Public Square

Asking Tough Questions about the Provision and Purpose of Government

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If you ask people today if they value freedom, they will invariably tell you they do. I sometimes wonder if this is true, depending on their preferred government policy proposals. I am often surprised at how little people think about the nature of government and the problems that have arisen in society as its power and scope of operation have increased over the past hundred years or so. Can the government actually be the provider people look to it to be?

Who Is to Provide for the Government?

President Grover Cleveland was once asked why he continually vetoed the progressive legislation of his era. He rejected bill after bill that came before his desk. Each one promised to provide some thing for the American public from the government’s treasury. In response to the question, Cleveland asked,”If the government is to provide for the people, who is to provide for the government?”

President Cleveland understood a fundamental truth that has been lost on the American public. In short, government does not produce anything. Government cannot provide anything for anyone that it does not first take from someone else. Our government is a dependent entity. It cannot exist apart from the tax revenues it takes in.

Thus, it is unwise to believe that government programs can provide for our economic sustenance. After all, is it possible for the government to take money and property away from the people who produced it, then spend and distribute it in various ways along political lines, and have economic prosperity as a result? Most of what flows into Washington stays there and is siphoned off by bureaucracy. The rest is distributed as political favors to a select few at the expense of the many.

What Is the Purpose of Government?

What then is the purpose of government? The Apostle Paul captured its purpose best when he wrote that the God-given aim of government is to punish wrongdoers.

We live in a fallen world. As individuals we are simply not the people that we ought to be. We all have desires. Some are good and some are bad. Also, we all desire to achieve our ends with as little effort as possible. Thus the temptation to avoid work altogether and simply take what we want from others by force or fraud. As some people drift further and further into immoral behavior they are more and more willing to use force and violence against others to achieve their own ends.

The result of such action produces chaos and discord in society. Such behavior disturbs the peace. Therefore, governments are established in order to secure the peace so that those wishing to live peaceably with their neighbors may do so. That is, governments are established to use force for the purpose of legitimate self-defense.

Herein lies a problem. What if those wishing to use violence against others to gain their own advantage are able to seize the reins of government and direct its power to promoting their selfish ends? Instead of pursuing its true purpose in society, the government may actually be used as an instrument of destruction.

Specifically, such immoral people may well be inspired to use governmental means to destroy the freedom and liberty of their neighbors, to steal the fruits of their labor, and to create chaos in society for their own momentary pleasures. To test whether or not this is taking place in a nation is a simple task. Simply ask yourself whether or not the use of government force being applied would be justified if taken by an individual? If the answer is no, you can rest assured that the action is an illegitimate and immoral act for government as well.

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  • Excellent! I would add that the theologians of the University of Salamanca in the 16th century determined that the purpose of government is to protect life, liberty and property from abuse by others. If the state collected taxes beyond what it needed to perform it’s role it was committing theft.

  • Timo Stehmann

    I stumbled across this post. Thank you! In my humble opinion, government is completely misunderstand in our modern world or nobody asks the right questions. I live in South Africa where the government plays the role of redistributing wealth to right the wrongs of the past. This is a complicated topic. In essence taxes are used as a kind of repayment to combat inequality. Economists agree, that this is not sustainable, because it places a large toll on the economy and those who pay taxes don’t get back any value. The idea is to use taxes to provide services to improve the lives of the poor. Taken by face value this seems like a good idea, but in the end politics wins and the intentions are not at all as pure as generally advertised.

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