“Government … is force, like fire a dangerous servant.” Tradition has it that George Washington said this, though no one has found a document written by him containing this quote. Regardless, it is important to recognize government is force, one that can serve you or burn you.
In his Second Treatise on Government (1690), John Locke describes a “state of nature” with no government. Locke contended a “state of war” will tend to exist in this state of nature, where people exert the forces they can wield upon others, but “there is no common superior… to appeal to for relief.” “The want of such an appeal,” Locke said, “gives a man the right of war.” That is, absent government, you have a natural right to use the force you can wield to defend yourself. Of course, a state of war is messy, destructive, and often bloody. Locke rationalized government force because it can serve us. Good government is “an authority… from which relief can be had by appeal, [so]…the state of war is excluded and the controversy is decided by that power.”
In his book The Law (1850), 19th century French economist and politician Fredric Bastiat described the law as “the organization of the natural right of lawful defense.” The law, he said, “is the substitution of a common force for individual forces.” Similarly, John Locke defines “political power” as the “right of making laws” and the right “of employing the force of the community” to execute and enforce the laws. By helping us avoid Locke’s state of war, government moves use from an uncivilized to a civilized society. In uncivilized societies, the ability to wield force determines the outcome of a controversy, so “he who carries the biggest stick wins.” In civilized societies, the law determines the outcome of a controversy. The collective force of government enforces the law, so “he who best aligns with the law wins.”
Government is a dangerous servant because government can abuse its power. Injustice occurs when people abuse their powers. Government establishes justice discouraging people from abusing their powers. But, what keeps government from abusing its power? The belief that there are limits to the legitimate powers of government is the foundation of constitutional governance. Constitutional governance involves using government powers identified as legitimate while not using powers identified as illegitimate.
This begs the question, “What separates legitimate government power from illegitimate?” Bastiat claimed that because “the law is force,” it follows that “the proper functions of the law cannot lawfully extend beyond the proper functions of force.” Bastiat argued that the “common force” wielded by government should “do only what the individual forces have a natural and lawful right to do: to protect persons, liberties, and properties; to maintain the right of each, and to cause justice to reign over us all.”
John Locke similarly contended governments should make laws for the “regulating and preserving of property.” Locke also specifically mentioned government acting “in the defence of the commonwealth from foreign injury.” However, Locke seemed to open the door for much more government action when he state government should act “only for the public good.” Opinions might vary greatly about what constitutes public good.
Bastiat focused intensely on the possibility that may burn us with its power. “The law has placed the collective force at the disposal of the unscrupulous who wish, without risk,” Bastiat said, “to exploit the person, liberty, and property of others.” Bastiat contended that the basic role of government is to prevent plunder, but he believed government would tend to overstep and become a plunderer.
Locked identified usurpation and tyranny as ways government can burn us. Usurpation, Locke said, “is the exercise of power which another hath a right to” exercise. A higher-level government may exercise a power rightly belonging to a lower level government, for example, or government might exercise a power rightly belonging to a business, a family, or an individual. Tyranny, Locke said, is the exercise of power beyond right, which nobody can have a right to” exercise. The taking of life, liberty, or property without a compelling government interest would seem to fit the definition of tyranny. Voltaire defined a tyrant as a sovereign “who knows no laws but his caprice.”
James Madison well described the challenge of governance in his famous quote: “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 the next place, oblige it to control itself.” The U.S. Constitution is a social contract that seeks to empower government enough that it can serve, while at the same time providing checks and balances that keep government from burning us.