Acton Institute Powerblog

Why Government is Not Just a ‘Necessary Evil’

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In the Federalist Papers James Madison claimed that, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” But is that true? James R. Rogers, an associate professor of political science at Texas A&M University, explains why some form of government would be necessary even if man were still in a prelapsarian state of nature:

[E]ven without the Fall, there would be a role for civil government for the duly recognized person who exercises civil authority. Even in an unfallen society, there is need for civil authority to minimize the cost of informational asymmetries and to minimize decision costs.

People in a prelapsarian society are not omniscient, which means that even without the Fall, there would be a role for civil authority to coordinate individual interactions to avoid suboptimal outcomes. For example, there is no morally correct answer to the question “What side of the road should people drive on?” Hence, even in a society populated by people with all the good will toward one another and all the moral virtue in the world, there would be a need to provide a consistent answer to these folks when they pulled out of the driveway.

And the question “Which side of the road should I drive on?” is a properly civil question. Answering this question belongs neither to familial nor ecclesiastical leadership. Nonetheless, the government need not use the sword in a prelapsarian society. The government would only need to be what in game theory is called a “focal arbitrator.” Civil authority would need only to announce “drive on the right side of the road,” and unfallen folk would follow the direction.

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Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).


  • RogerMcKinney

    Hayek explained why government decision making is far worse than that in a free market. If angelic humans aren’t omniscient, they why assume government by those same creatures would be? In fact, they are more ignorant than the people they are supposed to direct.

    If men were angels, they could quietly agree on any convention necessary for peaceful co-existence, just as they have done for millenia.

    Roger gives far more wisdom and knowledge to government officials than they can possibly have, since they are chosen from among the people, and gives far less credit to peaceful cooperation that follows from the division of labor.

  • I think the weak side of that article is the lack of a clear definition of a word government as used in it. What does constitute a government? When people say that government is a necessary evil, they mean a government based on a monopoly of coercive force. I have an impression, that despite author being mostly right, he builds his case on a false premise

  • MW

    It seems to me that the author is conflating the terms “governance” and “government”. Government is a entity which has a legitimate monopoly on physical force in the enforcement of its order within a specific geographical area.

    You do not necessarily need a legitimate monopoly on physical force in a specific region to figure out which side of the road to drive on, how to properly fill out a will, and (depending on the situation) to delineate the bounds of property. People are capable of organizing themselves in such a way to address this common concerns without primary coercive arm of the government in the background. Disputes regarding property, self-defense, social services, etc are different issues entirely and certainly within the realm of disagreement and debate, but the things mentioned in the original article seem to not to be specific to actual “governments.” This strikes me as a rather weak argument.

    • RogerMcKinney

      Some like to distinguish between a state and government. Ancient Israel under the judges had government but no state.