How the US Government Works, 2nd edition

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Those must be left to the individual. In addition, the person must also possess the right to property, because as material creatures who need material possessions to survive, property is an indispensable prerequisite for enabling someone to direct the affairs of his life. From this starting point, the role of government is formed. Since all individuals have rights to life, liberty, and property, it is necessary that these rights be maintained. Human beings are physical creatures in social relationships with one another.


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As such, it is necessary that behavior be directed, regulated, controlled, and restrained so that respect for the rights of everyone is manifested. That is, individual behavior must be governed so that the actions of one individual do not violate the corresponding rights of others. But, what kind of control on behavior would be ideal?

It is not necessary to ponder this question too long, for the best possible form of regulating behavior is self-control. That is, where each individual is responsible for directing his own behavior in the context of respecting the rights of others. As long as all people show such respect for others, there is no need for any other form of regulation.

Regrettably, this is not the case.

The earliest records of human history reveal that people have always had the propensity to disregard the innate rights of others. The accounts of ancient civilizations that developed along the Nile and Mesopotamian River Valleys point to the need that these communities had to protect themselves from the aggression of other tribes of people who might descend upon their villages for the purpose of plundering their wealth. For this reason, they banded together and developed strategies for defense. Thieves, pirates, dictators, and tyrants have been common to all ages and to all civilizations.

The stark reality is that human history demonstrates that people attempting to live at peace with one another cannot rely solely upon self-government to secure their natural rights.

II. The Bad

The American Founders were cognizant of this reality. They believed that the problem resided at the core of human nature. This understanding came from their common religious heritage. Specifically, they generally shared the Judeo-Christian point of view which holds that all human beings are innately sinful creatures.

John Witherspoon, one of the most influential professors of Princeton, made the following declaration of the human condition in a famous sermon he delivered in He said:. But where can we have a more affecting view of the corruption of our nature, than in the wrath of man, when exerting itself in oppression, cruelty and blood? It must be owned, indeed, that this truth is abundantly manifest in times of the greatest tranquility. Others may, if they please, treat thecorruption of our nature as a chimera: for my part, I see it every where, and I feel it every day. All the disorders in human society, and the greatest part of the unhappiness we are exposed to, arises from the envy, malice, covetousness, and other lusts of man.

If we and all about us were just what we ought to be in all respects, we should not need to go any further for heaven, for it would be upon earth. There was, therefore, general agreement that people would not and could not be made perfect in this life. For this reason, they thought that people could not be trusted with unchecked power and that there would always be abuse of power. There is of course much evidence to support this perspective. From the moment people are born into this world, they display little interest in others except as they are taught to do so.

In dealing with this subject, Clarence Carson has written, "As an infant, man is observably self-centered, concerned only with his own desires and gratifications. Only slowly, and often painfully, does the child learn more sociable and thoughtful behavior, and if enlightened self-interest replaces self-centeredness as an adult, considerable progress has been made. In truth, man is subject to strong emotions, to fits of temper, may become violent, aggressive, and destructive It is these potentialities in the nature of man Carson identifies two important truths.

First, all human beings fall short of the goal of perfect self-government.

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Any individual willing to make a close inspection of his own life will admit that he has not always respected the rights of others. Thus, there is a need for some outside restraint and control. In particular, he points out that the family is the primary institution of government in the nature of things.


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In wisdom, Providence has organized nature in such a way that, like it or not, parents bear the responsibility of training their children. Since human beings are what they are, it is incumbent upon parents to exercise their authority so as to train their children to respect others. When parents actively discipline their children, experience suggests that they will learn empathy for others and will be more prone to consider how their actions affect other people.

As a result, people who were raised in homes where thoughtful discipline was applied tend to be able to demonstrate high degrees of self-discipline later in life. On the other hand, parents who shirk their responsibility, and rarely if ever exercise parental control, fail to teach their children respect for other people. In such cases, children are left more or less to raise themselves and often grow up reinforcing the self-centeredness they were born into.

Throughout history, parents have ranged from being loving and generally responsible, to being disinterested and undependable, to being abusive and capricious. For this reason, some additional government is necessary. The actual amount of organized or collective government needed is linked to the success of families in raising responsible children.

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But, however large it might be, government? The Framers of the American Constitution eagerly affirmed this understanding of the world and sought to establish a government to pick up where parenting left off. They understood the need for a contingent institution to secure the peace and order of society if other measures failed.

This brings us to another important consideration about government. Specifically, is it reasonable to expect government to fill the gap that remains completely? Since the Founders largely viewed the world from a Christian perspective they would have agreed with the Apostle Paul who wrote in his letter to the Roman Christians of his day:.

Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil.

How the US Government Works, 2nd edition

Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. It is important to understand these words if we are to have a clear understanding of what the Founders were thinking. Paul did not believe that all decrees ever made by government officials were good. He did not believe that governments only did good and good all the time.

Instead, he was recognizing two important points. First, he noted that the proper purpose of all government is to punish evildoers so as to protect the life, liberty, and property of every citizen subject to its authority. Thus, so long as an individual keeps himself from dealing unjustly with others he has no good reason to fear the actions of his government. Therefore, so long as the governing authority is about that business, it is incumbent upon the Christian to obey.

In fact, there are many passages in Scripture which condone civil disobedience. In particular, governments exist for the good of those who do good. When this is the case, government is pursuing its appointed end of securing the rights of life, liberty, and property of those subject to its rule. This brings us to Paul? That is, there will never be a perfectly good government for the same reason that governments exist in the first place. Namely, all people fall short of perfection and governments are run by people.

For this reason a perfectly good government cannot exist in this world. The functions of government are carried out by people who are flawed as much as anyone else, and sometimes more so. It is, therefore, wholly unrealistic to expect perfect justice in this life. Bad government arises as a result of this situation. Occasions of failure can include both allowing those guilty of committing crimes to go free as well as punishing those who have not committed the crimes of which they are accused.

Put simply, it is not possible for any human institution to right all wrongs.

How the US Government Works, 2nd edition by Syl Sobel

Even if we committed all available resources to the task, some injustice would persist. Since this is the reality of our situation, it is best understood that some offenses committed against us should simply be ignored. In such cases, seeking government intervention may well cost far more than might be gained.

Thus, there will always exist in society some degree of injustice and suffering.