Essay Read By Constituting America Founder, Actress Janine Turner
“I do believe that men of genius will be deterred unless possessed of great virtues. We may well dispense with the first characters when destitute of virtue I should wish them never to come forward–But if we do not provide against corruption, our government will soon be at an end: nor would I wish to put a man of virtue in the way of temptation. Evasions, and caballing would evade the amendment. Nor would the danger be less, if the executive has the appointment of officers. The first three or four years we might go on well enough; but what would be the case afterwards? I will add, that such a government ought to be refused by the people–and it will be refused.” – George Mason, Farrand’s Records, Federal Convention, Saturday, June 23, 1787, regarding provisions against fraud and corruption regardless of an invasion’s origin slowly eroding the United States.
In the true spirit of the American founding, George Mason’s assertion during the Federal Convention of 1787 deeply resonates with our contemporary political and social landscape. As he opined, a lack of virtue and unchecked corruption pose significant threats to the integrity and endurance of our government. Today, as we explore the principle of the appropriate role and purpose of government in protecting people from violence and fraud, we must bear these foundational truths in mind. We must also heed the wisdom of Mason, understanding the immense potential of the government as a force for good, but also the catastrophic possibilities when it strays from the path of virtue and integrity.
At its most fundamental level, the government exists to serve and protect its citizenry, a contract defined and limited by the United States Constitution. In this regard, the state’s role as a protector against violence and fraud becomes manifestly clear. This duty underscores the necessity for law enforcement agencies, a system of justice that ensures accountability, and regulatory mechanisms that guard against fraudulent actions. It is within these parameters that the government can and must act, without overstepping its boundaries and encroaching upon individual liberties.
Mason’s words have their roots in the prose written by his fellow Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, in the Declaration of Independence: “to secure… rights, Governments are instituted among Men” and is the very the heart of the United States’ philosophy and the very nature of democratic governance. These words are an affirmation of the contract between the governed and their governors, denoting a central truth of political theory and civil society: the state’s primary purpose is to protect the individual rights of its citizens.
Liberty has an intrinsic value, not as an abstract philosophical concept, but as a practical, living principle that shapes our everyday lives. The freedom to pursue our dreams, express our thoughts, associate with others, and engage in economic transactions without undue restraint is what gives life its richness and vitality. Yet, as vital as individual liberty is, it does not exist in a vacuum. Rights inevitably come into conflict, and when they do, a mechanism is needed to adjudicate those conflicts in a fair and just manner. This is where government steps in.
The role of government in protecting individuals from harm when individual rights conflict is a delicate balancing act. The government must tread carefully to prevent undue encroachments on individual liberty while simultaneously safeguarding the common good. It must protect individual rights without creating a lawless society where might makes right and the strongest prevail over the weakest. In doing so, it preserves the delicate balance between individual freedom and societal stability.
Consider the realm of property rights. Suppose one person’s use of their property causes harm to another’s property, such as pollution flowing downstream from a factory to a farmer’s field. Here, the rights of one individual or group, the factory owners, are in direct conflict with the rights of another, the farmers. If left unresolved, such conflicts can escalate, potentially leading to animosity, legal battles, and even violence.
In this instance, government, as the arbiter of rights and protector of the public good, has a vital role to play. By setting and enforcing regulations that prevent harm, it can ensure the factory owner’s right to conduct business without infringing on the farmer’s rights to a clean environment and productive land. In this way, the government upholds the tenets of liberty and justice for all, ensuring that no individual or group’s rights supersede another’s to the detriment of society.
All just law is rooted in this concept: where rights come into conflict, the party that is more aggrieved/harmed is supposed to be protected by the law. However, as the government steps in to mediate such conflicts, it must be careful not to overreach, a common pitfall in the quest to ensure harmony. Overreach can manifest in excessive regulation, infringing upon individual freedoms, and stifling economic prosperity. The challenge lies in striking the correct balance, respecting individual rights while preserving the common good.
Moreover, it is vital to remember that government itself is not immune to the temptation of overreach. This is precisely why the Founding Fathers, mindful of the potential for tyranny, insisted on a system of checks and balances to prevent any one branch of government from gaining too much power. It is incumbent upon us, as citizens, to remain vigilant against any such overreach, to question and challenge when necessary, and to insist on our rights and freedoms.
The delicate balance between liberty and security is a critical concern. Too much emphasis on security, and we risk suffocating individual freedom; too little, and we expose ourselves to the danger of anarchy and lawlessness. This tension forms the crux of the government’s challenge in protecting its people from violence and fraud while preserving the inalienable rights of its citizenry.
However, in today’s increasingly complex society, the government’s role is constantly being tested and redefined. As we delve further into the 21st century, we find ourselves grappling with unprecedented challenges—cybercrime, international terrorism, economic fraud on a massive scale—that blur the boundaries of the state’s role. In this context, it is crucial to reassert the primacy of integrity and virtue, two pillars Mason identified as essential to good governance. Without them, the government risks becoming a tool for the powerful, rather than an institution that serves its people.
Indeed, Mason’s concerns about corruption, temptations, and the erosion of government integrity remain as pertinent today as they were in the 18th century. The key to preserving the integrity of our government lies in adhering to the principles of transparency, accountability, and the rule of law. Our elected officials must remain accountable to the people they serve, demonstrating their commitment to these ideals in every decision they make. Additionally, the government’s regulatory role must be applied uniformly, without favor or prejudice, to ensure a level playing field for all.
Mason was also prescient in his prediction of how unchecked corruption could spell the end of a government. In this, we are reminded of the ever-present need for vigilance and active participation from the citizenry. The fight against corruption and fraud should not be left to the government alone. As citizens, we must hold our government accountable, demanding transparency and integrity in all its dealings. Furthermore, we should also resist the allure of complacency, instead embracing our civic duty to contribute to the democratic process, whether that be through voting, peaceful protest, or public discourse.
Mason’s words serve as a beacon, guiding us through the murky waters of modern governance. As we navigate the complexities of the 21st century, his emphasis on virtue, the prevention of corruption, and the importance of a government that serves its people rather than its self-interests continues to ring true. As we affirm the government’s role in protecting us from violence and fraud, we must also insist on its adherence to the principles that have defined our nation since its inception: liberty, integrity, and the unyielding pursuit of justice. Only by doing so can we ensure the preservation of our government and the endurance of America.
The role of government as the protector of individual rights when they come into conflict is an essential one. It balances the scale between liberty and societal stability, ensuring harmony among conflicting interests. Yet, it must perform this duty with due respect for the very rights it is sworn to protect, treading the line between regulatory oversight and individual freedom. As we navigate these complex issues, we must remember that preserving liberty is the ultimate goal, and a government that respects this will indeed be a government of the people, by the people, for the people.
Andrew Langer is President of the Institute for Liberty, a Fellow with Constituting America, as well as Chairman and Founder of the Institute for Regulatory Analysis and Engagement. IFL is a non-profit advocacy organization focused on advancing free-market and limited government principles into public policy at all levels. IRAE is a non-profit academic and activist organization whose mission is to examine regulations and regulatory proposals, assess their economic and societal impacts, and offer expert commentary in order to create better public policies. Andrew has been involved in free-market and limited-government causes for more than 25 years, has testified before Congress nearly two dozen times, spoken to audiences across the United States, and has taught at the collegiate level.
A globally-recognized expert on the impact of regulation on business, Andrew is regularly called on to offer innovative solutions to the challenges of squaring public policy priorities with the impact and efficacy of those policies, as well as their unintended consequences. Prior to becoming President of IFL and founding IRAE, he was the principal regulatory affairs lobbyist for the National Federation of Independent Business, the nation’s largest small business association. As President of the Institute for Liberty, he became recognized as an expert on the Constitution, especially issues surrounding private property rights, free speech, abuse of power, and the concentration of power in the federal executive branch.
Andrew has had an extensive career in media—having appeared on television programs around the world. From 2017 to 2021, he hosted a highly-rated weekly program on WBAL NewsRadio 1090 in Baltimore (as well as serving as their principal fill-in host from 2011 until 2021), and has filled in for both nationally-syndicated and satellite radio programs. He also created and hosted several different podcasts—currently hosting Andrew and Jerry Save The World, with long-time colleague, Jerry Rogers.
He holds a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from Troy University and his degree from William & Mary is in International Relations.