By Ethan Hollander, Wabash College
James Madison once said: “If men were angels, government would be unnecessary”. But men—and women, too—are not angels. So in all but the very smallest human societies, we need government to help us make group decisions and make the experience of living in a group possible. So, let’s discuss the entity that creates the law: the government.
Named after the Babylonian emperor Hammurabi, a 4,000-year-old stone column known as Hammurabi’s Code is some of the earliest evidence we have of written law.
Hammurabi’s decision to have his law carved in stone was a revolutionary innovation. With this simple act of writing his law down rather than just issuing a verbal decree, Hammurabi changed the nature of government, and of human society forever. Without this innovation, civilization as we know it would be inconceivable.
What Is Government?
Government is the set of people and institutions that make and administer public policy within a political unit. It’s the organization that makes group decisions—that makes political decisions—even when the people in the group disagree about what they want.
The key thing to remember, however, is that government decisions are things we have to live by, even if they’re not always the same decisions that we would make if we were living alone.
All kinds of human collectives have governments—everything from cities and states to smaller entities, like businesses, universities, churches, and condo associations. And there are supra-national governments, too: NATO, the European Union, and the United Nations, to name just a few.
This article comes directly from content in the video series Democracy and Its Alternatives. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Now, when I refer to the governments of countries, I should clarify that the word can mean slightly different things in different parts of the world. In the European context, and especially in parliamentary democracies like Germany and the United Kingdom, the word government can have a more limited connotation. For example, you’ll sometimes hear about the prime minister or chancellor getting the nod from their parliament to “form a government”—that is, to pick a set of government ministers, a cabinet—as if the parliament wasn’t itself part of the government.
In the modern world, the most important thing a government can do is provide consistent, predictable responses to the common problems that a society faces. In fact, this predictability and consistency is what most people are thinking about when they say that a government is good or effective.
Good governments fight crime in places where crime would otherwise be a problem. Governments regulate industries and enforce contracts in places where informal institutions (like reputation and trust) are no longer able to do so.
Why Establishing Governments Was Necessary
Thus, we didn’t see the establishment of formalized legal codes until the advent of larger human societies.
Smaller, simpler societies don’t need formal procedures for making collective decisions. In a village, handshakes might be all the contract enforcement you’ll ever need! You’re not going to break your word if it’ll sully your reputation and prevent others from trusting you in the future. Besides, in a small group, there’s a clearer connection between what’s good for you and what’s good for the collective. If you don’t pull your weight, you’ll not only get a reputation for being a slacker, but the whole society might starve, and you along with it!
This also helps us make sense of the biblical story of Cain and Abel. In the story, Cain (who was a farmer) kills his older brother Abel (a shepherd), and goes on to found the first city. Farming brought about the first large-scale settled societies and killed the older, more nomadic way of life.
Establishing Modern Bureaucracy
The size and anonymity of modern society make government an absolute necessity. And while what governments do differs from place to place, one thing that’s almost universal is that they provide responses that are institutionalized, which is a fancy way of saying consistent and predictable. Wherever you go, there’s a tendency for governments to develop standardized, formal procedures, clear chains of command, and the sometimes unnerving dedication to process that characterizes modern bureaucracy.
Now, most of us may find bureaucracy annoying. But it’s important to remember that there’s a good side to modern bureaucracy, too: It helps us solve a set of problems that are unique to our modern way of life.
Bureaucracy: Ups and Downs
Bureaucracy allows people living in modern society to plan ahead, and to shape their behavior knowing what they can expect. You wouldn’t likely move to a place or open a business where the regulations weren’t consistent, or where you didn’t know what the process would be from one day to the next.
The downside is that, in their zeal to be efficient, fair, predictable, and consistent, bureaucracies are often so standardized, so regulated, and so frustratingly inflexible that they can be resistant to change, powerless in novel situations, or insensitive to individual needs.
Nobody openly wishes for bureaucracy. But most of us like it more than a system where we didn’t know what the rules were, or how they’d be applied. As a result, even bureaucracy and red tape have become some of the unavoidable pleasures of modern life.
Common Questions about Why We Need Governments
Named after the Babylonian emperor Hammurabi, Hammurabi’s Code is a 4,000-year-old stone column which is some of the earliest evidence we have of written law.
In the modern world, the most important thing a government does is to provide consistent, predictable responses to the common problems that a society faces.
The downside to bureaucracies is that, in their zeal to be efficient, fair, predictable, and consistent, they are often so standardized, so regulated, and so frustratingly inflexible that they can be resistant to change, powerless in novel situations, or insensitive to individual needs.