On the Necessity of Government

by Derrick G. Jeter

H. L. Mencken was a gadfly. His cynical and sharp criticisms of everything from Christianity to the Constitution caused heartburn in many a citizen. He was, to put it mildly, a curmudgeon. Here’s a taste of his cynicism, regarding government—perhaps you’ll savor the flavor.
The English long ago discovered that all government is evil, and that the best way to endure it is to treat it as a suspicious character, watching it at every step. In the United States this scrutiny is less constant, and as a result the American government is more daring and presumptuous. [1]
Perhaps just as cynical, but with a lot more humor, is Ronald Reagan’s observation that “Government is like a baby—an alimentary canal with a big appetite at one end and no sense of responsibility at the other.”
It’s a favorite past time to sit around and make fun of our government, but we should remember that in our system—a constitutional republic—“We the People” are the government. The problem comes when “We the People” become disenfranchised from the decisions made in our cities, our states, and our nation. Which begs the questions: how can a government for the people truly be for the people if it is not of and by the people?
Because many are disenfranchised they readily agree with Mencken—government is evil. And some go so far as to adopt Henry David Thoreaus’s philosophy of government—wondering if it is even necessary.
I heartily accept the motto, “That government is best which governs least”; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe—“That government is best which governs not at all.” [2]
Thoreau would suppose that total freedom comes without government. I disagree. Liberty without limits is not liberty, it’s anarchy. Liberty with too many limits is not liberty, it’s tyranny. The challenge is finding the right balance between these two extremes, to place proper limits on liberty so we might be truly free.
This is reason enough to conclude that government is necessary.
[1] H. L. Mencken, Minority Report: H. L. Mencken’s Notebooks, no. 42 (New York: Knopf, 1956), 32.
[2] Henry David Thoreau, “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience.”