Government–What is it Good For?

Governments are capable of more destruction, more injustice, more human suffering than anything else on Earth. The Holocaust, gulags, slavery. All were perpetrated, or allowed to be perpetrated, by governments. Nothing is more threatening to individual freedom than government power. It’s enough to make me want to sing a slightly altered version of the Edwin Starr song and ask, “Government—what is it good for? Absolutely nothing!” (“Say it again, y’all.”)

But one of the basic declarations of belief of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is that, “We believe that governments were instituted of God for the benefit of man” (D&C 134:1). How can anyone accept that when they see Nazis, communist dictators, and the violence that is going on right now in Egypt. How is any of that for the benefit of anyone?

I think that this scripture means is that the idea of government, the ordering of society based on laws, is almost always better than the alternative: anarchy. In a society without laws, might is always right and the only justice is the kind you can exact yourself. Nothing is stable, nothing is secure. Everyone you meet is a potential enemy and it can sometimes become a kill or be killed situation.

Law, or having a way to punish wrongdoers that everyone recognizes, is a superior arrangement. So we know that governments can do wrong. They can overstep their bounds. But where is that line? When has a government crossed into bad territory? The remainder of scripture that I quoted above has the answer. “We believe that no government can exist in peace,” it continues, “except such laws are framed and held inviolate as will secure to each individual the free exercise of conscience, the right and control of property, and the protection of life” (verse 2).

The role of government really boils down to that mandate. When it does anything in violation of these three principles, it gets into bad territory. What is to be done when a government does violate these principles? That is difficult to say. “We believe that all men are bound to sustain and uphold the respective governments in which they reside…and that sedition and rebellion are unbecoming every citizen” (verse 5). However, this comes with a stipulation. It applies to people “while protected in their inherent and inalienable rights by the laws of such governments.”

Is Egypt at a point when their inherent and inalienable rights are not being protected? Is their government not ensuring the free exercise of conscience? The right and control of property? Is it not protecting life?

I’ll be the first to say that I don’t know enough about what has gone on in Egypt to say, but it seems like the regime there has a less than stellar record. So, what will happen when the protests are over, when the dust settles, and Egypt gets new leadership? That, I don’t believe, is for us to say. I believe that all people have a right to govern themselves, meaning that the people of Egypt should decide how they are to be governed.

Will it be better than what they have now? I think it will only be better if the people of Egypt understand what the Founding Fathers of the United States understood:

“If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.” (James Madison, Federalist No. 51)

If people can remember that, government can be good for something. If they don’t, it is sometimes worse than nothing.

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2 Responses to Government–What is it Good For?

  1. Teppo says:

    Interesting thoughts, Mike. I have often wondered about the question of obedience to governments. I have been blessed to live in free countries where I felt a strong obligation to support the established government. On the other hand, had I lived in Finland a century ago, I probably would have joined the movement against the oppression from the government. The tricky part for me is the territory in between. When exactly has a government lost enough of its legitimacy that I should try to support change even by violating the law? Leaving aside the specific situation of Eqypt, what kind of conditions do you think would warrant that?

  2. M. E. Pickett says:

    That is a very tough question. It would be nice to live under a government that protected its citizens rights perfectly. However, I’m sure that such a government has never nor will ever exist on the planet until Christ comes to reign. So, how much oppression, how much tyranny, how much violation of rights is too much? I think that what it comes down to–and it shouldn’t have to come to this–is what you are willing to fight for. Rebelling against your government requires the possible sacrifice of everything. I don’t much about Finland’s history, but in the US, our Founding Fathers, who rebelled against their government, put everything, their fortunes, their freedom, their lives, on the line. They had to accept the possibility that they could lose everything, and that what they could possibly gain through victory was worth it. I have a lot to criticize about our government, but I am far from that point. And I think it is a spiritual matter as well. I believe that it is God’s work to make his children free, and he is the one to know when open rebellion is warranted.

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