The Purpose of Government

If we define the nature of the state as “force,” and acknowledge that it is something that can be co-opted by those who want to abuse power and turn it against us, we should ask “why would we want it to exist at all?” We need to define its purpose.

Prior to defining its purpose however, I want to define the term “government.” I would define government as “the legitimate use of the power of the state to enforce the rule of law”

I define it this way to make it distinct from “the state.” Anyone who amasses human power for themselves and rules over other humans is “the state.” I would not call this “government” though as this type of rule is actually the rule of man. But what is the difference between the rule of man and the rule of law?

Rule of law refers to a society in which people have to answer only to the law and not to the edicts or orders issued by humans. A society in which people have to respond to edicts and orders issued by humans is what is called “the rule of man.” The difference is whether the rules for society are written down and apply to everyone equally (even those in “power”), or whether they are the whim of those in power.

We should now ask the question “what is the law?” I think there is one book that defines the purpose of government better than any other and that is “The Law” by Frederic Bastiat. This passage from the opening section sums it up very well:

“What, then, is law? It is the collective organization of the individual right to lawful defense.

Each of us has a natural right — from God — to defend his person, his liberty, and his property. These are the three basic requirements of life, and the preservation of any one of them is completely dependent upon the preservation of the other two. For what are our faculties but the extension of our individuality? And what is property but an extension of our faculties? If every person has the right to defend even by force — his person, his liberty, and his property, then it follows that a group of men have the right to organize and support a common force to protect these rights constantly. Thus the principle of collective right — its reason for existing, its lawfulness — is based on individual right. And the common force that protects this collective right cannot logically have any other purpose or any other mission than that for which it acts as a substitute. Thus, since an individual cannot lawfully use force against the person, liberty, or property of another individual, then the common force — for the same reason — cannot lawfully be used to destroy the person, liberty, or property of individuals or groups.

Such a perversion of force would be, in both cases, contrary to our premise. Force has been given to us to defend our own individual rights. Who will dare to say that force has been given to us to destroy the equal rights of our brothers? Since no individual acting separately can lawfully use force to destroy the rights of others, does it not logically follow that the same principle also applies to the common force that is nothing more than the organized combination of the individual forces?
If this is true, then nothing can be more evident than this: The law is the organization of the natural right of lawful defense. It is the substitution of a common force for individual forces. And this common force is to do only what the individual forces have a natural and lawful right to do: to protect persons, liberties, and properties; to maintain the right of each, and to cause justice to reign over us all.”
What Bastiat is saying is that the only true purpose for the law is to protect individual liberty (and property).
Therefore if government exists to enforce the rule of law, it’s purpose, and it’s ONLY purpose is to protect individual liberty.
But why must that be its only purpose?
The reason this must be the only purpose is because inevitably, in order to advance their own property, power, or ambition, people will use their existing wealth to rent the force of government to achieve their own ends. (I will discuss this in more detail in a later post.)

By limiting it’s purpose we ensure that all humans are equal under the law, and that no one human or group of humans can use the law to abuse or take advantage of others.

This further means that anytime government uses force to do anything contrary to protecting liberty, it is acting in contradiction to its purpose, and is therefore illegitimate.

Understanding the legitimate purpose of government is a huge first step in the journey towards building more quality human connections. Personally, I feel like I can have a much more transparent relationship with people who don’t want to force me to do things I don’t want to do, or prevent me by force from doing things I do want to do.

Next topic (I hope): Authority

State vs Society

I think the first thing I want to talk about is the difference between the state and society. Folks get these two things confused and I think that is a major problem and prevents so much meaningful conversation.

The nature of the state, is very simply, force. You can also call it power, or coercion. That is ALL the state is. Some people will say this view is too simplistic, but I fail to see how. In his article “Anatomy of the State,” Murray Rothbard defines the state as:

‘that organization in society which attempts to maintain a monopoly of the use of force and violence in a given territorial area; in particular, it is the only organization in society that obtains its revenue not by voluntary contribution or payment for services rendered but by coercion” (p. 57)’

For any manifestation of the state that I can see in history, this is a true statement. The state has either existed as humans using coercion to enforce the rule of man, or the rule of law. But it is still, simply, force.

I would define society as human beings living in relationship with other humans in a voluntary manner. It is the sphere of life where we exist free from coercion. Where we have freedom of choice and freedom of association. It is the place for voluntary interaction between humans.

This distinction between state and society is incredibly important, because in order to remain free from coercion (which is something that I hope every reasonable person would agree is a good thing), we need to know which activities are the responsibility of the state and which ones are the responsibility of society. I will explain what activities are legitimate for the state in my next post but I want to highlight WHY we need to understand this. The reason is this: power attracts abusers of power. Any cursory examination of history reveals this. We have countless examples of humans using the power of the state to do horrific things to other humans.

This understanding is ESPECIALLY important for Jesus followers because the body of Christ should NEVER use coercion to spread the gospel or advance His kingdom. Jesus Himself explains this:

‘Jesus called them over and said, “You know that the ones who are considered the rulers by the Gentiles show off their authority over them and their high-ranking officials order them around. But that’s not the way it will be with you. Whoever wants to be great among you will be your servant.’
Mark 10:42‭-‬43 CEB

Jesus introduced an upside down kingdom where true power is displayed in humility and servanthood. Not once in scripture does Jesus advocate the use of force to his disciples. Even when they were about to arrest Jesus he admonished his disciples:

‘Then Jesus said to him, “Put the sword back into its place. All those who use the sword will die by the sword.’
Matthew 26:52 CEB

If Jesus calls us to humility and servanthood, why then, are so many people who profess to be Christ followers obsessed with who wields the power of the state? Did Jesus say we should place our trust in the power of human force? No! He said we should trust in Him! I see that huge swaths of people who claim to have trust in Jesus give in to fear to the point where they put their trust more in the power of the state than they put their faith in the power of God. This saddens me. I hope a thoughtful discourse on this will be helpful for all of us.

I want to leave this post with a final thought. When you align yourself with a political tribe, what you are actually saying is “I’m a member of red/blue team because I want to use the power of the state to force people to do A, B, and C, and prevent by force people from doing X, Y and Z.” That’s what you are identifying yourself with. If you are first and foremost a follower of Jesus, do you think this is how He wants you to accomplish His will? I think the Gospels are very clear that He doesn’t. The body of Christ should ONLY operate within the sphere of society. Not that of the state.

Next topic: the purpose of government.