Sense and Nonsense: Government in a Perfect Society

The first day of the Clarence Thomas Senate Hearings, Mr. Kennedy read from an interview with Mr. Thomas in which Thomas suggested that perhaps in a perfect society we would not need things like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Department of Commerce, and other such worrisome bodies. Mr. Kennedy was appropriately appalled at this suggestion that such bureaucracy is not needed. It seemed at the time as if in Thomas he had a live anarchist on his hands.

In response to this query, Thomas dutifully explained that he did not mean that such illustrious bodies as the Departments of Agriculture and Commerce should not now exist. He pointed out that the EEOC and other such agencies of government came into existence because folks in general were so bad. They discriminated. They cheated. They lied and generally indulged in other unpleasant things. So government bodies were instituted not because men were “perfect” or free or good, but because they were, on the whole, quite distasteful.

As if to confirm this thesis, Senator Hatch also read the same interview of Judge Thomas into the record. He carefully explained again that Thomas was by no means against having such arms of government. He just meant that they would not be needed if men were free or perfect. Thomas did not necessarily think branches of government needed to be as big as they have come to be, but he insisted that they were needed. Hatch explained that the journal that interviewed Thomas was one that doubted that government was necessary at all. Not merely was that government best which governed least, but that government was best that did not govern, period.

Though Judge Thomas is now on the Supreme Court, it still seems useful to take a further look at the principles involved in this exchange between Senators Kennedy and Hatch and Judge Thomas. Thomas’s thesis about government, revealed in this incident, is one that the history of political thought generally associates with St. Augustine. It holds that government was instituted with the Fall of Man. If men were not evil, government would not exist.

However, the fact is that the world is full of sundry kinds of evil-doing inhabitants. Government thus is remedial. That is, it is designed to meet things, rather awful things, that should not exist in the first place, but do.

This position is often called simply “political realism.” Government ought not to exist but does so because human beings do awful things. Government itself, however, is unnecessary in a perfect world, but we may need a rather large dose of it in this one, including the Departments of Commerce and Agriculture, not to mention the EEOC, which Thomas himself seemed to imply needed a rather strong arm. We might even need a Supreme Court in a perfect world—an even more mind-boggling thought, to be sure.

The Thomas hearings, no doubt, have been the best (and the worst) thing to happen to natural law since Cicero and Aquinas. We can now add to our current fund of political discourse the Augustinian thesis. This thesis was echoed even in our Founding Fathers, specifically by Madison in a famous passage in Essay 51 of the Federalist: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” Judge Thomas is in good company.

On the other hand, it is not exactly right that government as such is rooted solely in disorder, sin, evil, or whatever you want to call it. The tradition of Aristotle and Aquinas argues rather that man was by nature a political animal. This means, God forbid, that it might be advisable to have a Department of Commerce or Agriculture or a Supreme Court, even if men were perfect. The main reason we have government, in this view, is not simply that we are fallen or imperfect, as Judge Thomas seemed to imply.

Probably the best and clearest discussion of this topic is that of Yves Simon in his General Theory of Authority. Aquinas had already pointed out that Augustine was partly right, that much disorder in the world was due to the fact of personal and social disorder, a disorder rooted in our very souls. We were not perfect beings, and we had to face this fact as best we could. Plato and Aristotle understood this dire aspect of human nature as well as Augustine did, as would Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Madison after Aquinas.

Moreover, government itself could be an additional cause of this disorder. The libertarians and anarchists have a point. A good deal of the worst disorders in human history come from disordered government, from inefficient or brutal tyrants, from corrupt bureaucrats or legislators or judges. Worry about the rulers is a healthy American tradition. John Paul II touched on this issue in his reaffirmation of the doctrine of original sin in Centesimus Annus.

Yet, there are at least three reasons why we would have government even if we were perfect. It is important to consider them. One of these reasons is that we would always have people, children to be exact, who need guidance. In a perfect world, we would still have children. Parents would still need to address them, substitute for their reason until they were capable of rule. Presumably also, it would take time to learn all the things needed to rule in any civil society, even of the perfect, so some temporary substitutional role for government, not rooted in disorder, might be conceived on a temporary basis, analogous to parental rule.

The two main reasons for government, however, would exist even if we lived in a perfect society. First we would still need to decide to stay together, to will our unity, to judge its reasonableness. If we saw that it would be well that we lived an organized life together, as we would, then we would still have in many cases a variety of good alternatives about what to do. Indeed, the more perfect we were, the more varied would be our choices, and therefore the more we would need an authority to decide among the many good choices.

If, rarely, we all agreed on some one alternative, then of course, we would not need government. But mostly we would. If we can imagine automobiles in a perfect society, we still have to decide on which side of the road to drive. As there is no rational reason why left or right is to be preferred, we just have to have someone decide and stick to it. Reason argues to authority.

But most importantly, the very good of any organized group of human beings requires that many of us do very many different things. To do these things well, we need to spend time, to specialize, sometimes for our whole lives. It is not wrong that, even a perfect society, it would take a person his whole life to develop some theory or invention or order or knowledge. We could not have everyone doing everything. Even in a perfect society, everyone could not do everything.

With everyone devoting himself to what he is best at, there would need to be a decision about the order of the whole, about the limits of each particular specialty. This decision would not be rooted in anything evil or imperfect, but in perfection itself. Presumably, there would be different functions, different specializations still to be met. In other words, we would still need informed bureaucracies and distinct authorities to decide questions rooted in locality, in freedom, and in the abundance of reason.

Judge Thomas was making a point about the need to confront disorder. He was even making an American point—Madison said in the Federalist Number 10, “the latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man.” Nonetheless, I think his position that “in the perfect state we would not need these things” to be a bit off the mark.

The classic tradition maintains that government in its necessity has causes both in human bias or disorder and especially in reason or perfection. Judge Thomas would have made the natural law look considerably better if he knew this aspect of it, about the fact that government is not essentially or only rooted in our crimes, irregularities, and violations but in our perfections and in our natural well-being.

When Aristotle and Aquinas observed that man is by nature a political and social animal, this is what they meant, that to be what we are and ought to be, we will need to fashion a political society. That this is not all we will need goes without saying, and that we can corrupt ourselves and others through our political institutions remains obvious, as Judge Thomas affirmed. And while it is comforting to have an Augustinian on the Supreme Court, we might still hope for one who did not forget his Aristotle and Aquinas.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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