The Purpose of Government

Can we Americans find some way to come together to fulfill the Utopian promise of our pledge of allegiance to our flag and become “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all?” A fundamental question confronting people in the United States is whether a people with the wide diversity of values and opinions as exists in the U.S. today will consent to be governed by the same government.


In early 2019, Californians are scheduled to go to the polls to decide whether their state should exit the Union – “a #Calexit vote.”[3] The upcoming referendum, a response to the election of Donald Trump, is not the first time California has threatened to leave the Union. Texas has been exploring ways to regain its independence for decades. Encouraged by the “Brexit” vote in Great Britain, a “Texit” movement was moving toward an exit referendum, contingent on Hillary Clinton being elected.[4]


A less-serious proposal has been made to divide the United State into two politically different unions: one of “blue states” and the other of “red states.”[5] Colin Woodard, a respected reporter and author, says red and blue divisions are too simplistic. He suggests whole of North America could be broken into “11 separate nation-states, where dominant cultures explain our voting behaviors and attitudes toward everything from social issues to the role of government.”[6] Regardless of whether any of these initiatives actually threaten the Union, they still reflect a wide and deepening political division within the U.S.


The separatist movement certainly is not limited to North America. The Soviet Union was broken up by internal dissent among its member nations in 1991. An independence movement among Europe democracies has been reenergized by the Brexit vote. Scotland and Ireland may now leave the United Kingdom to regain greater independence as full members of the European Union. With other member states threatening to leave the European Union, the future of the EU itself is at risk. Serious questions are being raised concerning whether the historical era of “unions” has run its course.


I believe the answer to that question hinges on an understanding of the fundamental purpose of government, which is clearly expressed in the American Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” (italics added). The founders of the United States clearly stated that the purpose of the government, as least the U.S. government, is to secure the unalienable, God-given, rights of the people.


A fundamental challenge for any government is to maintain a consensus regarding a set of fundamental rights that are to be secured for all. Questions of rights in the U.S. tend to focus on the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution – the Bill of Rights. However, Amendment 9 states: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people” (emphasis added). So the framers of the U.S. Constitution obviously did not intend that the rights to be secured by the government would be limited to those included in the Bill of Rights or elsewhere in the Constitution.


The Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution after ratification, as a precondition for ratification by some of the states. The purpose of the Bill of Rights was to ensure that the government itself did not deprive the people of certain rights that it was instead obligated to secure. Thus, as the 9th Amendment confirms, there was no attempt to include all of the people’s rights in the Bill of Rights or in any other part of the Constitution. The most obvious intentional omissions from the Constitution were the rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” which were clearly expressed in the Declaration of Independence. These rights were, and still are, God-given, unalienable, and self-evident. Amendment 9 also makes clear that such rights were to be retained by the people -- to enforce as they see fit, including through government.



I am not a legal scholar, but it appears that the U.S. Supreme Court has attempted to address virtually all contentious questions involving rights by referring to those rights specifically enumerated in the Constitution, including its Amendments. This practice has been followed in Court decisions concerning issues such as abortion, gun control, public prayer, health care, corporate personhood, economic welfare, and environmental protection. Such decisions have left lingering, bitter disagreements among members of the Courts as well as among the American people. How can we expect to reach a public consensus when there is no legal consensus on the Supreme Court? Such issues are all basic questions of the people’s rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I’m not suggesting that consensus on such issues will be quick or easy. However, consensus may be far easier if we frame such questions in terms of common sense, God-given, unalienable rights rather than previous Supreme Court decisions.


The political bottom line: If we cannot reach a consensus regarding the unalienable rights of people in the United States, the U.S. government has no fundamental purpose and thus has no compelling reason to exist. Furthermore, if it continues to exist, lacking a consensus, it has no “just power” to govern. I fear we are drifting toward this unfortunate situation in the U.S. today. In his classic book, Republic, Plato wrote that democracies naturally become dysfunctional and evolve into “tyrannies.” The people become frustrated and turn to a tyrant who promises simple solutions to their problems. I am not suggesting that Donald Trump is a tyrant, although he might turn out to be one, but the U.S. obviously has become a frustrated democracy.


I believe the key to the ultimate success of the great American experiment in democracy is to return to our foundational principles: The fundamental purpose of government is to secure the God-given, unalienable, common-sense rights of the people. If we can agree on, or at least consent to, a common set of fundamental rights that are to be secured equally for all, we will be free to remain very different in many other respects. We can remain one nation as long as we have a common commitment to securing a common set of fundamental rights. We could have very different state and local laws, as long as those laws do not compromise the integrity of a set of unalienable rights that are to be ensured for all people in the nation. We could have a much smaller federal government, and much greater political liberty and responsibility at state and local levels. We could remain a very diverse collection of people but remain true to the promise of “one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.”

John Ikerd