What is the goal of government?
What is the proper end of government?
It is a deceptively simple question. For most Americans, the answer probably resonates with the broad goals outlined in the preamble of the Constitution- establishing justice, promoting the general welfare, securing the blessings of liberty. Political theoreticians would largely agree, though in more formal language, perhaps citing Aristotle’s analogy that a city is simply a partnership, and all partnerships aim at some good.
These, however, are abstractions of abstractions. They are definitions rooted in broad, imprecise concepts; the nebulous language in which they spoken of only compounds their vagueness rather than clarifying it. They do not answer the questions: the good according to whom? applied to whom?
Given that these concepts are the foundation upon which law is based and create the framework in which proper legislation is drafted, this is extremely problematic.
Government must have telos, or an end. This end is a broad idealized concept, a lofty and seemingly unattainable goal which is achieved incrementally, through the actions of government. Only when legislative and administrative actions indefatigably pursue this end can it be actualized.
Yet, as all the knowledgeable minds which have commented on the nature of the state across the ages have observed, government is a choice between imperfections. No matter how noble its telos, absolutes do not enact themselves; it is men, hopefully channeling their conception of grand ideals, who move government.
The language of men is too frequently articulated through compromise. Legislators believe that the good is not in the abstract end which undergirds the framework of society but is in what government can provide for men. And, since government is not a producer, it must pick and choose what it provides and to whom.
This perversion of government’s end is not seen as an error, but as a sad necessity. As James Madison, explaining away the objections of Anti-Federalists to the enervated power of the legislature under the Constitution, wrote in Federalist 41:
“the choice must always be made, if not of the lesser evil, at least of the GREATER, not the PERFECT, good; and that in every political institution, a power to advance the public happiness involves a discretion which may be misapplied and abused. They will see, therefore, that in all cases where power is to be conferred, the point first to be decided is whether such a power be necessary to the public good; as the next will be, in case of an affirmative decision, to guard as effectually as possible against a perversion of the power to the public detriment.”
Again, the problem of who defines the public good emerges. Madison himself dismisses the notion that all citizens can be served in a single act, suggesting government should not even aim at its own telos, but settle for doing the least harm to the citizens whose rights it has sworn to protect.
This is not only illogical but alarming in that it implicitly suggests the parts of the polity are greater than its whole. Government’s goal is refocused. The absolute is abandoned as unattainable and instead the good of those whom can be served is substituted, suggesting there is more nobility in settling for providing for the needs of a chosen few than in striving to protect the rights of all. At best, this grounds government’s ends in relativistic ideas about what is essential to the polity’s life and define what they must possess in order to achieve it.
At worst, this makes impossible the ends of limited government. Liberty cannot be secured because it has been connected with an absolute that government cannot achieve and, wishing to appear functional, abandons, instead investing men with the power to discern what goals best serve an abrogated notion of good for the greatest number the state can serve. Political efficacy becomes the most noble of concepts. Government, given life by the men who populate its orgarns, wishes to be popular. It therefore dismisses the quixoticism of the idealism on which it was founded and instead promotes the practicality of serving citizens in order to win their approval.
But this system of efficacy is fundamentally one of graft. It does not really respect the individuals whose favor it curries; its interesting is in buying their approval by securing goods, which it speaks of in terms of rights. There is no regard for protecting abstract rights, which ought to be the real end of government, as there is nothing to be gained from them. Rights are removed from the abstract and defined in the vernacular, in terms of usable practicality.
But what can be given can also be taken away. And since government’s primary motive is to serve the good of the majority, its loyalty can shift in response to crises of need that rise and fall within the polity. There is no abiding respect for the rights of people which encourages government to deal cautiously with men, but base prostitution of the state trading its goods to curry the favor of a majority.
Thus, the end of government, when abstracts are dismissed, becomes not the good of the whole, but its own good.
Originally published at The Politics of Discretion.