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"The freedom and happiness of man...[are] the sole objects of all legitimate government."
--Thomas Jefferson, letter to Thaddeus Kosciusko, 1810
I must disagree somewhat with Mr. Jefferson on this point - as though I have any kind of status to disagree with Jefferson! But since he is not around to put me in my place, I will venture this anyway.
I understand that my theological perspective was not shared by Mr. Jefferson, and this is probably the root of our somewhat different conclusions here. But it is very clear that the “sole object” of legitimate government according to the Bible is the execution of retributive justice. That is, it is the purpose of legitimate government to punish those who do evil, especially those evils that are done to other human beings.
To put this another way, it is the object of legitimate government to make sure that “crime doesn’t pay” – or to be more precise, to make sure that those who commit crimes do pay for them. This must, of course, be done justly. That is, we must be careful that only those deserve to pay are forced to do so, and that they are forced to pay only in appropriate ways.
We have been prone recently to fail to require the appropriate payment for murder, which is the life of the murderer. We have been committed for far too long to locking up those who commit property crimes rather than making them repay the victims via restitution.
We are also very prone of late to making crimes of peaceful human behavior that is not worthy of punishment. In fact, we now have so much law, much of it created by bureaucrats rather than legislators, that it is impossible for a reasonably informed person to know if and when he is breaking the law. Those caught in the web of unknowable law are not really criminals – they are victims. (See a perfect example of this here.)
But the proper “sole object” of legitimate government is to punish only those who deserve it, and in ways in keeping with the goal of retribution. When a government does this and only this, interesting and useful by-products will result. For example, Mr. Jefferson’s “freedom and happiness” will tend to blossom and grow.
Freedom and happiness result from these two general conditions: peaceful people know that those who attack them or rob them will be punished quickly and appropriately, AND, peaceful people are confident that government will not punish their peaceful pursuit of happiness. But these are the by-products, not the object, of legitimate government. It is possible that Mr. Jefferson and I differ only in the way we would state this – I’m not sure.
What I am sure of is that our current governments are doing only a hit-and-miss job of retributive justice, and have completely failed at the job of leaving people unmolested in their pursuit of peaceful happiness. And if Mr. Jefferson were here, I am quite certain he would agree.