The Purpose and Limits of GovernmentWhen America’s Founders declared the nation’s independence in 1776, they drafted a document that has inspired countless millions around the world ever since. For the Declaration of Independence, reflecting “a decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind,” set forth not only the causes that led us to dissolve our political ties but a moral vision that speaks to the ages. In a few brief lines, penned near the start of our struggle for independence, the Founders distilled their philosophy of government: individual liberty, defined by rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, secured by a government instituted for that purpose with powers grounded in the consent of the governed.Yet around the world today we see governments limiting liberty and trampling rights with impunity, even where government purports to be grounded in consent — even in America. Indeed, it is not for nothing that the 20th century has been called the century of government; it is a century that has given us leviathans the classical theorists could only imagine.1 Thus, the issues America’s Founders addressed in their seminal document are with us still. In fact, given the growing movement at century’s end to limit at last the leviathans in our midst, one could say that today the Founders’ concerns are especially with us.As we revisit those concerns here, therefore, it is particularly important to learn from the experience of the past two hundred years. Clearly, it was the plan of the Founders to limit government, and to a substantial extent they succeeded; for in the grand sweep of things, America has fared rather better than many other nations that sought also, in their own ways, to limit their governments. But we would be remiss, at least, if we concluded from its relative success that the Founders’ plan has worked as it was meant to work; for the most cursory reading of the writings of the day makes it plain that the Founders intended nothing like our present American leviathan. Indeed, many of the grievances the Declaration lists, which led to our revolt, are today the ordinary stuff of government in America. It would surely pain those who pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to see how far we have come from those heady days of liberty.2With the aid of experience, then, this essay will examine the theory behind the Declaration’s universal insights. Its focus will be on the moral order the Declaration sketches and the place of government within that order. The concern throughout will be with that most basic of political ideas — legitimacy. That, of course, was the fundamental concern of the Founders as well, which the Declaration captured in but two elegantly crafted lines: “. . . That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed.” Reason and consent, the two traditional sources of political legitimacy, are there joined for “a candid World’’ to see. It is for us today to see more clearly how they go together to limit government, lending it a measure of legitimacy in the process. Once we do, and once we see what has become of the Founders’ design, as we will briefly at the end of this chapter, we will be in a better position to breathe life back into the principles they so carefully crafted.3http://www.cato.org/pubs/catosletters/cl-13.pdfExcellent essay discussing the purpose and limits of government and how we lost our way. Definitely worth reading. This essay was written in 1999. I am sure that the author is as chagrined as I am that our government has gotten significantly worse since then.
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