If men were angels, no government would be necessary.
That is a famous quote taken from Federalist #51 by James Madison reflecting on the nature of man and the necessity of government.
Like the saying power corrupts and the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, the spirit of the saying may or may be correct (depending on one’s interpretation), but the actual statement itself is flawed.
Let’s put the quote in context (emphasis mine).
Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.
So what he is actually saying?
The purpose of government, according to the federalist system, is to protect people’s rights from being violated. In order to carry out those responsibilities, the citizens surrender some of their authority to the government so that their other rights may be guarded. This is necessary because men have selfish ambitions to violate the rights of others and need protections in place. Thus, if men were perfect, we wouldn’t need government to take on this responsibility because they wouldn’t seek to control one another.
The concept of governments being instituted to protect liberties is articulated in the Declaration of Independence.
But one has to ask this question: Is this how government actually works? Does this theory of government match what is actually implemented in the real world? How well has government fulfilled its duty to those under its rule?
Riddle me this: Which has violated the rights of humans more often than not, private individuals and organizations, or governments?
You could win that case before it ever got to court.
For years, as I was trying to form my political beliefs, I kept trying to envision a system of government that had a perfect system of checks and balances. Every time, however, I kept coming back to the same fundamental problem; the institution required that someone carry out the duties. What if they abused the position? What was the procedure to restore the balance? What if that person didn’t carry out the proper procedure? What if they misinterpreted their role? Who got to say who was right and who was wrong?
This is the fatal flaw of any and all government: At the end of the day whatever you write down on paper has to be carried out by men. As Madison remarked, men are not angels; they are, by nature, flawed. Therefore, flawed men are running the government. They will interpret the law in a flawed manner, no matter how clear and specific the language is.
The only way for government to work is for people under it to have the ability to withdraw their consent at any time. If you had that, it wouldn’t be called government. It would be a private entity. The very nature of government is that it is not voluntary.
One may recall that the Soviet Union had a decent constitution, too. They just didn’t follow it.
Power doesn’t corrupt good character but the flawed nature of men causes them to act on their worst instincts when given power. The telltale sign of a “good man” in power is one who tries to rid himself of power as quickly as possible.; he will also, if offered absolute power, reject it.
If men cannot adequately govern their own life, how well can he do it for the life of another human being? How does government solve the problem caused by man’s imperfect nature? It is not a lifeless, formless thing. It is comprised of the same men whom Madison said make government a necessity due to their flawed nature.
It is only with “angels” (if one accepts angels as being flawless) that government could work the way it was intended by protecting rights, because only a perfect being could handle the power of the state without abusing it or misusing their authority. They would never act on their corrupt nature because they are immune to it.
So we return to Madison’s rhetorical question with an answer:
But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?
It is indeed a reflection of human nature; it is flawed, as are humans. This is also why libertarian anarchy would not be perfect, either. Even if a stateless society were to come about, it would have its flaws, as well. The flaws would just be mitigated more effectively and conflict mitigated, because the people would be operating from a sound philosophical premise that both conforms to nature and acknowledges man’s imperfect nature.