When Government Goes Bad

In the immediately preceding post we heard from Thomas Aquinas as to why government of some kind is essential given the way God created mankind. Aquinas’ reasoning on this point seems solid. But in our time of widespread government malfeasance (leading to increasing distrust of, and even open cynicism toward) our governments, we need substantial categories of thought with which to answer other very important questions. Among these are: What happens when government goes bad? Is resistance to government ever lawful? If so, how far may resistance proceed before it itself becomes unlawful, thus undercutting its own legitimacy? 

Aquinas offers us significant help on these questions as well. Let us hear some of his thoughts from Chapter 1 of On the Governance of Rulers:

When things are ordered to some end [goal], one can proceed in the right way and the wrong way. So the government of a group can be carried out in the right way or the wrong way. Something is done in the right way when it is led to its appropriate end, and in the wrong way when it is led to an inappropriate end.

Here we see a crucial idea drawn from the earlier argument that man is a social creature: because a society has a common end that is not the same thing as the diverse ends of the individual elements, any consideration of whether a government has gone awry must ground itself on prior consideration of the categories “appropriate end” and “inappropriate end.”

A government has not necessarily gone bad because this or that individual citizen (or a collection of individual citizens) decides according to its own lights that the government has gone awry. Still less has the government necessarily gone bad because the current occupants of its offices seem noxious to individual citizens (or collections of them). The judgment that the government has gone bad must be rooted in far more than private feelings, let alone in far more than party loyalties – both of which are more like the “shifting winds” Aquinas spoke of earlier as preventing a ship from reaching its port.

This said, here is how Aquinas explores the categories “appropriate end” and “inappropriate end” relative to government:

The proper end of a group of free men is different from than of a group of slaves, for a free man determines his own actions while a slave, qua slave, is one who belongs to another. If then a group of free men is directed by a ruler to the common good of the group, his government will be right and just because it is appropriate for free men, but if the government is directed not at the common good of the group but at the private good of the ruler it will be unjust and a perversion.

Notice, if you will, what Aquinas does not say in the course of what he does say.  He does say that the government of free men is right and just if it is “directed” at the common good. He does not say the government is free men is right and just if its persons and the policies they are making meet with the approval of individual citizens making judgments according to their own private lights.

Why is this distinction important? Return to the analogy Aquinas made earlier made regarding the ship that is “guided into port by the skill of its helmsman.” On this nautical analogy, it could certainly obtain that the sailors personally regard decisions made by the helmsman to be imprudent or even simply wrong. Making such judgments within their own minds might be acceptable so long as the sailors did not then jump to the conclusion, “The helmsman must be disobeyed!” and then act on their judgment.

In our age of jaded individualism, a time in which each one of us has been convinced by a hundred different insidious means each day that I Myself am a Very Special Person Whose Opinion Can’t Be Gainsaid Because It’s My Opinion, it’s hard for us to imagine the relationship of government to ourselves on the analogy of a helmsman guiding a ship. Society isn’t a singular thing, we’re likely to think, but just a convenient verbal sign that we attach for communication purposes to the collection of a large number of individuals each doing his or her own thing according to his or her own wishes.

We’re far less apt to think of government as a helmsman steering a vessel through storms toward the safety of a port than we are to think of government as a collection of individual people trying to oppress us individual people by foisting their personal wills on top of our personal wills. And How dare they!

Yet within the framework Aquinas provides, this whole way of thinking about politics amounts first to denying the doctrine of creation as found in Scripture (that is, by conceiving of ourselves fundamentally as singular, alone individuals and all of our relationships as mere choices of our own individual wills) and second to thinking of human beings as if we were all just animals, each pursuing its own private instinctive whims.

All this exposes the fallacy at the root of our common conception of politics. Not basing our politics on the fact of our creation as social beings, which implies that each of our personal, individual wills must in some ways or others always be subordinate to the wills of others with whom we associate, we’re too quick to judge action taken by government officials as mere outrageous impositions, not to be borne and to be resisted with every ounce of strength we have. It’s just the unbelievable injustice, you see, of Them trying to tell Me what to do!

But Aquinas calls us away from this anarchistic, beast-like way of thinking about the government: “If then a group of free men is directed by a ruler to the common good of the group, his government will be right and just because it is appropriate for free men…” There remains yet room for free men to dispute actions the government takes (such disputing is in the very nature of a truly social gathering), but there is zero room for free men to individually decide – and then act upon such individual decision – that that which directs the whole body towards its common end simply doesn’t have to be obeyed.

Such a course would amount to sailors removing the helmsman (so that he can’t “oppress” them by “making” them go where he wants) and then each of them attempting to be his very own personal helmsman, thus causing the ship itself to founder and all to die. Or to change the analogy, it would amount to the eye saying to the hand or the head to the feet, “I don’t need you!” (1 Cor. 12).

So long as the category “If then a group of free men is directed by a ruler to the common good of the group, his government will be right and just because it is appropriate for free men” obtains, whatever disputing an individual member of the group wishes to do with respect to the government may not proceed on the assumption that “right and just” aren’t there because he himself doesn’t like what he’s being told to do or his pastor told him he doesn’t have to do it or firebrands in his political party and its propaganda arm (“The News”) have him convinced he shouldn’t obey.

Governments, being run by sinful men, can and do go bad. But they do not necessarily cease to be goverments because they have gone bad. And since we are not beasts but rather men, we are not free to simply disregard our governments on the grounds of our own instincts. What we need if we are to articulate well that a government has gone bad and then reason well about what may be done to remedy that badness is another set of very old, very conservative principles with which Aquinas can also help us: namely, principles about the nature of law, the different types of law, and the ways to navigate the sometimes complex relationships between them.


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