3.1.3 Government depends on possible resort to coercion

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Unit 3 Contents




What would you say is the main difference between people who work for a pressure group that campaigns for justice, and the government minister whom they lobby?

For example, what is the main difference between campaigners with CAFOD seeking fairer rules of international trade, and the UK Secretary of State for International Development?


Here is one main answer: campaigners can only attempt to persuade others to change things, whereas the government minister can, if he or she has Parliament’s support, actually employ the law to implement changes.

There is an extremely important point here, about government and justice, which we must grasp.

The primary means by which governments act is law that is, when necessary, enforced by the police and judiciary.

Of course, most people generally obey the law, so it doesn’t actually need to be enforced most of the time.

But everything that government does – whether in countering terrorism, international development, upholding workers’ rights, environmental protection or providing health services – depends on the possibility of putting the law into effect by enforcement.

It is the power to enforce law which means that government can actually do justice.  But the very same power also makes government very dangerous – because it can use this power to do great injustice.

This is why the question Unit 3 addresses is so vitally important.  We need to know what government’s proper role is so that we can try to make sure it actually brings justice, rather than abuses its power and causes injustice.

Two further points will help us understand the significance of the point that government always depends on possible resort to force.

(i)       Government and territory

Every government is defined by a geographical territory.  In one way, this may seem completely obvious.  Yet we need to see its significance.

The government of the country we call Switzerland can enforce the law of Switzerland within the borders of that country.  The same is true of the UK, Botswana, Mexico, and so on.  If the government in one of those countries couldn’t actually do that, it could not succeed in doing justice in its country – it would lack the power to govern effectively.  In fact, the Mexican government, for example, does not succeed in enforcing the law in some areas near the United States border because criminal drug trafficking gangs are so powerful – and the result is terrible injustice, especially high levels of violence and many murders.

It is only because a government has the power to act to enforce law, when necessary, across a defined territory that it can actually bring about justice in that territory.

The point here is true of government at all levels, not only that of nation-states.  The nation-state of Switzerland, for example, comprises a large number of smaller areas called ‘cantons’ and each of these has its own local government.  There are such lower tiers of government in each country, and in some there are several.  In the UK there are parish councils, district councils, unitary authorities, borough councils, county councils, and also governing authorities for London, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.  At each of these tiers, the local or national government has certain recognized powers in relation to a geographical area, and it can use those powers to act in that territory, depending on possible resort to law to enforce its action.  If you don’t pay your Council Tax, or if you build a house after the local authority has denied you planning permission, you will be taken to court.

It is the fact that government is always of a particular territory which means that government actually has the power to do justice.  If a body claiming to govern had no territorial jurisdiction, it could do nothing, whether justice or injustice.

(ii)      Charity and justice

The second point is to do with the relation of charity and justice. ‘Charity’ is an English word that derives from the Latin, caritas.  Its meaning is one kind of love: self-giving love.  In the New Testament this is referred to by the Greek word agape.  St Paul praised the qualities of agape in 1 Corinthians 13, a passage that has become very widely known.

While the word ‘charity’ now has various connotations in English (not all positive), fundamentally it refers to love for another person that is expressed in acting for the sake of the other person, in their interests.  This might well be at cost to oneself – which is why charity is self-giving love.

This love drives many kinds of excellent ‘charitable’ projects across the world, for victims of torture, abused children, homeless people, and so on.  You will be able to think of many kinds of charitable work.

Love can also drive people to go into politics to seek to use the power of government to bring justice.

But the bodies we call ‘charities’ cannot themselves do justice in the way that governments can, precisely because they do not have the power to enforce law across a territory.  It is only the political authorities which have the power actually to bring justice where there is injustice.

This doesn’t mean for one second that charity is not vitally important.  In fact, governments have often failed to do justice or have committed terrible injustices.  In all such circumstances, charity is desperately needed.  Beyond that, even if a particular government fulfils its role quite fully and competently, people have many needs that go beyond what any government agency can do.  Examples of these are: friendship to lonely, elderly people; comfort of the bereaved; and loving, generous care for orphans.  Charity to meet such needs as these is always necessary.

But it is very important to see the main point about the difference between ‘charitable works’, on one hand, and the justice that can government can do, on the other.

It is precisely because a government has the power across a whole territory to act, by law that is when necessary enforced, that it can go beyond charity and do justice.

As the last few paragraphs bring out, both the following things are true.  In one way, charity can go beyond justice because charity can, for example, give friendship and costly personal support – because charity is agape.  In another way, justice can go beyond charity, because, if government actually does its job, all will have justice, not only those whom limited charitable work reaches.

We shall return to the relationship between charity and justice later in the module.  This has been quite a controversial and fraught issue in discussions of CST.


End of 3.1.3

Go to 3.1.4 Distributive justice

Module B outline

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