The Core Principle for Effective Government

The core principle for effective government is to protect life and then preserve and uphold individual freedom to the maximum extent consistent with law and order. Thomas Jefferson stated this well in his 1801 Inaugural Address:

A wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government.

He also stated it well in the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed [emphasis added].

Freedom is not simply a good idea, but stems from the nature of people, who are created in the image of God and thus ought to be free. Freedom is a right, not a privilege granted by the government.

As a result, the primary way to evaluate any policy is to first ask: Does this policy increase or decrease individual freedom? Policies that tend to decrease freedom will not just tend to get bad results. Rather, they are also contrary to the fundamental purpose of government.

And it is the same with candidates. A good question to ask about the candidates as we go to the polls is: Is this candidate generally for policies that increase individual freedom or policies that increase government control?

In other words, we need to think not only about specific issues, but also about the overall philosophies and principles that govern those who are running for office — and thus the positions they will take on not only current but also upcoming issues. The candidates who will lead best are those whose own political philosophy is in line with the purpose of government itself: to preserve and uphold freedom to the greatest possible extent.

  • staffaction

    Right on, Matt. We sure have a long way to go. It seems that this idea can be attractive to folks until you start getting to specifics…does that mean no more government grants for education? no more loans, etc. etc. Then it’s not so easy anymore to favor freedom.

  • mark

    While i agree with this sentiment, wouldn’t this principle applied to the issue of say “abortion” bring devastating results? It would seem to argue FOR Roe v. Wade as it increases the freedom of women, yet it would deny the freedom principle that was stated off the bat due to creation in the image of God.

  • Matt


    Glad you brought that up. The first thing I’d say is exactly what you did: Abortion destroys the freedom of the unborn baby, and so the principle that government exists to uphold freedom leads to the pro-life position. The key here is recognizing that the unborn are fully human persons. Since they are, they are deserving of the same protection of their freedom as the rest of us.

    The second thing I would say is that, in addition to preserving freedom, government also exists to protect life. And these are related, because they are both grounded in the same thing–namely, the image of God. Upholding freedom is really an implication of the duty to protect life; likewise, the duty to uphold freedom also implies the duty to protect life, because if freedom is a fundamental right, then so also must be the protection of the human life that has the right to freedom.

    To those who might respond that making abortion illegal decreases the freedom of those who want to have abortion, I would say that that argument only has merit if the unborn are not real human persons. Freedom does not include the right to take away another’s freedom; at the risk of sounding too analytical in relation to a very emotionally charged subject, that would actually be self-contradictory.

    All that to say: Great question to bring up, and I would argue that this principle actually argues against Roe v. Wade and gives another basis for overturning it.


  • Derek

    Americans are a bizarre lot. It’s odd that people with a religious foundation would argue FOR added freedoms when, apart from the freedom that comes from ascention, religion and the views of many of its practioners is terribly restrictive and there’s a terrible history as bad as any governments in respect to enforcing ‘God’s will’. I think the agenda isn’t so much about the promotion of individual freedom, it’s more about the replacement of government controls with religious controls on society.

  • Matt

    Derek: I can assure you that I have no interest in seeing government controls replaced by religious controls!

    People ought to be free and lead their own lives. This is how people flourish and is how we were designed to live. Freedom is right, and leads to (as well as consists in) a good and just society. It is a fallacy to think that everyone is dominated by some sort of desire to control people.

    Freedom of course needs to exist within a framework–so, for example, the government ought to preserve law and order. But the framework needs to remain light and not excessive. And the framework ultimately necessary for truly living as a free person is character–but that is a result of individual decisions and cannot be coerced.

    I would further argue that, ultimately, true freedom comes only from faith in Christ and following him, but this, again, cannot be coerced. The church should teach the Bible, but should not impose any controls, as that is not the role of the church and true faith cannot be compelled.

    And the Bible itself is not about giving people a bunch of new rules to live by. The entire law is summed up in two commands: love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. As Augustine said, “love God and do as you please.” The desire of the Christian is to serve his or her neighbor, for their neighbor’s good and the glory of God.

  • Derek

    Hi Matt, who decides the framework and how?

  • Matt

    Derek: The framework is the Constitution, which ought to be (as in the US) established by the consent of the governed. “We the people. . .”

  • Derek

    So, the framework excludes men, blacks, and anyone else who isn’t white and owns land?

  • Derek

    That should have been “women” not “men”.

  • Simon

    Dear Matt,

    I’ve recently discovered you blog and have really been ministered to by the articles you’ve been posting. I’ve been following Dr John Piper’s ministry for several years and see it as foundational, and what you are doing as working out the glory of God in all of life- something I am trying to internalise and live out.

    So could you help by providing some biblical references or resources to buttress the statement “preserve and uphold individual freedom to the maximum extent consistent with law and order” – I struggle with this as some people don’t seem to know what to do, and left to themselves can self- destruct and also harm those around them.



  • Matt


    Here are a few thoughts and passages.

    First, it is an implication of being in the image of God (Gen 1:26). Genesis was unique in affirming that _all_ humans are in the image of God. Back in the ancient times when it was written, only kings and rulers were thought to be in the image of God (or the “gods” the society worshiped). But Genesis affirms that all humans are in God’s image–not just certain ones. An implication of this is that all are equal. Maximizing freedom is a corollary of all people being equal.

    Second, although not a biblical argument per se, maximizing freedom is also a corollary of what it means to be an adult. The point of parenting (or one of them) is to raise your kids to be mature, self responsible individuals capable of living their own lives. A large scope of freedom–the maximum consistent with law and order–is a corollary of what it means for the government to treat adults like adults.

    Third, Grudem discusses the biblical arguments for human liberty a bit in his _Politics: According to the Bible_. One thing he points out is that “slavery and oppression are always viewed negatively in Scripture, while freedom is viewed positively. When God gives the Ten Commandments to the people of Israel, he begins by saying, ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery’ (Ex 20:2). When the people of Israel turned against the Lord, he gave them into the hand of oppressors who enslaved them and took away their freedom (see Deut 28:18-19, 33; Judg 2:16-33). Loss of freedom was a judgment, not a blessing.” On the contrary, then, the Messianic prophecy in Isaiah 61 is that the Messiah would “proclaim liberty to the captives” (v. 1).

    Grudem does a good job of drawing out the implications: “Citizens and governments should agree to restrictions on human freedom only reluctantly and only when there is a significant need to do so.” Certainly there are times that it is appropriate to limit liberty. Speed limits are one example. But, Grudem continues, “what worries me is that in recent years political debates show almost no awareness of the huge value of liberty and the great loss that comes when it is restricted. I agree that governments should restrict human liberty to the limited extent necessary to carry out the legitimate functions of the government, such as punishing evil and rewarding what is good. However, governments too often attempt to restrict human liberty in ways that are much more extensive and intrusive and that prohibit not only the doing of things that are clearly evil, but also doing things that are morally neutral or good but not favored by the government.”