We Must Make Government Work

If we are to preserve our democracy and continue living in a civilized society, we must make government work.


Unfortunately, too many Americans no longer believe that government can work. Too many others think government should work for them as individuals rather than as members of society.

As a result, the government today is being used to pursue individual economic self-interests rather than to secure liberty and justice for all.


At the most fundamental level, government is a means of defining the limits or bounds of acceptable social behavior. Individual freedom and liberty can exist only within the bounds of social equity and justice. We begin learning this as children, in kindergarten if not before. We learn that our innate desire to act as we please must be tempered by respect for the desires of others to act as they please. We soon learn that only if we act within the bounds of “acceptable social behavior” will we be allowed to freely interact with others. If we ignore those bounds, our freedom to do so will be diminished or lost.

In the early years of life, the social boundaries within which we are free are largely determined by others, ultimately by the values of the cultures within which we live. Later in life, we are granted the right to participate in defining social boundaries—particularly within families, friendships, and communities of personal acquaintances. Over time, we learn that we have a great deal of freedom in setting or selecting our own personal boundaries of behavior, as long as we respect the legal boundaries that have been set by the larger society through the processes of governance.


Government is simply the means by which we collectively, as a civil society, set the bounds of socially acceptable behavior within which the governed are free to express their individual freedom and liberty. The means of setting and enforcing these legal bounds or laws are necessarily impersonal because human relationships beyond the realm of family, friends, and acquaintances are inherently impersonal. However, the principles of impersonal governance of cities, states, and nations are basically the same as the principles of maintaining standards for acceptable personal relationships.


Even if government is seen as a necessary evil, it is nonetheless necessary.  As Thomas Paine wrote during the times of the American Revolution, “Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices.”  He concludes, that government is “rendered necessary by the inability of moral virtue to govern the world.”[i]  Apparently, we mortal beings lack the individual moral virtue needed to ensure the freedom and liberty of others without using some form of government to interpret and enforce social standards of acceptable behavior.

The basic purpose of government is clearly stated 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.” The fundamental purpose of government clearly is to secure the basic human rights of all, including to define the boundaries of social justice within which individual freedom and liberty can be secured.


The specific purpose of the United States government was clearly articulated in the preamble to the U.S. Constitution.  “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America”.[ii] To “establish Justice,” and to “secure the Blessings of Liberty” are prominent among the constitutional purposes of forming the U.S. government. The government also allows us to do many things collectively that we cannot logically do individually—such as building roads and schools and buying tanks and warships. Nowhere does the Constitution mention a commitment to ensuring economic growth or full employment, unless doing so promotes the “general welfare”—not simply increases individual incomes or wealth.

The “founding fathers” of the United States clearly understood that the unrestrained pursuit of individual self-interests, including economic self-interests, is simply not consistent with our collective responsibility to secure liberty and justice for all. They understood also that individual liberty and freedom are absolutely essential in establishing and maintaining an equitable and just society. Social justice and individual freedoms were understood as being mutually supportive rather than competitive. At some time during our history, we Americans seem to have lost our collective sense of the fundamental principles and purpose of government.

Contrary to the beliefs of many on the political Right, a government that ensures the basic human rights of all is not socialism or communism. For example, in order to secure our right to “life,” I believe we must be granted rights to a healthful environment, wholesome and nutritious food, a general education, and basic medical or health care. This doesn’t mean everyone has a right to the pristine environment that may be available to some. This doesn’t mean that everyone has a right to gourmet foods, a four-year college degree, or the most sophisticated and costly medical treatments available. It simply means that everyone has a right to the essentials for a life of dignity that reflects his or her inherent worth.


Contrary to the beliefs of many on the political Left, it is neither unjust nor undemocratic for some people to live in cleaner environments than others, to eat better food than others, to be better educated than others, or to have access to better health care than others, as long as others are not deprived of their basic environmental, nutritional, educational, and curative rights.  It is not unjust or undemocratic for some to have higher incomes or greater wealth than others, as long as the basic “economic rights” of all are secured—meaning rights that can be secured by economic means. Ensuring basic human rights simply means ensuring the ability of all to live, work, and fully engage in society, including participation in the economy and the processes of governance.


The failure of governments to secure the human basic rights of all inevitably leads to the concentration of income and wealth among the few. Economic power is rarely acquired or accumulated by those committed to ensuring the rights of others, and economic power leads to political power. Government becomes a means of promoting economic growth rather than a protector of liberty and justice. Concentration of wealth leads to concentration of economic opportunity among the few at the expense of the many. A diminished ability to participate in the economy leads to a diminished capacity to influence the processes of governance. The ultimate result is unbridled “economic freedom” for a few with neither liberty nor justice for the many. Unfortunately, I believe this is the state of governance in the U.S. today.


This certainly is not the first time in the U.S. has fallen short of its early ideals. In 1863, President Lincoln found it necessary to reaffirm a commitment to liberty and justice for all: “Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” Following the Civil War, the consent of governed eventually was restored, the government regained its just power to govern, and our nation endured.


Once again, we are challenged by a conflict between using the government to protect the economic interest of a few and its constitutional responsibility to secure liberty and justice for all. Once again—if we are to restore the civility of our society and the integrity of our democracy, if our nation is to long endure—we must make government work.


John Ikerd


[i] Thomas Paine. 1776. Common Sense. 1997 edition, Dover Publications, Inc. Mineola, NY. http://www.let.rug.nl/usa/documents/1776-1785/thomas-paine-common-sense/ .

[ii] Many Historical U.S. documents can be found at http://www.ushistory.org/documents/ .