Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Purpose of Government

In his inaugural address President Kennedy famously said, "Ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country." It was inspirational and expressed an important concept about giving back to society. However, in a political environment that tends to question the efficacy of government writ large and to deride "insiders" and "bureaucrats", I think it is also important to remember what your country can do for you.

What is the purpose of government? It is to allow us to act collectively in ways that we are incapable of acting individually. This is what President Lincoln wrote on the subject so many years ago, and it is still relevant today:
The legitimate object of government, is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves - in their separate, and individual capacities.

In all that the people can individually do as well for themselves, government ought not to interfere.

The desirable things which the individuals of a people can not do, or can not well do, for themselves, fall into two classes: those which have relation to wrongs, and those which have not. Each of these branch off into an infinite variety of subdivisions.

The first - that in relation to wrongs - embraces all crimes, misdemeanors, and nonperformance of contracts. The other embraces all which, in its nature, and without wrong, requires combined action, as public roads and highways, public schools, charities, pauperism, orphanage, estates of the deceased, and the machinery of government itself.

From this it appears that if all men were just, there still would be some, though not so much, need for government.

~ Abraham Lincoln

Of course, in this highly imperfect world, there are only too many ways in which government is needed to help us collectively reach towards our potential.

1 comment:

Aliza said...

yeah, that quote is reminiscent of what I have heard Deval Patrick quote from Barney Frank twice, which is a bit cliche, but somewhat accurate: "Government is the name for the things we choose to do together."