Numerous commentators, particularly among contract or consent theorists, maintain that government is a result of the Fall—something that would not be necessary were it not for Adam’s sin. As Thomas Paine wrote in Common Sense, “society in every state is a blessing, but government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil.”
Yet even without the Fall, there would be a role for civil government for the duly recognized person who exercises civil authority. Even in an unfallen society, there is need for civil authority to minimize the cost of informational asymmetries and to minimize decision costs.
People in a prelapsarian society are not omniscient, which means that even without the Fall, there would be a role for civil authority to coordinate individual interactions to avoid suboptimal outcomes. For example, there is no morally correct answer to the question “What side of the road should people drive on?” Hence, even in a society populated by people with all the good will toward one another and all the moral virtue in the world, there would be a need to provide a consistent answer to these folks when they pulled out of the driveway.
And the question “Which side of the road should I drive on?” is a properly civil question. Answering this question belongs neither to familial nor ecclesiastical leadership. Nonetheless, the government need not use the sword in a prelapsarian society. The government would only need to be what in game theory is called a “focal arbitrator.” Civil authority would need only to announce “drive on the right side of the road,” and unfallen folk would follow the direction.
Indeed, for the most part, even in today’s fallen world, few of us need the threat of ticketing or arrest to drive on the “correct” side of the road. The natural sanction of accidents is sufficient to induce us to drive on what is the socially determined “proper” side of the road. In this case, it doesn’t matter which side of the road is chosen, only that a consistent choice is made and announced.
Secondly, civil authority would allow individuals even in an unfallen society to economize on decision costs. Labor exists in prelapsarian society, at least as described in Genesis. The need for labor suggests scarcity at least with respect to time, and that means that different actions have opportunity costs. It would presumably be better to spend time actually “cultivating and keeping” a plot of land rather than deliberating with your neighbor (even in complete good will) on a case-by-case basis where his “cultivation and keeping” leaves off and yours begins.
None of this requires force: individuals in prelapsarian community don’t dispute civil determinations, which are all made in good faith. Nonetheless, by announcing consistent rules in advance, government can minimize the time that individual neighbors would otherwise need to waste in case-by-case determinations.
Even today much of what law accomplishes is unconnected to its coercive component. You don’t go to jail if you write a will that does not conform to your government’s laws. It’s just that your will will not take effect. Contract and property law are useful far beyond their role in litigation because they allow people of good faith to coordinate their activities by following pre-announced legal forms rather than having to work out their plans (even in good faith) on a case-by-case basis.
The need, even in unfallen society, for humans to structure their common interaction is not limited to the economic realm. It is an oft-repeated maxim that constitutions are made to limit government action. But that is only half true. The primary stimulus for the U.S. Constitution, for example, was not to limit the authority of the national government. If that were its purpose, a far better means to that end would have been not to have adopted the Constitution in the first place.
The U.S. Constitution authorizes collective actions that could not occur, or could not occur as efficiently, without its adoption. As with recreational games, constitutions set out the rules that allow folks to interact together. The rules in recreational games are not coercive, but they are absolutely critical for the game. Indeed, even among players who have only good will toward one another, the game often cannot be played at all without the structure that the rules provide: what are the game’s boundaries, what “counts” as a turn or as a goal?
So why care about whether civil government would exist in prelapsarian society that expanded beyond the family or tribe?
Authors who posit the axiom that “government is a necessary evil” typically are constructing an argument against the abuse of government power. I have no problem with that agenda in a world in which coercion is necessary to control a fallen humanity, and in which the coercive powers of government are themselves wielded by fallen humans.
Nonetheless this frame for government obscures the fact that civil authority is not necessarily tied to coercive power. Even in postlapsarian society much of what government does is untied to its coercive power, and simply structures how individuals of good will interact in economics, politics, and society. While I would concede that “government coercion is a necessary evil” in a fallen world, the stress is on the coercion. Government itself is a necessary good, whether in a fallen or unfallen world.
James R. Rogers is department head and associate professor of political science at Texas A&M University. He leads the “New Man” prison ministry at the Hamilton Unit in Bryan, Texas, and serves on the Board of Directors for the Texas District of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.