The Necessity of Government, by Mortimer J. Adler

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.

If human beings could engage in their pursuit of happiness more effectively without living in states and under the auspices of government, then neither the state nor its government would be necessary as a means to the ultimate objective at which human beings should aim–living decent human lives.

The goodness of the state or civil society lies in its being indispensable to living a civilized life and obtaining all the real goods that individuals cannot obtain by themselves alone or under the conditions of family and tribal life. The goodness of the state or civil society is thus seen to be inseparable from its necessity as an indispensable means to the ultimate good we should seek.

What holds for the state holds also for government. Its goodness resides in its necessity–in its indispensability as a means. But a means to what? Is it not possible for human beings to achieve good lives for themselves without the constraints imposed by government through its sanctions and the coercive force of its laws? Is not the road to happiness on earth more open to those who pursue that goal without being subject to government?

Those who call themselves anarchists–philosophical, not bomb-throwing, anarchists–answer such questions with resounding affirmations. When they call for the immediate abolition of the state or for its gradual withering away, they identify the state itself with government by might, that is, by the coercive force of its various sanctions. This is what they abominate.

They think that it is quite possible for human beings, either as they are now or as they might become under altered conditions, to live peacefully and harmoniously together in society and to act in concert for a common good in which they all participate, and to do this without the restraining force exercised by the state or its government. They do not see in the complete autonomy that everyone would have under anarchy any threat to the peace, harmony, and order of social life.

Why are they profoundly wrong? One answer was given by Alexander Hamilton when he said that if men were angels, no government would be necessary for social life. Spelled out in a little more detail, Hamilton’s reference to angels expressed his understanding of angels as completely virtuous, and so obedient by free choice to just laws. When he rejected as illusory the attribution to mankind of angelic virtue, he did not thereby intend to deny that some men have sufficient, if not angelic, virtue to obey just laws out of respect for their authority and without responding to the threat of coercive force.

Some men, yes, but not all! That is precisely why some portion of the individuals living together in society must be constrained by coercive force from injuring their fellows or acting against the common good of all. Hence, government with its sanctions is as necessary for social life as that, in turn, is necessary for the pursuit of happiness.

Hamilton’s argument is not only sound, but unanswerable by philosophical anarchists in the light of all the known historical realities. Their only out is to appeal, beyond the facts about human beings as they now are, to what human beings might become under radically altered future circumstances.

The hope for a new type of man, with a different human nature that has been altered by external circumstances, is bizarre and groundless. The specific nature of any living organism is gene-determined, not determined in any essential respect by external circumstances. Human nature may be overlaid by all the nurtural influences imposed by the environment, but that natural overlay does not alter the underlying nature.

There is one point with respect to which one must concede some soundness to the philosophical anarchist’s position. The coercive force that is exercised by a tyrannical and despotic government is an evil from which human beings should be emancipated. But constitutional and just governments also exercise coercive force; and then, as Hamilton argued, that confers a benefit to be sought, not an evil to be avoided.

Sound and answerable as Hamilton’s argument may be, it is not the only or complete answer to the position of the philosophical anarchist. The other part of the answer consists in seeing that the authority of government, quite apart from its exercise of coercive force, is necessary for the concerted action of a number of individuals for a common purpose


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