Why Government?

Government is the process by which we decide how we are going to operate as a community. It is very instructive to watch the TV series Deadwood, which is the story of an outlaw town, outside the limits of what was then the US, that was a haven for people who wanted to live outside the legal system. For any number of reasons they felt too constricted by laws and rules and regulations (frequently the particular laws against such entrepreneurial enterprise as robbing banks and killing people,) and wanted to live somewhere they could be free of such restrictions. Of course a couple of out of control fires soon convinces the more reflective members of the population that if the town is to survive at all, there have to be some rules. A Fire Marshall is appointed, and so it begins. Before you know it, there are rules and regulations and laws, and they are discussing which State they should seek to become part of. As soon as you have people living in proximity to each other, you need some kind of organization to define and enforce the duties we each have towards everyone else.

The astonishing claim has been made by people at the extreme right of the political scale, that there is no such thing as society; only freely acting individuals. Would they claim that there is no such thing as a team, only individual players? No congregation, no association, no assembly or crowd? Of course these things exist separate and distinct from the individuals who make up each of them. One might as well say there is no such thing as a liver; only an aggregation of freely acting liver cells. Each of these aggregations has a nature and behavior in and of itself, regardless of the individuals that comprise it. Of course the particulars of the individuals will affect the nature and behavior of the group, but each individual has two distinct roles: one role is as an independent individual with individual needs and desires, the other is as a member of the group, desiring the welfare and continued existence of the group, which may well dictate behavior that is different from what one would do acting purely as an individual In other words a member of a group may well sacrifice some portion of his own best interest for the sake of the group.

So to say, as Ronald Reagan said, that Government is not the solution but rather the problem, is clearly nonsense. We have to have government. The question is what kind of government? This is the subject of an ongoing sociopolitical discourse that has been written about since the invention of writing, and was undoubtedly hotly debated before that. The majority of this debate has been purely theoretical. The true deciding factor that determined the kinds of government we had was the power to make it so. What that has meant through the ages is the rule of the strongest. The particular ways that this system has been arranged, and the rationales offered for it hardly matter. Sometimes a single figure such as a king or emperor is the titular head, but always the power has been wielded by a small number of people, and that power has been enforced ultimately at the point of a gun. Even in today’s democracies we are scarcely better off. We are still subject to rule by the strongest; only the nature of that strength has changed. Before the Industrial Revolution power derived from the control of land. In today’s world money is the instrument of power.