Is Government a Problem or a Solution?

by Steve Ussery (

Whenever people discuss government they usually do so in a negative way. They love to use popular phrases such as: bureaucracy, red-tape, or pork-barrel. They see government as an insidious plot to rob them of the hard-earned fruits of their labor; as a monstrous entity that intrudes into their private affairs; and even by some as a ubiquitous conspiracy to deny them fundamental rights. There has always been an element of apathy and cynicism in the ordinary citizen's outlook on government but seldom has it risen to such epidemic proportions as it has today. Where does this cynicism come from? Is this cynicism justified? The short answer to the latter question is: no. The answer to the prior question requires a more lengthy response.

Before we tackle the harder question we should start off with the fundamental one: What is government? Surprisingly, there is no consensus as to the answer to that question. That should give us our first real clue as to the nature of the problem. It is hard if not impossible to imagine a more ridiculous race of creatures than we human beings. It makes one wonder if the great cosmic architect himself did not have a colossal sense of humor. We are all unique individuals with our own private collection prejudices, passions, interests, and notions that we assume are a reality shared by all. Actually, if we have anything in common at all it is that we are all different from one another. Our languages, cultures, and nationalities tend to obscure this fact but it remains nevertheless. Government is the most successful system of all for hiding this fact. It allows a multitude of dissimilar people with their network tangle of different purposes and interests the illusion of similarity. From that illusion comes the prime benefit of many working together for the common good.

To understand the concept of Government it is best to first discuss the concept of the "social contract". It is not clear who first used the term "social contract", but the roots for the concept lay in ancient Greek philosophy. One of the first places the term was used in print, (in the English language that is), is in Thomas Hobbes' "Leviathan". Written at a time of great political unrest, the English Civil war, and published in 1651, it was for its time a masterpiece of political philosophy. Hobbes saw human beings in their natural state as individuals who pursue their own ends and in perpetual conflict with one another in the struggle for existence. He believed that men, to avoid an unending "state of war," give up their individual liberty and form by "Contract" a civil society. Hobbes felt that individuals must transfer their right to act as free individuals by accepting the authority of a sovereign (i.e., a King), in order to peacefully coexist. "Leviathan" was very controversial for its time because it implied that the King's authority derived from consent of the ruled rather than divine authority from God.

Later French and English philosophers built upon Hobbes' ideas. In particular, they replaced the idea of a King being granted authority to rule with the idea of an elected assembly. One of the most famous of these philosophers was the Englishman, John Locke. Locke's clear thinking inspired middle class Englishmen to push for parliamentary government and it help set off a new struggle against the aristocratic order of the monarchy. Locke's "Two Treatises of Government", published in 1690, set forth the view that the state exists to preserve the natural rights of its citizens. When governments fail in their obligations, citizens have the right and the duty to withdraw their support and even to revolt. Locke, as opposed to Hobbes, believed that the state of nature was a tolerant and cheerful one, and that the social contract preserved the preexistent natural rights of the individual to life, liberty, and property, and that the enjoyment of private rights (i.e. the pursuit of happiness), led to society's common good.

In 1762, Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote his legendary book "The Social Contract". This book served as the political inspiration of many other men, and was one of the sparks that ignited the explosive French revolution in the late 18th century. In his book, Rousseau shows us that men in society must enter into a social contract with each other for mutual benefit and to accomplish collectively what one individual could never do. If there is no contract or agreement among the people to work together for the common good, then, there is no reason for doing so, for otherwise no individual could be guaranteed the benefit of such a social union. Do not confuse this social contract with a written document of law. When we use the term "social contract," we allude to an implicit understanding between individuals in society, not a formal written agreement. (Some may find the term "mutual covenant" preferable to the term "social contract.") English statesmen preferred the term "Commonwealth," whereas American statesmen such as Jefferson and Lincoln referred to this contract as "The Union." The social contract exists in all societies from the most primitive to the most advanced. It is nothing more than the union of human beings tied together in a cooperative bond we call society. The most elemental and basic form of this contract in any society is the marriage between a man and a woman. A matrimonial contract, regardless if it exists on paper or not, is for the mutual bonding of two human beings into a cooperative union for their common good and to achieve results (e.g. children) that they would not be able to do on their own. As it is in this type of social contract, so it is in all others.

What then is government? Government is nothing more than the formalization of the social contract itself. Instead of an unconscious implicit agreement it is an explicit formal one. We call this formalization "the State" and the individual elements of the agreement "the Law". This observation should lead us to conclude that the State has two equal purposes. The first is to provide a collective will and strength for services for its citizens for their common good. Services which they would be unable to accomplish as individuals acting solely on their own. The second is to protect the security and the individual civil rights of each and every citizen. In a free and democratic State this responsibility rests with the citizens of the State themselves. The government of a democratic State is not the representatives elected nor is it appointed officials who act in the capacity of governing, rather it is the people themselves. Representatives and government officers serve as a consequence of the collective will of the citizens of a free State and are therefore merely agents of the common will.

Now that we have a basic idea of government let us look into the source of cynicism and apathy that seems to arise from it. Since government is essentially a collection of human beings working together for some purpose, it is neither better nor worse than the elements of that collection themselves. Put more simply: we are individually imperfect and flawed creatures therefore the union of our efforts is necessarily just as imperfect and flawed. The problem is that our expectations our much higher than that. We expect our governments to be faultless. Ironically, we allow ourselves mistakes in judgment but not our governments. Our own unreasonable expectations result in a general sense of dissatisfaction and this in turn leads to apathy and criticism. We will have perfect governments as soon as we have perfect men. If you are waiting for that day to come, you are going to have a very long wait.

Mentioned briefly above was a second source of dissatisfaction. It comes from assuming that our needs are everyone's needs. Man has a persistent history of assuming that his point of view is irrevocable fact when it is actually nothing but self-serving opinion. Any man or woman who is willing to stand by noble and good principles no matter the consequences goes high up on a lofty pedestal for the rest of us to admire. But the ones who wisely know when they must compromise to achieve progress have the highest place reserved for them. Yet, we can not all rise above our own selfish needs. It is natural to be unhappy when we do not get our way. Moreover, it is inevitable that our government should be the target of that unhappiness. Unfortunately, the subsequent loss of respect for the institution of government is counterproductive of its goal of uniting us. If we fail to work together to compromise and resolve our differences in a civilized manner the resulting factional disputes tear apart the very essence of government itself.

Behind the average citizen's apathy and indifference is the contagious belief that their contribution cannot make a difference. That belief is, of course, a self fulfilling prophecy. If you believe it true, it shall be true. Can everyone's participation make a difference? Perhaps not. But, how will we know if we do not try? There is no penalty for making the effort.

How can we combat this harmful cynicism and indifference? In two ways. First: By learning to tolerate views that are different from our own. We do not have to agree with them. It is even perfectly acceptable to debate them. But we must not attempt to silence them. Second: Government is your business; not someone else's. As a minimum it is our responsibility to obey the just laws of the State, share in public expenses when appropriate, to be informed of critical issues, to vote for government representatives, to respect and safeguard the civil liberties of all citizens, to serve on a jury when called to do so, and to defend our country against hostile aggression whenever necessary.

One should not expect to enjoy the benefits of a democratic society without fulfilling his or her social duty that arises from its creation. Remember, this obligation is not to the elected government of the State -- it is to the State itself. In other words, it is a promise we make to each other. The State, as a consequence of its existence, serves each of us, and we to a lesser degree must serve the State. The implicit agreement, which forms the social union of the State, is a two way process; with civil rights comes civil responsibility as an inseparable part. Therefore, we are mutually obligated to serve one another and to protect the security and welfare of each other.

Government is a our only real tool for solving complex social problems. If we allow it to become a problem of itself, then the fault lies squarely on each of us. If you will approach it as a determined, enlightened, and involved person, you will find your respect for the institution of government measurably improved. It will still be imperfect but it will be tolerably imperfect. If we are not willing to work together than there is no need for government at all. In that event, it is time to pack our bags, put on our animal-skin loin clothes, and move back into caves of pre-civilization where the only law is the strong over the weak.