Thursday, April 13, 2006

On Government and the State - Part 1

I take it as plainly evident that human societies need some form of government. I think this can be fairly limited in scope, but nevertheless Leviathan must exist. One of the more principled and intelligent Founding Fathers of America discerned this when he said:

"Nothing is more certain than the indispensable necessity of government, and it is equally undeniable, that whenever and however it is instituted, the people must cede to it some of their natural rights in order to vest it with requisite powers" (John Jay, in Federalist No. 2). Find the whole thing here.

But why is this? Why do we seem to need government? And if we are to have it, how should it be formed, how empowered, how constrained? How much right do the people have to cede?

In principle, government is necessary for several reasons, most of which revolve around the need for an ultimate force to settle questions, or the prevention of partisan force from settling questions in its own interest. A non-exhaustive list:

1. protect the weak from the depredations of the strong;

2. limit the extent to which the naturally strong can become stronger;

3. enforce equally the rights, both negative and positive, of the people;

4. administer a disinterested and uniform justice;

5. defend society against internal and external aggression;

6. create a free economic market and ensure it remains free

I think these are basic things which in practice (if not in theory) only a government can realistically achieve. Libertarians might suggest that some or all of these functions can be performed by entities other than government; socialists might suggest egalitarianism as a fundamental raison d'etre of government.

If there is no government, how are the weak to protect themselves against the strong? It is plain that some people are naturally stronger, more determined, more aggressive, more talented and more confident than others, and it is therefore obvious that in the absence of restriction such people will tend to accumulate greater wealth and power than others. To an extent, this is fair enough, since it is not reasonable to level all to the lowest common denominator. Further, the benefits of greater wealth and power are clearly visible to the poorer and weaker, and can to an extent act as stimuli to greater effort - and thus ideally reward - on their part.

But it isn't as simple as that. Too great a gap fosters resentment in the face of the inability of the poor and the weak to close it. Effort does not always lead to reward, and can lead to ruin - especially if one risks all of the little one has. People are not dispassionate in the assessment of difficulty and in most but not all cases will naturally tend to judge in their own favour, which becomes a problem when the people doing the judging are already relatively powerful. Such things can and usually do lead to social unease, which can end in violent revolt.

So we might conclude that some entity is desirable which can judge dispassionately, because without selfish interest in the outcome. This same entity might prevent the social unease arising, and certainly spilling over into revolt, by permitting people to become rich and powerful but not too rich and not too powerful, thus maintaining a reasonable gap which the able can close by their own efforts. It could ensure that the rights of all the people are available to and meaningfully enforceable by them, since right is useless if one cannot in practice assert it - and since the rich and powerful tend to want to remain rich and powerful, so they tend to favour right for themselves and not for others, often doing so by arranging matters such that one can indeed exercise a right provided that one pays the appropriate fee or satisfies certain Byzantine legal prerequisites.

Such an entity would satisfy the first four needs above. But where to find such a dispassionate entity, disinterested in the outcome and immune to partisan inerest? Can any commercial corporation do it, and if so can it do it to a reasonable extent and in all cases? Can individuals do it amongst themselves, disinterestedly judging against themselves? Unlikely, and certainly no non-primitive society has yet achieved that.

Therefore, I suggest, we need an authority above the individual and above powerful groups of partisan individuals, able to a much greater degree to judge against power as equally as against powerlessness. Only by creating some authority above narrow interest is it possible to ensure that all interests have a voice, and only then can we hope to ensure that only the legitimate rights of the powerful are enforced, and all the legitimate rights of the weak are available and are asserted against power when justified.

Thus far in the development of Man and his societies, only government has been able to do this to any reasonable and consistent extent. Therefore, since these are Good Things, we need government.

Rough justification, but comments and ideas welcome.


Anonymous Ed Iglehart said...

From Henry Thoreau:
I heartily accept the motto, "That government is best which governs least"; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe--
"That government is best which governs not at all"
and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.

Government is at best but an expedient; but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient. The objections which have been brought against a standing army, and they are many and weighty, and deserve to prevail, may also at last be brought against a standing government.
and Tom Paine's comments on the origins of government:
"SOME writers have so confounded society with government,
as to leave little or no distinction between them;
whereas they are not only different, but have different origins.

Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness;
the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections,
the latter negatively by restraining our vices.
The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions.
The first is a patron, the last a punisher....

Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence;
the palaces of kings are built on the ruins of the bowers of paradise.
For were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform, and irresistibly obeyed,
man would need no other lawgiver;"
-- Thomas Paine, On the Origins of Government...1776


20 May, 2006 17:58  
Blogger The Arch One said...

Whatever the emotive rhetoric of a more innocent age, anarchy is not going to happen any time soon. It's perhaps true enough that government is the product of our wickedness, but since we cannot do anything about that wickedness (and we cannot, Man is NOT perfectible) we seem stuck with government.


24 May, 2006 11:43  
Anonymous Tim said...

Whilst I wish heartily wish that it were possible to rely on people to actually treat each other as people, and thus do away with government as a notion, it's not going to happen.

Hawk and Dove simulations show the impossibility of common benefits all too clearly. Until there are no self-interested actors, unregulated society will be impossible.

Therefore, yes, we need government to stop us ripping each other to shreds.

But it's just as naive to suggest that a human government is ever going to act in the interests of the social masses, whatever its political flavour. Government enshrines and legitimises the wealth and authority of the elite who put it in place, no matter how well intentioned its original architects.

That elite in turn feed off everyone else to a greater or lesser extent until they get so bloated that they can't stop the next parasite displacing them. Most governmental systems follow a pretty clear arc from establishment to corruption and finally to collapse -- just like everything organic, they birth, flourish and die. It would be simply wishful to think ours was any different.

Some governments are less overtly hostile to the masses than others, I cheerfully give you that... but the state and the populace are always enemies. It is just that the populace don't always realise. There's no other way it can be while we retain the instinctive drives to be greedy and to exercise power -- and no amount of being lovely to each other will eradicate those instincts.

Anyway, to sum up, I think you're absolutely right, but I see it as an inherent tragedy of our species, rather than a Good Thing(tm).

26 July, 2006 20:11  

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