What is “Necessary Evil”, and how does that affect me?
I have been perturbed lately by discussions I’ve had online and with actual humans in person about why we should or should not trust our government, and one thing stands out to me. That is how little we understand the nature of government, and the pains our Founders went through to protect our nation from the problems governments and potentates had caused in the past. First, and this is an important point, they collectively viewed government as a ‘necessary evil’. The larger the government, the less necessary, and the more evil. But, let’s take a close look at the term “necessary evil”. There are two operative and diametrically opposed terms here. “Necessary”, and “Evil”.
Point 1: Why is government even necessary? A little history lesson here for those who graduated school in the last couple of decades. We’ve had two national governments since the Revolution. The first was the Confederation of States, or more appropiately, the “Articles Of Federation and Perpetual Union”. It went into effect after the 13 original colonies ratified in 1781. It basically gave all authority to the states as a collective. The United States had just won a war against a powerful national government, and were understandably reluctant to create another one that might end up doing the same thing. So, the national government was very limited in its scope and power. For instance, the government could keep the army funded and together, but the states had no obligation to fund or equip such an army. If Delaware, for instance, didn’t want to send any funds to pay the army, they didn’t have to, and nothing could be done to make them. This was just one example, and these examples permeated the fabric of what little government did exist.
It only took a few years for the states to recognize that this arrangement wasn’t going to work, and that a stronger federal government was required. This is the “necessary” part. So, the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia began to “fix the problem”, and that’s where our current Constitution came from.
Point 2: Why is the government evil? After having just extricated themselves from an oppressive national government, and after studying the nature of government itself, they were understandably nervous about putting power into the hands of a single individual. So, a king was out. But, you don’t have to be a king to wield massive power, so how do we have a strong enough federal government to protect the nation without that government becoming the aggressor itself? That’s where the genius of the system of checks and balances came into play. Give the government all the tools it needs to protect the nation, but tie its hands as much as possible at the same time to prevent it from becoming the enemy. Any government of men will, if unchecked, eventually turn on its own citizens and become totalitarian. So, build those checks in. Additionally, give enough power to the states, and ultimately to the people, to keep an otherwise out of control group of people in check.
The fact that this worked for nearly 200 years is a testament to the dedicated work of those men in Philadelphia. Was it perfect? Gosh no! They left some things undone. Nearly 80 years after the Constitution was enacted, the nation tore itself apart over slavery and regional jealousy. In the last 80 years, we’ve ceded too much control to the federal government and it has, as expected, in many instances turned itself on its own citizens. Today we struggle with that balance as we try to keep the federal government from taking over every aspect of our lives, and sadly many people don’t seem to have a problem with the government doing exactly that.
Here’s the takeaway: Governments are inherently evil. It will usurp to itself more power than necessary, and continue to do so until it eventually becomes the enemy. In that, it is not unlike cancer. The treatment is the same. As the cancer spreads, we need to irradiate it out of existence. To the extent we do so, we keep the cancer in remission. But, it is always there. The problem is that we can’t just kill the government. It, literally, is the thing holding us together. Again, like cancer, you can cut the middle of your body out and get rid of the cancer, but you’ll end up killing yourself in the process.
So, keep an eye on that evil that you’ve placed above you, and always be willing to sacrifice safety for liberty. If you sacrifice liberty for safety, in the words of Ben Franklin, you will deserve neither, and eventually lose both.