Since government operates by force, does it make us less free or more so?
The British philosopher John Locke, who influenced America’s founders probably more than any other political thinker, did not deny that government operates by force. Instead, he showed that there is more freedom under government than under nature:
[F]reedom of men under government is … a liberty to follow my own will in all things, where the rule prescribes not; and not to be subject to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown, arbitrary will of another man: as freedom of nature is, to be under no other restraint but the law of nature. (Locke 1690, IV.22)
Freedom under nature is not true freedom at all, because the law of nature operates by force as well.
That is, a nation without government naturally gives way to the “arbitrary will” of roving bands of thugs, as we’ve seen in countries like Somalia. But on the other hand, government doesn’t guarantee freedom either. In fact, it has always brought with it politics and war. John Adams, our second President, understood this limitation of government very well:
I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Painting and Poetry Mathematicks and Philosophy. (Adams, 1780)
It is well-known that no war was ever fought between democracies. In every war throughout history, at least one side has always been controlled by tyrannical governments. And of course, there are still many tyrannies today. Is there any tyranny in America’s government?
Which occurs more naturally – democracy or tyranny? Which type of government operates with more force?
Tyranny can take many forms. For example, we have seen nations, religions, and races tyrannize other nations, religions, and races. We have seen parents and siblings tyrannize children, and even children tyrannize parents. The rapist, the schoolyard bully, the slave-trader, the slave-owner, the petty thief, and the terrorist, are all tyrants. And the well-connected government manipulator, as well as the protester who obstructs others’ ability to drive to work or the right of an opponent to speak, are all also tyrants.
Thomas Paine’s 1776 pamphlet, “Common Sense”, fired up American colonists to rebel against the tyrant, King George III of Great Britain. Paine wrote:
… Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil…. Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence…. (Paine 1776, .2)
In other words, just as Adam and Eve covered their nakedness when they realized they had sinned, likewise mankind created governments when they realized they couldn’t live together without tyrannizing each other.
Power really comes down to who actually gets to make the important decisions.
Having a government, even a supposedly republican one, doesn’t necessarily solve the problem of tyranny. That view is well expressed in a statement widely believed, though without conclusive proof, to be from George Washington:
Government is not reason; it is not eloquence. It is force. And force, like fire, is a dangerous servant and a fearful master. (O’Toole 2015)
Have you ever watched a controlled fire turn into an uncontrolled “Ring of Fire” as in the song by Johnny Cash? A dangerous servant becomes a fearful master, and the love of power becomes an overpowering addiction. And the very nature of government, whatever its form, feeds that addiction.
Which is true? Is today’s American government a “dangerous servant” or a “fearful master”?
This site is for discussing how to improve our political system. It is NOT for discussing party politics or political figures. So if you have a non-partisan question or comment, feel free to leave it below.
Adams, John. 1780. Letter to Abigail Adams on May 12. Massachusetts Historical Society. https://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/archive/doc?id=L17800512jasecond (Accessed April 22, 2016).
Locke, John. 1690. Second Treatise of Government.
Paine, Thomas. 1776. Common Sense. The Writings of Thomas Paine, Collected and Edited by Moncure Daniel Conway, vol. I.
O’Toole, Garson. 2015. Government Is Like Fire, a Dangerous Servant and a Fearful Master. Quote Investigator. http://quoteinvestigator.com/2015/05/26/fire-servant (Accessed April 22, 2016).