Sunday, August 06, 2006

Some Thoughts on Government

A key question in legal philosophy is “Is there any such thing as universal law? If so, what laws are universal?” (Related question: What laws are natural laws?) We discussed this in my high school government class. I came to the conclusion that the only universal law is that there is government. Going all the way back to nomadic tribes, humans tend to form organized groups with leaders, followers, and rules. Those rules vary considerably. Things that we consider taboo in our society are not necessarily taboo in others and vice versa. But rules and the means by which to create and enforce them are always there. My government teacher gave me a funny look. But I got that a lot from my teachers.

So government is inevitable. (And so, unfortunately, is politics. Yuck.) But what’s the point? And, more importantly, what separates a successful government from a failed one? That’s the real question. To me, the main function of government is societal stability and prosperity. Successful governments create an environment in which society can thrive.

A society cannot thrive if there is no sense of security among its citizenry. If you don’t feel safe walking down the street, you are less likely to go to work, go shopping or otherwise contribute to the economy. A certain level of trust must be in place for people to do business. Laws (and the successful enforcement of them) that discourage behaviour which degrades that trust are necessary for economic and political stability. Thus, laws against murder and theft (for example) are often considered to be universal because they are universal in and necessary for thriving societies. The more complex the society (the more cultures involved, the more technology available, the more economic opportunities, etc.), the more complex the government must necessarily be. Also, the larger the society, the larger and more complex the government must necessarily be (which is why China invented bureaucracy. Thank you, China. Grrr.)

However, society may become stunted if too many restrictions are put in place for the sake of “security” or “stability”. The restriction of individuals’ rights for the “common good” can lead to the oppression of ideas that might lead to positive change. Over-regulation of business can make companies uncompetitive in a capitalist system. Once laws start to get in the way of good business practices and common sense, the societal flexibility necessary to respond to change (particularly in a rapidly changing world) is reduced and the society can no longer thrive.

But in order for any government or law to truly succeed, it must reflect the society that it governs. Yes, governments can sometime affect social change, but if such change is attempted before enough of the society is ready, the change can be extremely painful and have unforeseen consequences (whether or not the intended social change actually occurs). People lose faith (or never acquire faith) in the government if it does not in some way reflect their own values. It makes laws more difficult to enforce if the citizens don’t see the government behind them as legitimate. No one wants to live in a broken society, but if the police or military are indistinguishable in the eyes of the people from the thugs they supposedly protect the people from, forget “thrive”, you fight just to survive. Democracy is probably the best system for creating this sense of legitimacy in government, but it is not sufficient if those who seek and acquire power do not have the interests of the society as a whole (and not just certain portions of society) in mind. The society itself must value everyone in order for the government to value everyone.

I could go into a whole discussion on the responsibilities of society vs. government, but I’ll save that for another day.

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