Good Government

February 2008


There are basically two competing theories of government and they are at the heart of any discussion of what government is, what government should do and why it should do it.

A little history first: In the 18th Century, there was a philosophical revolution of thought in Europe known as "The Age of Enlightenment." Great thinkers like Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Paine, Michel de Montaigne, Benjamin Franklin, René Descartes, Thomas Jefferson and David Hume questioned the basis and legitimacy of many time-honored assumptions of spiritual, political, and economic life. Prior to this, the theory of government was essentially that of the Divine Right of Kings (DROK).

According to DROK, authority originates in God, and is passed through his anointed servants. If you got to be King, you ruled as God's representative on Earth, allegedly to do God's work. To question the authority of the King was to question the authority of God. How do we know that this particular person IS God's anointed representative? Apart from might is right, the proof of that involves a lot of circular logic: if he is King, obviously God has selected him, otherwise somebody else would be king. Nice gig if you can get it.

The thinkers of the Enlightenment thought that reason was all important: one should strive to understand how things were and why they were, and they ought to make sense. This is why we talk about these thinkers as being part of the "Age of Reason.". DROK didn't make sense. Rational philosophers reasoned that governments are human institutions that are set up by people for some rational purpose. As such, their authority comes from the people they govern. Thus, the highest form of government is a democracy where the people are the government, exercising collaborative authority of the people, by the people, and for the people. They came up with the radical notion that a government, any government, should serve at the will (and convenience) of the people and if it did not please the people, the people should have the right to change that government and institute one that served their interests better; hence the American Revolution, among others.

You'd think that this democratic idea would be so obvious and correct that the old notion of royal authority would pass quietly away, but it didn't. The reason why it didn't is because government, politics and economics are all intimately and inexorably linked. Here's how it works:

  1. The people get together and say that the government ought to do something (A). A is not free. It is expensive.
  2. There are many more poor people than rich people. Charging everyone the same fee (tax) for A won't work because the poor people cannot pay that much for A and also feed their kids.
  3. The tax rates are adjusted so that the people who can afford to pay more, without personal hardship, pay more for A than those who can afford to pay less. (Progressive taxation) Rich people resent this.

It isn't just Kings who feel their authority comes from divine intervention, wealthy people come gladly to the same conclusion. Their logic is that "If God had not favored me, I would not have become wealthy. Now that I am wealthy, I have the right and duty to exercise power and authority to do what I believe to be God's work." If this sounds suspiciously like DROK, that's because it is exactly the same as DROK, only this is 'The Golden Rule' (defined as: he who has the gold makes the rules). People like the late William F Buckley went further, to say that the wealthy were actually superior to the poor and thus had the right and responsibility to rule over the poor, for their own good, of course. His definition of wealthy included those who had, unhappily, lost their money fairly recently, but had forbears who were considered to be wealthy, and anyone with a legitimate, inherited title. His definition of poor being, anyone less well off than his friends and relations, and almost anyone who had earned their money instead of inheriting it from a long line of wealthy forebears. What this really means is that he believed in a ruling class, and he believed that his friends and relations were that ruling class by right of wealth.

This dogma of the legitimate right of wealth is central to neo-conservatism and the private property rights movements. They shore it up with all kinds of fancy arguments and justifications, but what it comes down to is: if I am wealthy, I shouldn't have to help the people do what is in the best interest of the people unless I want to— it should be my choice. Well, either you believe in democracy or you believe in dictatorship. People who believe in dictatorship always like to think of themselves as benign, helpful despots whose rule is far more beneficial than any possible alternative. Their views are almost never shared by those who have lost the right to self-determination and democracy. Good government does not happen, we the people, have to insist on it.


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