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The Paradox of Constitutional Government

Watching the drama of “Obama-care” unfold from a 14,000 kilometre distance it was easy to think the debate was about health insurance. But according to 2012 Sir John Graham Lecturer—Professor Robert P. George of Princeton University—it was also about what government is. Is the government a kind benefactor, a cruel tyrant, or something else entirely? 

These questions are critical, because the way we think about the government impacts how we interact with it, and in turn, how the government behaves. According to Professor George, government is not a benefactor or a tyrant, but an institution created and maintained by people. Its authority to rule only exists because of its purpose—to serve. The government only has the power that is delegated to it. It only rules on behalf of us all. According to Professor George:

“The moral justification for the ruler’s ruling is service to the good of all, the common good. And the common good is not an abstraction or platonic form hovering somewhere beyond the concrete well-being—the flourishing—of the flesh and blood persons constituting the community. It just is the well-being of those persons and of the families and other associations of persons.”

Government does not invent what is good for a community. Instead, the government coordinates and sets the conditions that enable society—with its myriad of persons and institutions—to flourish. Government decides things like which side of the road people will drive on, so that the rest of society can function effectively. Government should not take over or dominate the other parts of society. For example it should not tell us what milk to buy at the supermarket—that is a choice for individual persons; and it should not raise our children for us—that is the job of families. 

Professor George gave an example from his US context, to illustrate how citizens often misunderstand what their government is. His students at Princeton commonly believe that the peoples’ freedom from government tyranny was created by the Bill of Rights—a set of rules the government isn’t permitted to break. According to George “this is about as wrong as you can get it.” In fact, many who first laid down the US constitution were worried that the Bill of Rights would undermine the real things that protect freedom, namely:

“The public understanding of the general government…as a government of delegated and enumerated powers; and, the division of powers between the national government and the various states.”

Put simply, what protects us from government tyranny is our understanding that the government has been created by us and is at our service, even while it rules us. The US has an additional protection that we don’t—various tiers of government so that power is separated. Without so many layers of government in New Zealand, the first point is even more critical. We need a public understanding of what government power is. Professor George argued that it is “everyone’s business” to hold the government to its role as an institution of service and not tyranny. He stated:

“Even the best constitutional structures, even the strongest structural constraints on governmental power, aren’t worth the paper they are printed on if people do not understand them, value them, and have the will to resist the blandishments of those offering something tempting in return for giving them up or letting violations of them occur without swift and certain political retaliation.”

This requires citizens who care not only about their private interests, but about the public interest; citizens who care—not just theoretically but demonstrably—for the institutions that make up our collective life. Citizens who know that the well-being of future generations can’t be exchanged for today’s latest whim, and their freedom can’t be traded for short-term comforts when we can’t see another way out.

Where do we find such citizens? Here Professor George returned again to those basic institutions that government was always supposed to be for—private institutions, educational institutions, religious institutions and families. As Professor George so aptly put it:

“It is ultimately the autonomy, integrity and general flourishing of these institutions that will determine the fruit of limited constitutional government.”

This is both encouraging and sobering news. We cannot vote away our responsibility for the society we live in. The work of building a civil society takes many hands.

We gratefully acknowledge the support of the New Zealand Law Foundation and Clavell Capital in sponsoring this event 

Watch Professor George deliver the 2012 Annual Sir John Graham Lecture, “Can the Ruler Truly Be a Servant? The paradox of constitutional government.”

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