What makes good government? What makes bad government? We all have experienced both types, and some in-between. Good government can make life a lot easier and more prosperous while bad government can make life miserable. Being aware of the qualities of both can sharpen our insights so that we can support the good ones and dump the bad ones.
My civics students come from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Vietnam, South Korea, Russia, Indonesia, and Japan with a few Americans added to the mix. Their ages range between 16 and 20. Few had thought about good government versus bad government. It’s all new ground.
I tell them that the U.S. Constitution was written based upon two governmental experiences of Americans from 1763 to 1787.
On one extreme is the British government whom American colonists viewed as tyrants. King George III and his governmental ministers ignorantly and arrogantly took away rights and freedoms like trial by jury and freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures that had been won by their British forbearers over 800 years of struggle and civil war.
It wasn’t that the British government leaders were dumb, they just did not understand how much American colonists had changed from their British cousins over nearly 150 years of what historians have called the “Era of Benign Neglect”. Because Great Britain was deeply involved in a series of European wars and conquest of India during that time, they had left the Americans to their own devices. Although the Americans had copied much of the best of British government, they also had developed their own culture and governments independent of the British experience.
After the British won the French and Indian War in 1763, they found themselves deeply in debt. They saw the American colonists as irresponsible and spoiled children who had shirked their duties as British citizens. It was time to force the American colonists to act responsibly. The loss of freedom and their rights as Englishmen led to the eight-year American Revolution.
On the other extreme, we see the rise of anarchy during the era of the Articles of Confederation, which was the United States’ first constitutional government from 1777 to 1787. Americans overreacted to British tyranny by setting up a weak central government. Power resided with the states and not Congress. Congress had no power either to punish individuals or to come to the aid of threatened states.
Bad and selfish government leaders in Boston and eastern Massachusetts resulted in Shays’ Rebellion between 1786-87. The wealthy businessmen and politicians in Boston had taxed the poor western Massachusetts farmers to the point that they were losing their farms and being thrown into debtors’ prison.
Daniel Shays, a Revolutionary War officer and hero, led a rebellion to take control of the Massachusetts government. The goal was to stop the abuse of power by the rich and powerful. A mercenary army was hired by those wealthy businessmen which put down the rebellion. Because of Shays’ Rebellion, the leaders from most of the 13 states agreed to meet in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 with the purpose of keeping other revolts from occurring. Out of this convention came the U.S. Constitution.
Because of these two extreme events, the goal for the Constitution was to strike a balance between tyranny on one hand and anarchy on the other. It is what I call the “Goldilocks Zone.” Since most of my students have never heard this fairy tale, I explain it to them. My message to them is that “Good government is not too hot, not too cold, but just right. Good government is not too hard, not too soft, but just right.” The Constitution was created based upon being fair, firm, flexible, and balanced.
Good government requires maturity and humility and a deep concern on the part of its leaders for the welfare of all of its people, no matter what their status, race, wealth, or education level. The Constitution provides a proper framework to that end, but it requires leaders who have the capacity to carry it out. Today, these values are lacking. We need great leaders in Washington D.C. We don’t have them now. We all suffer as a consequence. We need to dump the bad ones and bring in good leaders.
That responsibility lies with “We the People.” The 2020 elections are looming. They can’t come too soon.