The Role of Government

The Role of Government

Seek the welfare of the city…and pray to G-d for it, for in its peace, you shall have peace — Jeremiah, 29:7

The role of government is to balance communal and individual good.  This is only possible when society is governed by the principles of morality and justice, law and order, under one G-d — The Rebbe

Over the centuries, the human race has experimented with many forms of government. Imperialist monarchies and despotism once ruled the world, giving way to such political and economic extremes as fascism and democracy, Marxism and capitalism. The twentieth century has been a particularly turbulent one. After two World Wars and the rise – and unexpected fall – of communism, we now have the luxury of hindsight to assess and learn from these various systems.

In each case, mankind continues to be plagued by the same basic conflict: individual rights versus the greater good of the community. The role of government is to strike a balance between the two, and yet no political system has been able to perfect this balance.

Human beings are naturally diverse in their beliefs and ambitions. Such differences often produce conflict between individuals and throughout society.  Suppressing this diversity would infringe on individual liberties, and is therefore unacceptable; and yet allowing every person unbridled freedom is also unacceptable, for each person would then be free to do as he chose, including harming another person or society.

Most governments have reacted to this paradox by opting for one extreme or the other. Totalitarianism argues for the good of the whole at the expense of the individual; it believes that the individual is inherently selfish, and that his needs will ultimately fragment a nation and undermine the common good.  Ironically, it is under such regimes that individuals — that is, dictators — assume unprecedented powers. We need no reminder of the untold misery that this form of government, in most cases, has caused the human race.

Democracy, on the other hand, nurtures the very individualism that totalitarianism squelches; it declares that all men were created equal and possess the right to pursue their beliefs without hindrance. Democracy contends that it is better to have motivated free people and risk excessive self-interest than to destroy their drive by suppressing individualism for the common good.

Democracy would appear to be a far superior form of government than totalitarianism. But democracy contains an inherent flaw, in that its essential motivating factor is self-interest. Over time, the core values of a community can begin to crumble under the accumulated weight of millions of individual desires and needs. Ultimately, these conflicting interests can erode a society’s unified drive for meaningful achievement. Several democracies have struggled mightily with this dilemma, perhaps none more than the United States, the largest democracy in the history of the world. Consider the current battle in dozens of American cities where individuals’ freedom of expression have come in conflict with community standards of morality.

Since people are bound to have vastly different beliefs, who should define the standards of morality and justice that must rule all the people? At what point does a government intervene to keep an individual from harming himself or others? How do we avoid the abuse of power by government leaders?

The only government that can successfully balance individual and societal needs is a righteous government built on faith in G-d. The underlying flaw of all governments, whether fascistic or democratic, is that they are based on human rules. Any government built on human judgment is bound to revolve around the prejudice, subjectivity, and arbitrariness of individual humans or groups. But
G-d, who created all people equal, also gave them a system of absolute morality and justice.

A society that yearns to be righteous must be built on such ethical values.The very foundation of civilization rests upon the basic principles known as the Seven Noahide laws given at Sinai: 1

1. Belief in G-d.
2. Respect for and praise of G-d.
3. Respect for human life.
4. Respect for the family.
5. Respect for others’ rights and property.
6. Creation of a judicial system.
7. Respect for all creatures.

Without these laws as a bedrock of government, a society will either have despotism, where individuals’ lives are compromised and possibly abused, or anarchy, where every person pursues his or her own needs without regard for the law.

So how is it possible to balance individual freedom with the good of society?  By looking beyond self-interest and recognizing that we are all part of the same family and community; by recognizing that we are all bound by the same divine laws and entrusted with the same mission in life – to civilize the world in a meaningful and G-dly way.

What steps should government take to ensure the welfare of its citizens?

The key to balancing individual and communal needs is education. For a government to be truly dedicated to the welfare of its citizens – their physical, emotional, and, above all, spiritual welfare – it must make education its primary objective without which all the other points are moot. A government and its leaders not only must teach citizens how to pursue rational solutions to complex problems but must teach them how to live. It must educate them that human conduct must follow the divine laws given to us all by G-d. This is the only guarantee that individual rights will be preserved without compromising the common good.

The United States epitomizes these principles. This is a country, after all, whose founders declared it “one nation under G-d.”  Sessions of Congress are opened with a religious invocation; the Bible is used to swear in elected officials, and chaplains are appointed in the armed forces. Even this nation’s currency – the very icon of materialism – declares “In G-d We Trust.”

The majority of this country’s early settlers were religious refugees who firmly believed in G-d and the Bible, and were determined to protect their right to do so. This was not an abstract belief in a supreme being who dwelt somewhere in heaven; it was a belief that permeated every aspect of their lives, particularly the education of their children. They appreciated and understood this newfound religious freedom.

These core beliefs are the secret of the nation’s endurance.  Having built itself on a firm and permanent foundation, the United States has become the most powerful of nations, in a unique position to positively influence every inhabitant on the face of the earth.

And yet we are currently witnessing a sad phenomenon. The spirit of the Constitution has been misinterpreted, with some parties taking “religious freedom” to mean freedom from religion. Even a non-denominational “moment of silence” in schools has been opposed.

When the founding fathers included  “freedom of religion” in the Bill of Rights, they were ensuring the freedom of every man to worship G-d according to his own conscience; there can be no doubt that the Constitution was meant to preserve religious freedom, not to wean the nation away from G-d.

The principle of separation of church and state should not be misconstrued as a denial of G-d and religion. This separation is necessary so that government cannot impose any one religion on all its citizens; but such vigilance must not be carried out at the expense of the belief in G-d, which is shared by all denominations.

The United States is now faced with countless social disorders, many of which stem from the lack of belief in G-d and a corresponding lapse in respect for the divine laws of morality. Shouldn’t the Constitution be interpreted in a way that addresses this national crisis instead of avoiding it?

The only way to ensure that people adhere to a moral order is to instill in them a permanent sense of values. Punishing a person after he has committed a crime, for instance, is not attacking the cause of the problem, but its symptom. Clearly, a child who is brought up without the fear and respect for G-d in his heart will have no fear or respect for any authority – his parents, his teachers, the police. He must learn to accept the concept of a divine moral code that we all must obey. He must realize that the laws of man are rooted in something far more eternal: the Ten Commandments.

We must use every opportunity to cultivate this awareness.The moment of silence at the beginning of each school day is a good example. By no means is this a violation of the separation of church and state, for the child can use the moment however he or she wishes. But by encouraging this moment, we are telling the child that believing in a higher being is fundamental to all education, that knowledge per se is worthless without knowing how to use it for the good of society at large.

After all, there is another motto on U.S. currency besides “In G-d We Trust”; it is “E Pluribus Unum,” or “Out of many, one.” We must never allow our government to forget that every community is inherently made up of many individuals, and each individual should be encouraged to participate and contribute his individual strengths toward the greater good of the united community.

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  1. Maimonides, Code of Law, Laws of Kings 8:10-11
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