In a recent essay, I discussed how individuals and societies might fit together into a civilization based on a minimal set of rules of convivial conduct, such as peacefulness, honesty and respect for rights. Today, I’ll follow that up, and look in more detail at political societies and political governments.
Even working out what the phrase “political society” actually means isn’t easy. At one level, it’s a society that takes part in politics. That is, a society that seeks to gain political power, or to influence the policies of those in power. But the same phrase is more commonly used in a wider sense, to mean a group of people living within particular borders, and ruled over by a political government. This group of people goes by many names; the nation, the country, the people, to name but three. And it seems to me that often, neither the precise membership of this group nor its binding forces are very well defined.
To begin, I’ll briefly review the essence of the political state. By this, I mean the so called “Westphalian” nation state. This system, introduced in the 17th century, is still the basis of political organization in most countries in the world today.
A state differs from all other organizations, in that it claims “sovereignty” over a geographical territory, and over the people in it. Per Webster’s, sovereignty is “supreme power, especially over a body politic.” In some countries, like the USA and Canada, sovereignty may be exercised at two, sometimes conflicting, levels; the federal or national, and the state or province.
This idea of sovereignty goes all the way back to a 16th century monarchist Frenchman named Jean Bodin. In Bodin’s scheme, the sovereign – the king or ruling élite – is fundamentally different from, and superior to, the rest of the population in its territory, the “subjects.” In particular, the sovereign has moral privileges; that is, rights to do certain things, which others don’t share. Bodin lists these privileges as: (1) To make laws to bind the subjects. (2) To make war and peace. (3) To appoint the top officials of the state. (4) To be the final court of appeal. (5) To pardon guilty individuals if it so wishes. (6) To issue a currency. (7) To levy taxes and impositions, and to exempt, if it wishes, certain individuals or groups from payment. Furthermore, the sovereign isn’t bound by the laws it makes. And it isn’t responsible for the consequences of what it does (also known as “the king can do no wrong.”)
And we’re still using Bodin’s system today. Isn’t that crazy? We don’t use 17th century medicine any more, or 17th century technology, or 17th century transport. And we’ve been through the Enlightenment since then, for goodness’ sake! So why are we still using a political system from the days of the “divine right of kings?” Why are we still suffering a system that lets an élite do to us exactly what it wants, with no accountability or come-back?
Surely, we’ve put bags on the side of this system over time. We’ve tried parliaments that are meant to “represent” us. We’ve tried constitutions meant to limit the sovereign’s power. We’ve tried to separate powers between legislative, executive and judiciary. We’ve tried charters and bills of rights. We’ve tried the sham called “democracy.” But none of them have worked.
In my earlier essay, I identified some important characteristics of societies in general. First, virtually all societies have some form of constitution, to say how the society is supposed to operate. This is usually, though not always, written down.
Most countries today do have written political constitutions. (The UK is an exception). How well those in power keep within the constitutional limits, though, is often a moot point.
When an individual joins a society, there comes into being a contract between the individual and the society. This contract may be in writing, or by oral agreement.
Most people, though, never explicitly join a political society. Immigrants who apply for a new citizenship are the major exception to this. Others are simply deemed to be subjects of such a society, perhaps according to their place of birth or the nationalities of their parents.
The fiction that sustains the idea of political society, and so political government, is the so called “social contract.” Here’s the idea behind this fiction. We, the individuals who form the political society, consent to submit to the authority of a government. We give away some of our freedoms, and we take on obligations to other members of the society. In exchange, we – in theory – receive protection of our remaining rights.
In the days of city states, many people would have willingly entered into such a contract, if only for the benefit of being defended by the walls. Even in the 17th century, the idea still made some sense. But in today’s world of rapid travel, global economy, Internet and mass migration, selling our souls to the political government of some arbitrary territory makes no sense at all.
Furthermore, one would expect that a contract with such wide ranging effects on people’s lives would be a formal one. It would be written down, carefully considered, negotiated, agreed and signed by all parties. And if a government mistreats anyone, or fails to deliver on its side of the bargain, the victims would be able to recover damages from those responsible. No?
Yet what actually happens is quite the opposite. All political governments today behave as if those in their territory have tacitly consented to their rule. They claim that, while in the area controlled by a government, an individual consents to submit himself to all laws made by that government. And if those laws are unjust? Tough, if you are “caught” breaking them.
As I made clear in my earlier essay, a society is a unity. It makes decisions based on the interests of the society as a whole. If individuals within the society disagree with what the society decides to do, they either have to accept the decision, or leave the society.
With a political society, however, no-one can leave without physically uprooting themselves. And since there is no liveable place on the planet not claimed by some political state, they will have to find another political society to live in. So, political societies are fundamentally different from others, in that you cannot leave without suffering a significant, maybe a crippling, penalty.
Thus those in a political society, who are unable or unwilling to pay the price and leave, are forced to accept whatever decisions and policies are made by those in power. This would be bad, even if the members of the society were few and culturally homogeneous. But in a “society” of many millions of people, that includes diverse races, religions, cultures, ideologies and interest groups, it’s a disaster.
When you think hard about it, the idea that a population of tens or hundreds of millions of people – or even, as in China or India, more than a billion – all have enough in common to constitute a society, comes to seem ridiculous. Indeed, it raises a deeper question: can a political “society” be rightly said to be a society at all?
Moreover, today’s political societies are far too large for any kind of consensus to be practical. So, inevitably, they will end up as oligarchies (or even, as in North Korea, autocracies). Leading, as I said in my earlier essay, to a three class society: rulers, cronies and nobodies.
Ah, you may say, but in the West at least, we have democracy! Isn’t that the best political system possible? Doesn’t it enable us to elect representatives to defend our interests? Doesn’t it give each of us our fair say in every decision? Doesn’t it give us, in John Adams’ words, “government of laws, not of men?”
In one word, I answer: No.
At first sight, a democracy looks much like a normal society. The members elect a committee, and the committee rules until the next general meeting (election). What’s not to like?
But here’s the reality of “democracy” today. Each of us gets a chance to vote every so often. But the only alternatives offered to us are political parties; lying, thieving criminal gangs, none of which show even the slightest concern for us human beings. And whichever of these criminal gangs wins the election will be granted all but absolute power over us for the next few years.
Has democracy brought us the freedom, justice and peace we deserve? No. Arguably, it has made things worse. For it brings opportunities for power to those that want power; that is, to exactly those least suited to be allowed power. It pollutes the mental atmosphere with lies, spin and empty promises. And the voting ritual gives the whole charade a veneer of false legitimacy. It enables those in power to claim that they have a “mandate” to implement their agendas. Thus they can “lawfully” harass, or impoverish, or violate the rights of, innocent people. And they can rob Peter to buy Paul’s vote, and favour their supporters at the expense of everyone else.
Worse yet; democracy divides people from each other. The victims of unjust policies feel harshly treated, and become disaffected. They come to view politics and politicians with contempt and loathing. And gradually, they lose all sense of belonging, and of fellow feeling for those around them. Thus, democracy breaks apart the very sense of “we” that gave it legitimacy in the first place. It destroys the social cohesion, the glue which ought to keep the political society together.
In recent times, proposals have been made for tiered or multi-level voting systems. These aim to bring politics closer to home, and to make those who acquire power a bit more “representative” of the people. While these are certainly worth looking at as a means of running large societies, and might have some positive effects, I don’t think they address the real problem. That problem is a 17th century political system, that allows the worst, the most callous, dishonest, devious and psychopathic, to rule over everyone else with near impunity. Simply put: the state is out of date.
EU and UN
And then we have the superstates; the European Union (which some of my right wing friends call the EUSSR) and the United Nations. Both are remote, bureaucratic organizations, even less accountable than the local élites. Both seek to impose on all of us policies – drab, corrupt socialism in one case, deep green environmentalism in the other – that are anathema to honest, independent human beings. Both are bad news for us all.
But there’s some good news too. I think I have a potential solution to the political problems we face today. It’s radical; but extreme conditions call for extreme responses!
The first step, I think, must be to understand what the valid functions of government actually are. I see three, and only three, such functions. The first is to maintain peace. The second is to deliver justice. Justice, as I put forward in an earlier essay, is the condition in which each individual, over the long term and in the round, is treated as he or she treats others. This function includes the just resolution of disputes. The third valid function of government is defence of the rights of those who respect others’ rights. Those rights, as I discussed in another earlier essay, include fundamental rights like life, property and privacy; and rights of non-impedance, such as freedom of speech, religion and association.
The second step in my suggestion is to move these three valid functions of government up a level. That is, from political societies to a peaceful, honest, rights respecting framework like Frank van Dun’s convivial order; on which I have elaborated in previous essays.
In two words: de-politicize government. Said more fully: Get rid of the out of date Westphalian state. Get rid of politics. Replace them by a framework which is peaceful, honest and respects the rights of all human beings.
And in the process, we will recycle the former nation states into societies which promote national cultures, and do no more. Thus, those who abhor politics will no longer be forced to have anything to do with it, or with anyone that has ever taken part in it. This will also have the side benefit of getting rid of the arbitrary political borders that plague our world today.
Please note, I’m not suggesting a world government of any kind. That, like the EU and the UN, would be going in precisely the wrong direction. My ideal government will be de-centralized. It will take account of local cultures and local systems of law. It will defend the rights of everyone who respects others’ rights. It will not harass or impoverish innocent people, or favour a ruling class and their cronies. While at the same time, it will hold everyone objectively responsible for the effects of their actions on others.
But most important of all, government in the convivial order won’t have any “will” to do anything beyond its remit. It will have no policy agendas. It will treat all individuals as morally equal; and it will not take sides between one group and another. It will not commit aggressions against innocents. It will consume no more resources than it needs to in order to fulfil its remit. It will charge individuals no more than is commensurate to the benefit it delivers to each of them. And it will be as objective in all its decisions as humanly possible.
To sum up
In this essay, I’ve discussed some of the problems we face with politics and political societies today. And I’ve made a radical suggestion. That is, that we human beings may be able to solve many of our problems by de-politicizing government. And moving its valid functions, of delivering peace and justice and defending rights, up to the level of the convivial order, in which everyone lives according to basic rules of civilized behaviour.