Many years ago, a colleague asked me to define government. That was not an unusual request. We often talked politics, teaching, and the politics of teaching. I was new, straight from graduate school, and he was a full professor. Across some 30 years of teaching, he had amassed a notable collection of awards and an impressive list of former students. He wore slacks – always, button down shirts, and penny loafers. I preferred shorts, a t-shirt, and sandals.
Though from an entirely different generation, my answer to his question exposed an intellectual connection that led to countless discussions, collaborative research, and an enduring friendship.
So, what is government?
Every American politics textbook offers a different definition. Many emphasize institutional design, some focus on the sources of political power, while still others feature the role of public policy. Most definitions are nebulous and so undermine their purpose.
That’s unfortunate because the definition represents a starting point for the study of politics. It’s the door that opens as students enter a maze of political ideas. Moreover, the definition signals how a professor approaches the puzzle that is American politics.
Therefore, what the old professor was asking had personal and professional import.
I considered one of the modern definitions that laud citizen power and democratic practices. But frankly, they never appealed to me. The causal arrow points unambiguously from citizen to government. The people are the source of power and government is their instrument.
A popular definition. Yes. An overly simplistic view. I think so. In most instances, citizens respond to governments. And in others, citizens are a means to channel government power and authority.
With this in mind, I offered the following definition:
The formal political arrangements through which a land and its people are ruled. Government is composed of institutions and processes that rulers establish to strengthen and perpetuate their power or control over a territory and its inhabitants.
I glanced up and noticed an expansive grin on the old professor’s face and a bright twinkle in his eyes.
“Precisely! That’s how rulers consider governments.”
What does the definition mean?
First, rulers created government. The people did not. Perhaps it’s comforting to believe the people established government. Yet if the purpose is to understand politics, stick with the rulers.
Second, rulers intend to strengthen and perpetuate power over the people and establish governments to do so. This sounds ominous and many people reject this characterization of government. After all, most people are educated in schools that governments underwrite and enjoy countless activities and services governments offer.
Yet history shows governments realize the rulers’ objectives. Overtime, governments implement policies that tighten controls and consolidate power.
Let’s be clear, the dynamic does not begin with power hungry politicians hatching diabolical plots against the unknowing masses. Rather, governments’ pursuit of power arises instinctively – a by-product of the system. It is the nature of governments to develop this way. Whether governments are brutal or benevolent, corrupt or noble, democratic or authoritarian, the quest to strengthen and perpetuate power endures.
What does the definition explain?
It’s nothing new, of course, to assume an ambitious government. The framers of the constitution believed this as well. They were pragmatists and experienced firsthand self-preservation and growth in government. Self-interest informed their ideas about rulers and government institutions.
To make certain government institutions would not encroach too far into social, and economic relations, they believed power should be dispersed across institutions and partitioned between federal, state, and local governments. A single institution’s drive for power would then offset another institution’s equally strong drive. In James Madison’s words, “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”
This is the theory behind separation of powers and federalism (where powers are divided between national and state governments) – and the reason for the Bill of Rights – which guarantee certain liberties and rights for all citizens.
These three key constitutional provisions curb government power and safeguard citizen freedoms.
Madison did not fear government, nor did he believe it was evil. It was necessary. It offered valuable services. It protected citizen’s rights and defended against external threats. And a strong federal government was essential for the country to develop and prosper.
However, Madison was not naïve. He respected government power and recognized the dynamics of its growth. He sought balance between government power and citizen liberties.
“But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflects on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary…. the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” James Madison, Federalist No. 51.
The definition disappeared
Times change. The old professor retired. New professors took his place. They taught different definitions of government. A “bottom up” approach to the study of political affairs had surpassed the top down view. The definition of government the old professor and I taught to thousands of undergraduates across hundreds of classes disappeared.
Government is no longer conceived as a distinct entity, something that can be thought of as possessing motivations and interests – an institution that wishes to preserve, grow, and dominate. Rather, governments solve problems and distribute scarce resources. The animating force of self-interest has been replaced by public interest, special interest, and public goods. Benefits are advanced by attentive citizens and organized groups, pressing governments for accommodation and distribution.
The reality is this: Today, we expect more from governments than at any time in history. And our governments have readily expanded to satisfy those expectations. The relationship between citizen and government has changed and changed dramatically.
However, political ambition has not changed. Neither has the dynamic that drives governments forward. Governments seek to tighten their grip and reach for greater control and authority – regardless of the party in power. And, without question, governments have achieved greater control and greater authority.
Last, the old professor was often accused of being too pessimistic about politics, governments, and citizens. The definition of government was used as an example. That sort of perspective will drive young people away, leaving them cynical about politics and inefficacious about their role as participants in democracy.
The old professor rejected the characterization and said he was just being honest.
The evidence was on his side. Every semester, his classes were packed and the line in front of his office long. He wrote hundreds of recommendation letters for enterprising students. And when the old professor died, former students across the country contributed generously for a scholarship in his name. Students loved the honesty and understood the value of the definition of government.
Start with that definition. Much about the political world becomes clear.