Robert George and Michael Hannon revisit the perennial modern question of political society and the common good. For George, government is a instrumental good that is entirely ordered to individual ends; for Hannon political life (and therefore some government) is a common good which transcends the particular good of any individual and, in so doing, provides a more lofty good than any that is peculiar to him.
One factor that continually gets overlooked in these debates is that the size and degree of complexity of the thing you call “government” has an essential role to play in the question, since governments – at least those that are political common goods – are of a fixed size. For Aristotle and St. Thomas, a political society was something made of a few thousand citizens, but with the advent of the modern nation state and the extension of suffrage, a political society started to be measured in units that were larger than a polis by several orders of magnitude, at which point Aristotle says they can no longer be considered political societies. They’re just too big. One can’t scale up the polis forever and keep it as a common good, since when it becomes too big it can no longer facilitate the political life of the citizens. This happens for three reasons:
1.) The action of any citizen is so disproportionate to the whole that it is not experienced as meaningful political action. An Athenian citizen in a 500 person assembly could have a positive sense of contributing to a verdict or a law; and he could know that he could persuade enough persons to have a real effect on the outcome of the vote. No one who knows his vote counts as one out of a hundred million – or even one out of a hundred thousand, which is the size of a smallish American county – can experience the same thing.
2.) The government itself becomes so labyrinthine and complex that no individual citizen knows how to live a political life within it. As a consequence, government falls to specialists as opposed to citizens since to figure out how government works in the concrete case is a full time job. In fact, it is doubtful to me that even the small groups at the top of representative governments know enough about the workings of the Leviathan to live a genuinely political life within it. What senator understands the budget? Does anyone?
3.) The number of well-intentioned regulations reaches a point where a reasonable man is no longer a standard for what should be done, at which point he is replaced by consultants and court scribes. In response to many of the significant organizational problems of social life, we no longer think “what would a reasonable person do?” but “We ought to check with our lawyers to see whether this is okay”. But as soon as political life ceases to cultivate the standard of the reasonable man, it ceases to be an expression of genuine human flourishing.
Though there is no bright yellow line marking where it happens, at some point the size of the government hits a tipping point where it no longer is the action of us but an of an It; and we can no longer look to it as an institution within which we exercise political life but only as a Leviathan that we must appease with tax-offerings and paperwork and exploit for whatever resources it might offer us. If, after it has reached such a tipping point, we still insist on calling it a “government” then Robert George is right that it seems to play only an instrumental role in human happiness. But if we insist with Hannon (and, famously, Dekoninck) that government is a real common good, then it seems to me we ought to agree with Aristotle that it is impossible for it to have as many citizens as the things we now call governments. We will not so much look to what we call governments to give us a political life, but more to a Church parish, a platoon, a company, etc..