The purpose of Government is to prevent men from injuring one another.

When Thomas Jefferson thus summarized the purpose of government, he was not confining the term men to the male gender any more than he was confining injury to grievous bodily harm, for injury can take many forms which grow in number and complexity as the world develops.

One can harm one's fellow citizens by making and selling a machine which is unsafe in use; or through inadequately or inaccurately labelling a food product which results in a user consuming an additive to which he or she is strongly allergic.

There are many ways in which we can injure one another, in our personal activities, in commerce and industry, in our use (or misuse) of shared natural resources. In Jefferson's view it is Government's job to identify and define those actions leading to the injury of others, then to prevent them through appropriate Laws and Enforcement.

Thomas Jefferson was not inventing a new idea. He was expressing a continuing tradition of fundamental rightness with which we are all, in our consciences, familiar.

Most people of the Anglo legal tradition (Britain, the United States and many Commonwealth countries) object in principle to any excess of regulation. We dislike meddlesome government; we find unnecessary regulation tiresome and annoying; we abhor oppressive government. Yet few would object to being told they may not do something, if it can be clearly shown that their action is in some way harmful or detrimental to others. And when a person is suffering injury at the hands of another, we would all accept that person's right to remedy and protection in law.

The idea is similarly summarized by one of the 20th century's leading figures in British justice, Lord Denning, in his book The Family Story: Each man should be free to develop his own personality to the full; the only restrictions upon this freedom should be those which are necessary to enable everyone else to do the same.

This view of Law as the prevention of injury between people reflects the fundamental limitation of social freedom. We cannot all have absolute freedom in our social relationships with one another. If one person is totally free to do whatever he likes, he is by definition free to limit or indeed eliminate the freedom of another, thereby reducing that second freedom possibly to zero.

The best we can do is to maximize freedom, and this we achieve when we all accept certain limitations on our individual freedoms so that we do not infringe the freedom of others.

To describe this concept of shared, limited freedom we use the word of Latin-Roman origin: Liberty.

A Land of Liberty is not a land in which we all have absolute freedom to do exactly as we please. That would be a land of anarchy, since everyone would be free to limit, or eliminate the freedom of anyone else.

A Land of Liberty is a land in which we all accept a degree of restraint in those actions which are harmful or detrimental to others, so that we can all enjoy not absolute, but a measure of Liberty. In this way, the general Liberty can be maximized.

Without the Rule of Law people would be free to injure one another in the widest possible sense, each attempting to enhance his or her own personal wealth and possessions through the dispossession of others. This is Anarchy.

The remedy is the kind of Government visualized by Jefferson and Lord Denning, Government which exists specifically to prevent people from doing those things which are injurious, harmful or detrimental to one another.

When Government as referee identifies those actions which are harmful or detrimental to others, then prevents such actions by Law and its Enforcement, Government is limiting individual freedom; but in so doing it creates the conditions in which the general overall Liberty is maximized.

But should Government then extend its powers, intruding upon people's private lives, Liberty moves into Oppression.

Back to Jefferson:
“A wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another,
yet leave them otherwise free...”

Protection without Oppression

Good Government should protect people from injury in all its aspects. Equally important is that government should not itself create injury in the form of oppression by intrusive laws.

This sets clear limits on the scope of law and government activity by restricting law between the twin confines of obligation and limitation.

The purpose of law is to prevent injury, and the identification of an injury either actual or potential obligates government to initiate the legislative process. The formulation of legislation which will prevent that injury either totally or as nearly as practicably possible will conclude the process. That defines government obligation.

The limitation upon law is that without a clearly identifiable "injured party" - an injury caused to one person or party by another - there can be no cause for law.

Thus government-initiated intrusive or oppressive laws cannot pass. In the words of John Stuart Mill, "The only purpose for which power can rightfully be exercised over any member of a civilized community against his will is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant."

The adoption of such clearly defined boundaries affects the process of legislation and government, as well as the very status and function of legislators.

Both obligated, and limited in their actions, Legislators lose their arbitrary powers, becoming subject to clear disciplines and thus answerable for their every action. Legislators become the servants of justice, not the manipulators of it.

The Art of Good Government