The most cited definition for the purpose of government comes from the Preamble to the US Constitution. It's wonderfully brief and worth quoting here:
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.
Simple, straightforward, and to the point. Problems arise however from the lack of definition and competing claims from two of these terms. The prescriptions for government to 1) promote the general welfare, and 2) secure the blessings of liberty, are very vague and often lead to conflicting viewpoints. The interpretation of these two terms or the precedence of one over the other, are some of the most fundamental causes of disagreement between our political parties. In a charitable version of the views expressed in this current election, the Romney-Ryan republicans are emphasizing #2 and the Obama-Biden democrats are prioritizing their view of #1. Our definition of the purpose of government is lacking and we as a country are struggling to come to agreement because of that. Could we do better if we tried to write a new preamble today based on 200 more years of extremely active science and discovery? I believe we could.
Historically, government grew out of organizations of powerful leaders oppressing their people. Think of tribes being held in check by a local chieftain and his burly sons. Think of city-states and their ruling classes with slaves held fast by indentured armies. Later, leaders figured out they could hold more territory by offering to protect people (the first government service) in return for taxes and trade monopolies to pay for this defense. Think of the Roman and Mongolian Empires allowing for some local autonomy in return for tribute. With the issuance of the Magna Carta in 1215, we saw an even bigger capitulation to the will of the people. We saw government recognize the rights of freemen (non-serfs) for the first time and the application of the rule of law to kings. This was a titanic event! A slow addition of rights (or a slow erosion of power) came over the next several hundred years. Habeas Corpus - the right to examine one's detention as lawful or not - crawled into existence for 300 years until it was first passed as a law of the land in 1679. The English Bill of Rights was enacted in 1689. The kingless democracy in the US Constitution was adopted in 1789, and its first ten amendments - the US Bill of Rights - was ratified in 1791. Slavery and serfdom were abolished all over Europe and the United States in the mid-1800's. Women's suffrage became a reality in the beginning of the 20th century. In the 21st century we are discussing rights for homosexuals.
So what exactly do we see in this progression of history? One way to interpret this quick overview of events is that we see a steady increase in the inclusion of who and what is protected by government. As government has become an institution of the people, by the people, for the people, its leaders ended up recognizing the benefit of including all of the people in its purview. In order to avoid disruptive unrest or catastrophic revolution from some elements of the population, government has adapted and survived by learning to create a society where all members can contribute to the competitiveness of the country. Using terminology from game theory and evolutionary philosophy, government has gained proficiency where it has learned to recognize the benefits of cooperation over competition. Ideally, all citizens under a government would recognize the evolutionary truths that we are in this together and that our species (as is true for all species) does better when we cooperate with one another rather than compete with each other or try to exploit one another.
Don't get me wrong, competition has its place as a spur for innovation and progress, but it must have some limits. Like beasts refusing to fight to the death over reproductive access, we must also place limits on our competitions in order to ensure our continued cooperation over the long term. We, however, can extend these limits much further back and in a more sophisticated manner using the design of our governments. And we also know from studies of teams, management, motivation, and positive psychology that our contributions and cooperation are highest when we are not governed by oppressive dictators or stultifying hierarchies.
Does any of this mean that if we could only achieve perfect cooperative harmony then we could do away with government? No! For one thing, we will never do away with the evolutionary history we have inherited, which leaves us vulnerable to strong urges to compete. For that alone, government will always be required to take care of the protection from and punishment of cheaters. However, we also know through the study of economics and its definitions of terms like public goods, private goods, natural monopolies, tragedies of commons, externalities, perfect competition,and information asymmetry, that even if every individual was committed to cooperating with their fellow citizens, there would still be things that we need centralized and collective action to address. We know that the invisible hands of the market will lead to market failures if they are left to act on their own. This essentially is the modern reason we have government - to efficiently do for the group what we cannot do acting alone. This is government's purpose and how we the people should design our governments. In one sentence - a vision statement if you will - I said in Draining the Swamp that:
Government is created to regulate the markets for all goods and services in order to ensure the fundamental evolutionary principles of cooperation and competition are acting for the maximum benefit of all life.
In the book, I go a little further into some of the implications this has, but basically the government must be concerned with markets for things like national defense, utilities, natural resources, education, and consumer goods, and the government must be able to price in externalities, protect consumers, guard commons, and stop abuses from monopolies. That sounds a lot like what the government already does, and rightly so because our societies have been evolving for thousands of years and adjusting our governments to work better for ourselves. However, without recognizing the fundamental reasons why our governments do the things they do, we continue to argue over what should already be moot points and we risk erasing the wrong things we have built or preserving the wasteful institutions that have been tested in the effort to "promote the general welfare" or "secure the blessings of liberty."
Once we come to a more modern understanding of what our government is for our political discussions will surely become more fruitful. There will still be arguments over how to properly balance cooperation and competition, or what will benefit life in the long term, but we will understand more clearly what it is we are arguing about and perhaps learn to compromise in the face of uncertainty with smaller trial and error experiments open to later interpretation rather than issue grand dogmatic proclamations that purport to know an unknowable truth. At least, that is what I hope for.
In the next post, I'll examine how our political parties are doing - whether they realize it or not - in regards to this new understanding of the purpose of government. Even if we can't get everyone to accept this view of government, we can learn to vote to nudge it toward a design that would reflect this outcome.