Thursday, February 18, 2010

Important Distinction

In ordinary life, we tend to be sloppy with our ideas and words. This sloppiness may arise from being in hurry. In any case, we slow down, and sort out our words more carefully, when we rise above everyday life and deal in the realm of philosophy and scholarship. Locke reminds us of this when he writes that people who

will with any clearness speak of the dissolution of government, ought in the first place to distinguish between the dissolution of the society and the dissolution of the government.


Locke was interested in the right of the people to dissolve a government, but certainly not to dissolve society. We have a strong interest in our right to dissolve a government: we want to ensure that we have justice, and that our rights are not violated. We have a strong interest in maintaining our society, and seeing that it is not dissolved: because our society is based on principles of Western Civilization and European Culture, the dissolution of our society would yield injustice and the violation of rights.

Only a few decades after Locke wrote the above, Thomas Paine, participating in the formation of a new form of government in America, expressed a similar thought:

Some writers have so confounded society with government, as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different, but have different origins. Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the last a punisher.

Society in every state is a blessing, but Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one: for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries by a government, which we might expect in a country without government, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer. Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence; the palaces of kings are built upon the ruins of the bowers of paradise. For were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver; but that not being the case, he finds it necessary to surrender up a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest; and this he is induced to do by the same prudence which in every other case advises him, out of two evils to choose the least. Wherefore, security being the true design and end of government, it unanswerably follows that whatever form thereof appears most likely to ensure it to us, with the least expense and greatest benefit, is preferable to all others.


The principle of limited government, the roots of which can be seen as far back as the structure of the Roman republic, and more recently in the Magna Carta, in motivated by the desire to preserve society. If government is not limited, it will harm society. The more narrowly we limit the activities of government, the broader freedom we give society to flourish.