Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Canon of Limited Government

The foundation of the human condition is simple.  Humans are social animals.  We are groupish; we do things together.  In that we are like the chimpanzees, where the males work together to defend a food-bearing territory, and we are unlike the orangutans, where males are solitary except during the mating season.

It is said that if you put a group of Americans into a room to solve a problem they will do so, and they will solve the problem by trying to take care of everyone's concerns.  My own experience bears this out.  When I was sent into a room years ago with eleven other Americans to try a man for first-degree murder the question turned on two female teachers that weren't quite ready to go "beyond a reasonable doubt."  It took gentle persuasion to get to unanimity, helping the two holdouts to agree with the rest of the jury by satisfying their own doubts about the defendant's guilt.

But there is a serpent in the garden.  "Men like power and will seize it if they can," writes Nicholas Wade in The Faith Instinct.  Humans are not just social animals, from the Latin "socius" or companion.  Humans are political animals that like power.  So it is that politicians are dividers.  You can put a group of Americans into a room together, and they will likely work out a solution to their problem.  It follows that it takes a politician to keep Americans divided and get them to fight.  That is what an election is all about, to reduce the seizure of power from a real civil war into a civil war by other means, a vigorous exchange of insults and anathemas between two political armies arranged on the field of battle.  But of course a political election has winners and losers, unlike the consensual persuasion of Americans-in-a-room, and the winners get to occupy the seat of government and impose their will on the losers.

Which reminds us that government is force.  The word comes from the Latin "gubernare," to steer.  It is not true, as a video at the 2012 Democratic National Convention proposed, that "government's the only thing we all belong to."  We all belong to the human race; we all belong to society; we all belong on the Earth.  We belong to the government in the same way as soldiers belong to the army: both have the power to force us to do things.  Is that the best that we can hope for?  To belong to an organization with power over us?  Of course not.  We have another name for the "thing we all belong to" when you remove the force: we call it society: from the Latin "socius."  Thus David Cameron's catchphrase: "There is such a thing as society; it's just not the same thing as the state."

Let us return to Nicholas Wade and complete his maxim about men and power: "But if they can't rule, their next preference is that no one rule over them."  That is the calculus of power.  It's great to rule, and men like it when they can get it.  But if they can't rule, nobody else should either.

But how can you decide: between power and the absence of power?  The answer is that government should be limited.  There's nothing remarkable about that.  If we don't like other people seizing power over us, the solution is to go into a room together and hammer out a social contract that limits everyone's power over others, and limits the power of every group over other groups.

And as we know, humans are social animals; we are groupish.  If you put humans into a room together to solve a problem...

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