Commentary: Happy 4th of July! Do you have a philosophy of government?

As we celebrate America’s 245th birthday, here’s something to contemplate: Do you have a basic political philosophy? Why do you hold certain political views?

I believe it’s important to subscribe to basic underlying principles to help form opinions on day-to-day political issues. We each should be able to articulate what guides us as we support or oppose disparate issues in government. 

I want to outline my thinking as I have developed my philosophy of government. It has to do with what I believe is the essence of government and the government structure and principles the nation’s founders gave us.

First, a very basic question: Why do we have government? That sounds simplistic, but when I ask people that question I get answers all over the place. The answer I like most is this: We have government to do things collectively that it wouldn’t make sense to do individually.

When humans first emerged from caves they no doubt learned they could do a lot of things better as a group, than individually. But when doing things together, rules of conduct immediately become necessary. And leadership and crude organization naturally follow. Otherwise, there is no order and efficiency and the strong prey on the weak.

Doing things together and agreeing to some rules and organization is government in its most primitive form. It is a set of rules, structure and organization that allow people to do things collectively, in a fair and proper manner.

For example, today it wouldn’t make sense for each of us the pave the section of road in front of our own house. That would be a very rough road. It wouldn’t make sense for each of us to have our own police protection or to educate our children entirely on our own, or to conduct our own foreign affairs. So we choose to do a lot of things together, collectively, through government.

And from those early forms of collective organization has come the enormously complex – and expensive — set of laws, regulation, taxes, offices, agencies and bureaucracies that govern our society today. 

It’s important to note that many other non-government organizations help people do things collectively, including businesses, non-profit organizations, churches, and others. They also have rules and organization. But there is one really important thing that sets government apart from all other institutions in society. Most debates in government, in legislatures and Congress, are really about this peculiar and crucial characteristic of government.

So what is this key attribute?

It is that government, singularly, enjoys the power of FORCE and COERCION. No other institution enjoys that awesome power. Government has the power to take your money, your property to throw you in jail — even to take your life in certain circumstances.

Wow. This is truly an awesome power. It can be scary. Most debates in government, whether it is environmental regulation, traffic laws, local planning and zoning, business regulation, taxes, or anything else, are really, at their essence, about whether government should use this power of force and coercion and to what level. Is it appropriate, or not, to use force, literally, to achieve society’s objectives, for the greater good? That’s at the essence of nearly every debate in government.

All governments across the world, and our own government, wield this awesome power. But what makes the use of coercion more palatable, even more virtuous, under our form of government?

It all has to do with democracy and our constitutional republic form of government. There are two fundamental premises upon which our country was founded, premises that were absolutely important to the founders, that help us better understand the proper role and power of government.

First, the Declaration of Independence held that humans inherently have certain unalienable rights, not granted by Congress, a dictator, or by government – but by God. That was a revolutionary concept at the time. It elevates mankind to a special status. We have rights that government didn’t give us, and can’t take away. Men and women are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among them are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” And the purpose of government, says the Declaration, is to “secure these Rights.”

The second foundational premise then follows in the Declaration:  . . . “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed . . .”

Thus, the foundation of my philosophy of government is the divine principle that we get our rights from God, not from government, and that government gets its power, not from the divine right of kings, not from being the strongest military figures, but from the people: From the consent of the governed.

Alexander Hamilton said in 1775: “The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for, among old parchments, or musty records. They are written, as with a sunbeam in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of divinity itself; and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power.”

So our rights come from God. And the people create the government. with the power of the government coming from the consent of the people. Those concepts are so fundamental, and so important, to our freedom. They are the foundation of my philosophy of government.

So then, how, in a practical way, in the day-to-day operation of government, did the founders attempt to guarantee that mankind’s God-given rights, and the will of the people, would be supreme? And what safeguards did they put in government to keep control over this awesome, scary power of force and coercion — preventing a tyrant or a military leader, from taking over government? Three ways:

First, the founders made certain that we the people elect those people who wield this power. We hire them. We fire them. If they improperly use their power, we can boot them out of office.

Second, we make it excruciatingly difficult for any one person, or even one branch of government, to gain too much power. The Constitution instituted the separation of powers, divided among three branches, executive, legislative and judicial, and with power divided again between state and federal government. The founders intended that these branches and levels of government would literally compete with each other. “Ambition would counteract ambition,” protecting the rights of the people, said James Madison.

Third, we make it difficult for our elected officials to pass laws, all of which can take away our freedom to some degree. Proposed statutes must go through a gauntlet of barriers to finally become law: committees, floor votes, signing or vetoing by the president or governor. At state and local levels, there are such things as ballot initiatives and recall elections to further check elected officials.

In effect, our government is purposefully slow, inefficient, bulky and cumbersome. It is easy to tie up in knots and create gridlock and stalemate. But it protects our freedom. It isn’t easy to use this power of force and coercion.

The federalist papers make it very clear that the founders were very leery of human ambition and avarice. They felt that they had to put in all of these checks and constraints in place to protect freedom and as a bulwark against the natural avarice and ambition of men.

Finally, I need to mention something about the importance of values in our form of government.

Even with all of the built-in safeguards, many of the founders felt our government, because it is controlled by the people, was suited only for a moral people. John Adams said “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

Former First Lady Barbara Bush said: “Your success as a family … our success as a society, depends NOT on what happens in the White House, but on what happens inside your house.”

Politics is important, but what really matters is what is happening in our homes, our schools, our churches, whether marriages are stable, fathers are there for their children.

Government builds prisons, deploys armies and police officers, provides welfare and child protective services. But those are focused on the results and effects of society’s major problems, they don’t address the fundamental causes and roots. In general, government puts ambulances at the bottom of cliffs, not fences at the top.

So, does government have a stake in encouraging morality? When I worked for Gov. Mike Leavitt we actually attempted at one time to quantify the tax costs of irresponsible, immoral behavior. We totaled hundreds of millions of dollars annually in direct costs to taxpayers in prisons, law enforcement, the costs of fathers leaving their families, of alcoholism, drug abuse, and so on.

Thank goodness we do have government to provide ambulances at the bottom of the cliff. But if too many fall over, government, meaning all of us taxpayers, will simply be overwhelmed.

So the people who are really holding the country together aren’t the politicians. They are the good parents, the scoutmasters, the religious leaders, the school teachers, the grandparents, the mentors.

A government that derives its power and legitimacy from the people won’t survive if the majority of people don’t hold correct values.