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The Role of Government

by Rabbi Simon Jacobson

Toward a Meaningful Life - The Wisdom of the Rebbe

  

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Seek the welfare of the city...and pray to G-d for it, for in its peace, you shall have peace -- Jeremiah1

The role of government is to balance communal and individual good. This is only possible when society is governed by the principles of morality and justice, law and order, under one G-d -- The Rebbe

Over the centuries, the human race has experimented with many forms of government. Imperialist monarchies and despotism once ruled the world, giving way to such political and economic extremes as fascism and democracy, Marxism and capitalism. The twentieth century has been a particularly turbulent one. After two World Wars and the rise - and unexpected fall - of communism, we now have the luxury of hindsight to assess and learn from these various systems.

In each case, mankind continues to be plagued by the same basic conflict: individual rights versus the greater good of the community. The role of government is to strike a balance between the two, and yet no political system has been able to perfect this balance.

Human beings are naturally diverse in their beliefs and ambitions. Such differences often produce conflict between individuals and throughout society. Suppressing this diversity would infringe on individual liberties, and is therefore unacceptable; and yet allowing every person unbridled freedom is also unacceptable, for each person would then be free to do as he chose, including harming another person or society.

Imperialist monarchies and despotism once ruled the world, giving way to such political and economic extremes as fascism and democracy, Marxism and capitalism
Most governments have reacted to this paradox by opting for one extreme or the other. Totalitarianism argues for the good of the whole at the expense of the individual; it believes that the individual is inherently selfish, and that his needs will ultimately fragment a nation and undermine the common good. Ironically, it is under such regimes that individuals -- that is, dictators -- assume unprecedented powers. We need no reminder of the untold misery that this form of government, in most cases, has caused the human race.

Democracy, on the other hand, nurtures the very individualism that totalitarianism squelches; it declares that all men were created equal and possess the right to pursue their beliefs without hindrance. Democracy contends that it is better to have motivated free people and risk excessive self-interest than to destroy their drive by suppressing individualism for the common good.

Democracy would appear to be a far superior form of government than totalitarianism. But democracy contains an inherent flaw, in that its essential motivating factor is self-interest. Over time, the core values of a community can begin to crumble under the accumulated weight of millions of individual desires and needs. Ultimately, these conflicting interests can erode a society’s unified drive for meaningful achievement. Several democracies have struggled mightily with this dilemma, perhaps none more than the United States, the largest democracy in the history of the world. Consider the current battle in dozens of American cities where individuals’ freedom of expression have come in conflict with community standards of morality.

Since people are bound to have vastly different beliefs, who should define the standards of morality and justice that must rule all the people? At what point does a government intervene to keep an individual from harming himself or others? How do we avoid the abuse of power by government leaders?

Footnotes

  • 1. 29:7.

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Rebbe
A Chassidic master. A saintly person who inspires followers to increase their spiritual awareness.
Jeremiah
1. Jewish prophet who lived in the 5th century BCE. 2. One of the 24 books of the Bible, containing the prophecies of Jeremiah. The book is replete with prophecies concerning the destruction of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple.
G-d
It is forbidden to erase or deface the name of G-d. It is therefore customary to insert a dash in middle of G-d's name, allowing us to erase or discard the paper it is written on if necessary.