Balancing Liberty & Order

What is the proper role of government? While many people have a general philosophy about what government should and should not do, they often struggle to answer the question when faced with specific policy problems.

At least some of this difficulty might be cleared up by thinking of 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.

The role of government, then, is to secure the liberties enjoyed in the state of nature by limiting individual behavior when it harms others. Exactly what those limits should be and what kinds of behavior should remain unregulated are the subjects of intense political debate. Adjusting the continually tipping balance between liberty and order is the primary business of government & politics.

Historical Documents

Magna Carta
Mayflower Compact
Second Treatise of Civil Government John Locke 1690

Reasearch and Study Helps

Is the United States a Democracy?
Do laws that legislate morality violate the separation of church and state?
Is Microsoft a monopoly? If so, why does it matter?

Think About It

What would the world be like without government?
What makes some governments good and others bad?
What are the responsibilities of living in a free land?

Applying What You've Learned

Make a list of problems in your community, city, state or region. What government programs have been established to address these problesm? Are the programs effective? For each problem on your list, indicate something you or your family could do to help solve the problem. Choose one of the problems and make a plan to do something about it.