Most candidates for elective office are decent people and want to make America a better place; however, every candidate has different ideas for how to achieve this goal. Ideas have consequences. Bad ideas, even when they come from well-meaning people, still have bad consequences.

Candidates, whether they’re running for president or city council, need to be judged by what they say they are going to do once they get into office. One way to evaluate candidates’ ideas is to visit their website and examine what they have to say. It is important to assess candidates’ promises in light of the job for which they are campaigning. If a candidate for sheriff said he wanted to build a community garden that would seem strange since that’s not the sheriff’s job. Likewise if a candidate for Congress said she wanted to reduce crime in the neighborhood, it wouldn’t seem right. That’s not the job of a congresswoman.

That brings us to the most important question of all: What is the purpose of government in the first place?

One of the best places to get answers for why we have government is the Declaration of Independence. It states that all human beings are created equal and each has a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and that the purpose of government is to protect these rights from those who would violate them. For example, that's why we have police officers to protect us from criminals and our armed forces to protect us from foreign armies and terrorists.

How is it that all human beings are created equal?

After all, some people are stronger than others. Some are older and wiser. People have different talents, so how can they be equal? What Thomas Jefferson meant when he wrote these words is even though everyone is different, all human beings are equally human and no one is born to rule over others. This is why America does not have a king or a dictator. Americans elect their leaders and have written laws that everyone, including elected officials, must follow.

How is government supposed to operate?

The first law that the first American citizens wrote was the Constitution which describes how the government is supposed to operate. In order to prevent the government from doing more than it was supposed to do and actually taking the rights of the citizens, the founders split the government into three parts: those who write the law (the legislature), those who carry out the law (the executive), and those who interpret the law (the judiciary).

The Constitution also separates powers between federal and state and local governments. The federal government, for example, has the power to make treaties with other countries and to raise an army to protect the nation. State legislatures and local governments like city councils make most of the laws that affect the daily lives of Americans. After all, the government level that is closest to an issue is the one that should resolve it. Imagine if you had to call Washington D.C. to get a fireman to come to your house!

The founders also delegated power to “the people” to get things done. The United States has more than 800,000 registered charities, some 335,000 churches, and countless civic associations. Since before we became a nation, individuals and groups of individuals have done more to educate children, feed the poor, encourage recycling, plant trees, restore lives and rebuild neighbourhoods than the government.

Often it’s the peoples’ job not the government’s!

Our country and citizens face a lot of problems. But just because something is a problem, doesn’t mean that government is best able to solve it. Often when the government tries to solve problems that aren’t really a part of its core responsibility, the government creates more problems than it solves!

That means a lot of responsibility is left to individual people, families and communities. The government’s primary purpose is to protect citizens’ rights so the people can concentrate on improving their own lives and the lives of their friends, family and neighbors. That’s what the pursuit of happiness is all about! You have a right to use your time, talents, and material possessions to make a better life for yourself and others.

Just what are my rights?

It’s important to understand what is and is not a right. You have a right to you—that is—your person. And by extension you have a right to your possessions. These possessions include the stuff you’ve earned or the things others have freely given to you, as well as the ideas in your head, your opinions and beliefs, your time, your abilities and your hard work. (The Bill of Rights spells out many of these rights and more.) People cannot justly take your rights from you. Likewise, you do not have a right to someone else’s possessions, ideas or hard work.

If a person, even if it is an elected leader, says that you have a right to something other than that which you have earned, they are misusing the term “right.” In order for you to have a right to something that you did not earn, the government would have to take it from someone else. This is the exact opposite of what the government is supposed to do. The purpose of government is to protect the rights of people, not to take them.

Examining the Candidate

In light of the purpose of government, citizens can examine candidates’ promises and positions. Here are a few questions to get you started:

Does the candidate intend to create programs that are best done at another level of government or by the people themselves?

If the candidate has been in office before, has he or she balanced the budget or borrowed money to pay the bills?

Does the candidate want to raise taxes or will the candidate balance the budget with the money that taxpayers already pay?

If the candidate has been in office before, did she fulfill her promises?

Does the candidate promise to take from some Americans in order to give things to other Americans?

Learn more

The Bill of Rights Institute is great place for kids to learn about the Constitution and our system of government.