1994 November 2

On Government


The United States capitol

Pictures taken by Raul654 around Washington DC on May 7, 2005.

The framers of the new United States knew exactly what the country should be—or at least not be; the Declaration of Independence is, in fact, a long list of grievances the Colonies had with England. Mixed with a few recent political ideas of the Enlightenment, their vision led to a brilliant experiment in democracy that has forever changed the relationship of a people to its leaders.

A basis for redefining the Law today may not be so clear. Why fix what isn’t broken? Yet I believe that something has broken down in America today. The Spirit of the Law is hidden behind a forest of Letters; a forest that must be cleared and replanted if a beautiful and nurturing land is to flourish. The Spirit has not changed in 200 years: Freedom. Liberty is the wind that stirred our minds and unfurled our flag. Looking again at that momentous line from the Declaration, we find that its writers placed Freedom second only to Life itself in importance.

As objective analysts, it behooves us to verify that Liberty is indeed a worthy principle upon which to base our government. And in order to recognize the proper basis for government, we must first understand government itself. The two questions that must be answered to comprehend an entity are: What is it? and Why is it? Having grasped that much, the entity may be judged by asking a third question, Should it be? And if the answer is yes, the final question becomes: How should it be?

What is government? It is that which holds together a society; it comprises the rules of social cooperation and, by extension, their enforcement.

Why are there governments? Even the most contented citizens rarely speak other than disparagingly of their government (this essay is, perhaps, no exception). Why then do we put up with such a frustrating edifice? The reason, of course, is that we cannot survive without it. Homo Sapiens is neither the strongest nor the fastest lifeform on the planet; neither the biggest nor the best-protected; neither the most numerous nor the longest-lived. It is doubtful that we could have survived our infancy, as an individual or a species, without cooperation. The massive intellect that separates us from all other animals has also given us the means to protect ourselves from them and even triumph over them. The ability to visualize the future as well as the past and present, and to communicate our understanding fully, enables us to pool our resources toward a common goal with unmatched success.

Nor has cooperation become unnecessary just because wild animals have been conquered. Survival is still an issue—only now it is other humans we must prepare against. And even when there is little threat to our existence, we must cooperate to tame the planet itself and live in the environment we have created. Our lives would quickly dissipate into a chaotic, mostly doomed, struggle for self-preservation were all cooperation to cease. How many of us could survive without someone else’s help, or at least with the help of something made by someone else? And even if we could survive, what sort of life would we have without all the cooperative efforts and effects we take for granted today?

Like so many other animals, humanity learned early in its history to overcome its DNA’s inherent selfishness and band together. The rewards of cooperation were immediate and enormous: more and better food and clothes; safety; even the luxury of free time to do what you wanted to do and not what you had to do.

There was, of course, a corresponding drawback to deal with. With everyone needing everyone else’s help, it was no longer possible to put your own welfare ahead of theirs. Doing whatever you wanted, the new freedom cooperation provided, was not possible in regards to other people. They had to be treated as equals, and everyone had to agree to that. Anyone who didn’t by definition forfeited the new cooperation.

There was quite a remarkable trade-off of freedoms back then; we gave up the freedom to do whatever we wanted provided we could find enough to eat in exchange for the time and means to do whatever we wanted that didn’t curtail anyone else’s freedom. If the first version sounds more ideal, that’s because it is; and as such, it is eminently impractical. What good is an ideal freedom if you haven’t the wherewithal to pursue it? Compare your life (bookstores, TV, airplanes, computers) with that of a medieval hermit and see who you think has more freedom. If you picked the latter, you should give up all your belongings and move to an isolated island on which you can lead your precarious, though ultimately free, existence. The rest of us will try to improve our lives by improving our government.

Since you’re still reading, you have answered the third question put to government in the positive; that is, you think government should be. Those of us who have not rushed off to become hermits feel that a small loss of theoretical freedom is worth all the tangible benefits of cooperation; therefore, government (the agreement or rules without which cooperation cannot exist) is a desirable and proper thing.

Now that we know we want government, it is only left to us to decide how our government should be. What form should it take and how should it be built? The rest of this essay is an attempt to answer that final question, in part by consideration of the answers to the earlier questions, and in part by examination of one eminently successful government: that of the United States of America, as outlined in its Constitution.

Having answered this last question, it will be time to stop considering and begin acting. The most beautiful idea is worthless if it remains only an idea. The most perfect government imaginable is nothing if it is only imagined. We live in a real world, and though it is difficult, we must make our dreams real if they are to have any impact. It can be done.