reasonable since the private good and the common good are not the same. Private concerns divide the community, while common concerns unite it…Therefore besides what moves each person to his own private good there must be something that moves everyone to the common good of the many.

Thus we return to our original questions: Why bother with government at all? Why ought not individuals be free to govern themselves?

The answer, as given by Aquinas, is simply this: we aren’t made to live that way, and were we to try we would be living not like humans but like animals.

Of course, all this train of argument does is establish that government of some kind is essential. It leaves untouched other important questions such as those about the quality of government, the limits of government, and what ought to be or can be done when government goes awry. But we cannot even begin to answer questions like that until we make certain we are not fundamentally opposed to government per se out of improper and false concepts of human nature and of freedom.

Comments are closed.