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What governments are for:An Independence Day peregrination

It’s funny how even before reaching the current heights of government supremacy, we were all taught that government is virtually a holy thing.

Even the fabled Founders, who had every reason to be skeptical of coercive power and who gave us words to transform the world, clearly thought they were undertaking a sacred task when they sat down to write the documents directing the new country. Though some of them weren’t religious in any sense and a majority were quite specific about keeping government and religion away from each other, they spoke of God a lot, as if he were the creator, driver, and engineer of the whole concept of putting one group of human beings over another.

And there is that pesky passage in Romans — even peskier than the “render unto Caesar” one.

But if God instituted government, he must have done it in much the same way as lesser beings “institute” trash collection or sewer cleaning. Because no matter how many fancy words you wrap around it, governing is a dirty little business.

Government not only deals with society’s trash (both the literal and the human, in the form of violent criminals). Even the supposed good it does is done only through the dirtiest of methods — theft and assault, or threat of assault. And of course we all know what happens when governments fall — as they so often do — below the even normally lax standards of good governance.

So all the fuss and glory is pretty preposterous, considering.

One great twenty-first century philosopher did the best-ever job of summing up the real nature of the state. You all know him:

That’s what governments are for… get in a man’s way.
— Capt. Malcolm Reynolds

So maybe if a god invented governments, he did it only to see if his human lab rats could eventually make their way past all the obstacles government presents by its very existence, then come out on the other side, free and finally fully alive.


On Independence Day it’s tempting to become depressed about how much of our freedom government has gotten in the way of. Tempting to bbq our burgers, light our bottle rockets (where not forbidden, of course), and forget about broader implications. Tempting, if we do think about those implications, to mourn our loss and rage, rage, rage.

But really, if you think of government primarily as a thing that exists to get in the way, the situation looks a lot different.

After all, a lot of things get in our way in life: bad marriages, physical handicaps, poverty, being born ugly or dumb, scrofulous diseases, Walmartians leaving their carts in the middle of the aisle, and garbage trucks blocking our alley.

We may get ticked off about a nasty spouse or feel sorry for ourselves if we get stuck with a painful, limiting illness. But if we’re smart, we find ways to go around and go on. We do the best we can. We even discover, in the end, that we’ve learned and grown from our most pain-in-the-backside experiences. (As that lesser philosopher, Neitzsche, noted.)

Same with government, for the most part. True, sometimes more drastic, more Jeffersonian, action is required. But for the most part, it’s government’s job — its only real job aside from trash pickup and pick-pocketing — to get in our way. And it’s ours to go around and go on. And grow more free.

So on this Independence Day of wars and surveillance and militarized cops and armed bureaucrats, and all the other endless dreck and dross the state builds up to get in our way, we can be of good cheer.

Because while government, even in the most charitable viewpoint, is far from holy, the human spirit is sacred and free.

Also creative and wide-ranging and not easy to capture. We have something — many somethings — no government ever will. Free hearts and minds can go places and do things no state on earth can attempt — or even understand. We are the makers, the imaginers, the tricksters, the inventors, and the sources of love and joy. We are sometimes the rats that bite right through the wall of the maze. We are the unpredictable, the clever, the sideways-thinking-monkeywrench-in-the-machinery-shifting-the-paradigm forces who create the future. We are people. We are The People.

The least among us — and some of us count ourselves pretty lowly — are greater than the greatest state that ever collected a tax or beat innocents into submission. The least among us have something — many somethings — that no institution, however powerful or brutal, can ever possess or overwhelm.


  1. LarryA
    LarryA July 3, 2013 5:14 pm

    We remember the article’s ‘words to transform the world:’ “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

    But we often disremember the next part: “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

    Government is instituted among men, not by the creator. The purpose of government, though, is to secure the rights granted all people by the creator. (Who or whatever you think that is.) And if the government gets to screwing up, then channeling Mal again it’s time to misbehave.

  2. Claire
    Claire July 3, 2013 5:27 pm

    Excellent STR essay, Paul. I had read that before, then not thought about it. It seems a “great minds” moment. Your piece is inspirational and I hope everybody will read it.

  3. Claire
    Claire July 3, 2013 5:28 pm

    Niiiiice stylish way of working your way to another Mal Reynolds comment, LarryA!

  4. jed
    jed July 3, 2013 6:44 pm

    I certainly don’t believe that god created governments. I do believe that government is an inevitable phenomenon, once a population reaches a certain level. Hence, while I’m idealogically more of an anarchist, as a practical matter, I end up being a minarchist.

    I’m pretty well lacking in anything profound to say. So here’s a funny vid instead

  5. The Infamous Oregon Lawhobbit
    The Infamous Oregon Lawhobbit July 3, 2013 7:42 pm

    Ummmm, Claire? Buddy? That whole “Romans” thing? It was a) written by a guy whose resume included killing Christians for the State; b) it’s part of the New Testament, but it ain’t the Gospel Truth (no pun intended), which means it’s not particularly controlling; therefore c) I give you Hobbit’s First Postcard To The Freedomians:

    And lo, let it ever be thus, that thou doest not harm unto others, nor taketh from them that which does not belong to thee without making payment therefore. And let it also be written, as Saint Thomas foretold, that the Tree of Liberty doth ever thirst for the blood of tyrants, and that those who would strike down that Tree, for the benefit of themselves and their cronies, should yea verily be the first to go when the consent of We The Governed is dutifully withdrawn.

    Sincerely, hugs and kisses,


  6. Jim Bovard
    Jim Bovard July 3, 2013 8:15 pm

    “Saint Thomas”?

    Geez, did someone start their Fourth of July drinking early?

  7. Kent McManigal
    Kent McManigal July 4, 2013 5:51 am

    If god “ordained” the “powers”, then he also made rabies and smallpox and ebola. And no one seems to feel bad about thwarting those “gifts”.

  8. Claire
    Claire July 4, 2013 5:57 am

    “Ummmm, Claire? Buddy? That whole ‘Romans’ thing? It was a) written by a guy whose resume included killing Christians for the State …”

    Just for the record, I don’t think any god ever ordained any government. I think gangs of thugs + people who just wanted some peace and quiet (e.g. preferred resident, predictable thugs to every-changing marauding thugs) created government. The whole “Romans” thing I brought up only in speculating why other people tend to consider government “holy” when it’s so manifestly the opposite.

  9. Mark
    Mark July 4, 2013 5:57 am

    Maybe we should all just start wishing each other “Happy Unification Day” instead….

  10. Joel
    Joel July 4, 2013 9:42 am

    Y’know, your coat is a sort of brownish color…

  11. Jim B.
    Jim B. July 4, 2013 11:23 am

    Speaking of the Pursuit of Happiness, there’s a pretty good explanation of it on this strip.

    Don’t normally read this strip, but hit the link I’ve found on another site.

  12. Dana
    Dana July 4, 2013 4:04 pm

    1 Peter 2:13-3:6 and Ephesians 5:21-6:9 are both similar to Romans 13 in tone as well. When you look at all three passages together, it certainly does give one pause. On the other hand, if it means my better half will make me a sandwich…. 😉

    Of course, these are far from the only passages in Scripture dealing with Man’s relationship with authority. Whole books (e.g. “Anarchy and Christianity” by Jacques Ellul and “Christian Anarchy” by Vernard Eller) have been written on the topic. And don’t forget Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

    The Bible has a very interesting take on the origins of civil government. Just read 1 Samuel 8. A good cross reference is Daniel 4:17. If you want a Biblical position on why we’re stuck with government, these both seem more relevant than Romans 13. It wasn’t God’s idea to begin with…

  13. Jim B.
    Jim B. July 4, 2013 4:19 pm

    If we’re going to get religous on this subject. I’ll interject with the Commandment “Thou shalt have no others before Him”.

    The ways governments have been acting nowadays, it’s like they are trying to take over God’s job and worship. You’ve probably seen it. How they “demand” we treat all government officals with the utmost “reverences” and “respects”.

  14. Brass
    Brass July 4, 2013 4:36 pm

    Yeah, God instituted coercive governments. And the plague of locusts, and the plague of frogs, and the plague of flies . . . God sent many plagues upon his disobedient children: some of them wore crowns.

    I think that 1 Samuel 8 neatly summarizes what God Himself thinks of coercive government.

  15. MamaLiberty
    MamaLiberty July 5, 2013 5:36 am

    Paul, I think Boston’s comments about Romans is in the Gun Bible.

    As for “government” being somehow necessary or normal in human civilization, I have no argument with that. Humans do organize themselves and establish rules and procedures, traditions and norms.

    The only question really is: does this government/organization have to be non-voluntary? It is the power to “tax” and to commit unlimited theft that destroys liberty – with the victims convinced that the PTB have some sort of legitimate “authority” to do so.

    A government of, by and for voluntary associations of willing individuals would seem to provide the framework for the “rules” various groups could agree on. And if any “leaders” decided to become “rulers,” people would simply walk away from them. Without the power to “tax,” or initiate force, they would be kept in check.

    That’s the ideal of human society, far as I can see.

    Not no rules, no rulers and no slaves.

  16. MTY
    MTY July 5, 2013 7:41 am

    God never wanted his people to have a king, in fact, the Israelites begged Samuel for a king, Samuel was upset and told God what the people wanted. In I Samuel 8, you will find exactly what God thought of kings (government). They were duly warned about the abuse that would ensue, and they still begged for an overseer! They have screwed it up for thousands of years.

    Nothing new under the sun….

  17. Woody
    Woody July 5, 2013 8:20 am

    “In I Samuel 8, you will find exactly what God thought of kings……”

    No, actually you will find what someone thought his God thought about it and then wrote it in a book of dubious historical accuracy. So far we are allowed to believe whatever fantastic or superstitious notions we like. Who knows if that will be allowed on Independence Day 2014.

  18. The Infamous Oregon Lawhobbit
    The Infamous Oregon Lawhobbit July 5, 2013 9:27 am

    ML – government occurs only with the consent of the governed. Once that consent is withdrawn, then you have tyranny, which is essentially government WITHOUT the consent of the governed.

    Claire – I was offering a more general observation for those religious types who like to wave that Romans thing around, rather than any direct-at-Claire commentage. And I also plead duress – Jim Bovard made terrible threats if I didn’t add something to the thread…. 😉

  19. Victor Milán
    Victor Milán July 5, 2013 11:37 am

    What’re governments for?

    To centralize gain and socialize cost.

    Only that. Anywhere and always.

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