On June 7th, the National Journal published Ron Fournier’s analysis of how the recent scandals surrounding the Obama administration are “threat[ening] to kill” the concept of “good government.” Fournier writes that these revelations bolster support for skepticism of government. He discusses how the NSA and IRS scandals have made the administration appear “intrusive,” “incompetent,” “corrupt,” “heartless,” – and even “Orwellian.”
Fournier defines good government as:
[Y]ou don’t need to be a liberal Democrat to root for government efficiency, transparency and solvency. Even tea party conservatives expect certain things[:] … a strong military; pensions and health care for the aged; student and small-business loans; safe food and drugs; secure borders; and, of course, federal police protection against terrorists, both foreign and domestic.
The core argument of President Obama’s rise to power, and a uniting belief of his coalition[,] of … voters, is that government can do good things — and do them well.
Good government is meant to be a unifying idea for liberals and conservatives; however, each group has differing ideas on how to make government a good government.
One can develop the opposing concept based on Fournier’s definition of good government, defining bad government as the recognition that the government can do bad things. This ranges from tyranny, corruption, unwarranted surveillance, and whatever else one wants to include under that umbrella.
Good and bad government share the idea that government should maintain civil order by providing expected services while preventing wrongdoing through the power to restrain individuals. The latter applies to local law enforcement all the way up to federal policies.
In this sense, “bad government” can be boiled down to government misusing its abilities intended for maintaining order.
Fournier’s article belies the underlying question of why government’s “power of restraint” is necessary. For anarchists, power of restraint is unnecessary. For the majority of the population, it is a welcomed protection.
Power of restraint refers to the government’s ability to restrain individuals via punitive actions. The necessity of power of restraint was widely discussed by thinkers associated with the Enlightenment, whose works were sources of inspiration during the Revolutionary War.
Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, published in 1776, provides insight into the sentiments that inspired the American Revolution. Paine connects the fundamental nature of government to bad government by stating:
[G]overnment even in its best state is but a necessary evil in its worst state an intolerable one[.] … [W]ere the impulses of conscience clear, uniform, and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver; but that not being the case, … he is induced to do [what] every other case advises him out of two evils to choose the least[,] … security being the true design and end of government[.]
Government is a “necessary evil” because people are human. Some individuals act on negative and harmful impulses that others do not. These transgressions occur even though punitive systems are in place.
It makes sense. For Paine, government is necessary because humans are intrinsically flawed creatures.
Paine’s view is common among other thinkers associated with the Enlightenment. Two well-known philosophers from this era, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, shared Paine’s opinion regarding power of restraint.
Locke defines absolute liberty as a state in which any individual can do what he or she pleases, while government is “establish[ing] … society upon certain laws, [which] requir[e] conformity.” According to these definitions, absolute liberty and government cannot coincide.
Furthermore, the fact that Locke includes conformity in his definition of government suggests that he considers power of restraint to be the true core of government.
While Rousseau developed a very different political philosophy, he shares with Paine and Locke the idea that government is founded upon power of restraint. Rousseau wrote:
All justice comes from God, who is its sole source; but if we knew how to receive so high an inspiration, we should need neither government nor laws. … [I]n default of natural sanctions, the laws of justice are ineffective among men[.]
Rousseau is saying that human beings cannot obey perfect justice without laws accompanied by punishments. Even without appealing to God, Rousseau’s point remains the same: people are not perfect and, thus, government’s power of restraint is necessary.
If one agrees that the core of government is the power of restraint – and that restraint is a negative ability – then at its root, bad government is the foundation of government itself.
The idea that human beings are intrinsically flawed and that maintaining civil order requires protection from others and ourselves connects bad government abilities to government’s primary purpose.
Bad government is the basis of government. If one defines government by its original purpose, then government is a necessary evil.
Paine has a salient point after all. Since power of restraint defines government, and government is a necessary evil, bad government is the core of maintaining civil order. Good government, according to Fournier’s definition, is one of the perks that comes along with a government that is not entirely bad.
If one accepts the premise that power of restraint is negative, then the claim that government is based on its ability to do good things falls flat on its face. Within this narrow definition of bad government, there is no trace of good government in the foundation of governance in itself.
Sorry Fournier. Maybe these scandals are making people recognize that government is a necessary evil and that one’s rulers can cross the line… or that good government may not be quite as awe-inspiring a concept as it used to be.