Professor Mott's Perspective: Balancing Liberty and Order

You have now read answers to the question "Why do we need government?" These answers presented practical, economic and philosophical justifications for government's existence and its activities.

As a political science professor, I have seen the blank looks on my student's faces as I have presented the material you have just read. They easily grasp the importance of the practical justifications for government, but the importance of the economic and philosophical arguments are often lost on them.

I have found that I am able to clear up some of this confusion by portraying American government, and all government for that matter, as a constant struggle to balance liberty and order. Think about what life would really be like if we lived in the "state of nature" that either Hobbes or Locke described. You would have absolute, limitless individual liberty. You could go where you wanted to go, eat what you wanted to eat, and hang out with whomever you wanted. There would be no laws against drug use, speeding or even stealing.

But you would not be the only one with absolute freedom. Everyone around you would be similarly free to do whatever they chose to do. Consequently, when someone wanted something you had in your possession, they could simply take it, assuming they were stronger and faster than you. And if they ended up injuring or killing you to get what you had, or if you hurt or killed them protecting your life and property, that would be the end of the conflict. No police officers would come, there would be no charges filed, there would be no trial, no punishment. In the state of nature, each individual is the "police force" that protects his or her own life, liberty and property.

In such a precarious environment, it would be only natural for people to band together in protective agreements with each other. If you had something others wanted, perhaps you would give some of it to someone who was big and strong in return for protection from others. From there, it is not difficult to imagine a chain of events that would lead to the formation of larger groups centered on trade and mutual protection. Eventually, because violence would remain the only way to settle disputes between individuals and groups, people would see the wisdom in establishing an independent third party--a government--that could settle disputes without someone being harmed or killed.

Human liberty, then, could not be fully enjoyed in the state of nature because there would be no limits on the expression of that liberty. Without limits on individual behavior, life would indeed be perilous. The establishment of government, then, limits individual liberty so that life is more stable and peaceful. By imposing order on society, government both limits liberty and makes the enjoyment of liberty a possibility. When people live together in a political community, such as the United States, they accept these limitations of their individual liberty as the costs of living in a society where people get along, for the most part, without resorting to violence to settle their disputes.

The protection of life and property, however, are not the only benefits of having a government. Government also facilitates cooperation between individuals that would not otherwise be possible. For example, without a government, there would not be enough order and cooperation in society to have a complex and productive economy. Because there is a government, people are able to confidently enter into contracts with other parties because the government requires individuals and businesses to live up to their legally binding commitments.

While we tend to recognize the benefits of government when they are pointed out to us, we also tend to be very protective of our freedoms. We want government to provide order, but we want it to do so in the least intrusive manner possible. Whenever a new law is passed or a program is created, however, the people and their leaders must weigh liberty and order in the balance. For example, we have chosen, as a society, to prohibit the use of drugs such as marijuana and cocaine. This limits the liberty of individuals who might want to use such substances, but proponents of such laws believe that they are justified both because they bring order and stability to society and because they keep individuals from engaging in harmful behavior. In this case, we have chosen order over liberty. In the case of speech, however, we tip the balance in favor of liberty. We cherish our freedom to speak our minds almost without limitation.

More often than not, the political debates we hear during political campaigns, in the Congress or even on talk radio, center on balancing liberty and order. Looking at events and issues from this perspective will help cut through the intricacies and complexities that often attend political debate to lay bare the real issues that are at stake. Government and politics are the most complex forms of human interaction. In the United States of America, tens of millions of people participate in politics every day. Understanding how the American political system begins with such an overwhelming amount of diversity of opinion and perspective, and yet produces laws and policies that manage to win broad public support is no simple feat. However, by maintaining our focus on the most fundamental concepts and ideas at the basis of it all, we will be able to understand some of the complexities of the system so well it might surprise you.

To give you a taste of the usefulness of looking at American government and politics through the lenses of liberty and order, consider for a moment the two most important documents in American history: the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. Without each of these documents, the United States of America would not exist as we know it. Given the preceding discussion, however, it might not be surprising that there are tensions between liberty and order even between these two founding charters of our nation.

Read the following passage from the Declaration of Independence and decide whether it emphasizes liberty or order.

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. 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.

Now read the preamble of the Constitution. Which does it emphasize?

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

If you do not already understand why each document emphasized the half of the liberty-order equation it did, it will become more apparent to you as you read the sections that follow on the Revolution, Self-Rule and the Constitution. At the two points in America's history when these two documents were written, the Declaration in 1776 and the Constitution in 1787, the nation's needs were very different indeed. Throughout the balance of this text, I will draw attention to the changing balance between liberty and order at various times and in different circumstances in America's political history. In many instances, it is the story of that changing balance that is the most interesting story of all.