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What is the purpose of government?

by Jeff Lewis on April 17, 2011

Thomas Jefferson

When governments fear the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny. - Thomas Jefferson

What is the purpose of government? Where does our freedom come from? Who gives us our rights?

There is a battle going on in America about these and other questions. It can get confusing especially if you rely on the politicians for guidance. The only way to tell the truth from the lies is to have a “true north.” For Americans, that means at least a basic understanding of our founding documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

You don’t need to be a constitutional lawyer. You just need the basics, so you too are able to confidently yell at your TV screen when you hear someone from the beltway saying something you know is a lie. So here are the basics:

  1. Our founders knew that the natural course of governments is to grow in size and power. No matter the intentions, as the size and power of the government grows, the rights of the governed are weakened and eventually it becomes tyranny. The objective was to prevent that from happening here.
  2. They believed certain truths to be self-evident. Meaning clearly understood by all. Among those truths are that all men are created equal and that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights. That means our rights come from God, not man. Unalienable means these rights cannot be taken from us by governments.
  3. These unalienable rights include life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But, what does that mean and is there a reason for the order in which they were stated?

Our founders understood that in order to be a great nation the federal government must do a few things really well and leave the rest to the states and the individual. That’s where we get to the words in the Declaration of Independence, Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

When governments fear the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny.
Thomas Jefferson

They had very good reasons for the order in which they were written, most important first. What exactly did they mean when they wrote those words? Here is a basic explanation:

  • Protect the life of its citizens. This is the first responsibility of our federal government. Only with life can we pursue our other rights
    • For this we need a strong military in order to deter foreign aggression and defend us when we are attacked.
    • We need to protect and defend our borders from those who want to harm us as well as those who want to take advantage of us. We also need a federal police force to protect us from our enemies within.
    • Protect our liberty.
      • Thomas Jefferson defined liberty best when he wrote, “Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else; hence the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits except those which assure to the other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights. These limits can only be determined by law.” In other words; you have the right to do what you want as long as you do not interfere with the rights of others.
      • Protect our right to pursue happiness however we choose, so long as we don’t violate the life, liberty or pursuit of happiness of others in so doing. This is the one many seem to misunderstand. Pursuit of happiness in this context is not a state of mind. It is the idea that no matter what a person’s passion is in life, whether it is a doctor, lawyer, businessperson, farmer, housewife or laborer, each of us should have the liberty to choose our own paths based on our individual talents and desires. It does not mean that everyone will end up equal. It means only that everyone should be able to pursue their dreams and to go as far as their intellect and efforts will take them.

The important points to take from this are:

  • Our rights come from God, not governments
  • Government’s primary job to help us protect those rights
  • Government has no other job.

That government is best that governs least - Henry David Thoreau

that government is best which governs least.”

As written by Henry David Thoreau, It simply means the people are the driving force in society, not the government. The best government is that which does only what it is authorized to do, and then gets out of the way. This means we, the people have the power to do what we want, and that power has made this the most productive, powerful country in the history of the world.

Politicians want you to confuse rights with privileges. They want to convince you that healthcare if a natural right, that a job is a right, that an unemployment check is a right. The Unions even want you to believe collective bargaining is a right. I have heard on more than one occasion comparing collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin with the civil rights movement in the 1960’s.

Please don’t be fooled. Jobs, great union benefits and health care are all great things to have, but they’re not rights, they’re privileges. They are all things which can be taken from you just as easily as they were once given to you.

So, just remember, your rights come from God. Your government’s job is to protect those rights, and your job is to make sure the government doesn’t promise you anything it has no power to give you. If we can all do those things, we’ll be in fine shape.

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