“The proper function of government is to make it easy for people to do good and difficult for them to do evil” (Jimmy Carter).
IN ITS MOST BASIC SENSE, “GOVERNMENT” MEANS CONTROL OR GUIDANCE. And while the word has a distinctly negative ring to many people nowadays, the fact is there are very few things that are dynamic or forceful that don’t need to be governed. Even the physical forces that have the greatest potential for good must be harnessed and controlled. Despite its many beneficial uses, fire, for example, can be horribly destructive when it’s allowed to do whatever it pleases.
We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that human beings need to be governed. Whether individually, in small groups, in large groups, or in nations, we need limits that will channel our energies in positive directions. A human being is far and away the most powerful force in the natural world, but in the absence of any restraints at all, a human being can do more harm than fire ever could, even at its most destructive. So John Ruskin’s observation is consistent with what we know to be true: “Government and cooperation are in all things the laws of life; anarchy and competition the laws of death.”
Yet if we need government, it’s a marvelous fact that we’re often able to supply much of that government ourselves. We need to work within boundaries and limits, but we’ve been endowed with a capacity called self-discipline — which means we can govern our own activity. And oftentimes, the amount of external government that ends up being imposed upon us is determined by how willing we’ve been to exercise internal government. “It is for men to choose whether they will govern themselves or be governed” (Henry Ward Beecher).
There are very few of us who wouldn’t make a better contribution to the world if we’d discipline our abilities more productively. We have more powers than we bother to use and more resources than we’ve ever tapped into. And the question each of us must eventually answer is not what we accomplished in life, but what we could have accomplished if we’d governed ourselves and been better stewards.
“For better or worse, man is the tool-using animal, and as such he has become the lord of creation. When he is lord also of himself, he will deserve his self-chosen title homo sapiens” (William Ralph Inge).