18 August 2008


Veleda asks:

What is the ideal political system?
what values would it need to express?
How would it operate efficiently?

And would you give your life to defend it?

Since I fear I may have contributed to inspiring this question, I will attempt to answer it.

The second question comes first: what are the driving values of government? My answer borrows from the classics.

Governments are instituted among people for the purpose of providing people protections that it is right for them to enjoy: we call those protections rights. Those rights include life, the pursuit of happiness, and the liberties of freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. They are enumerated in greater detail in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights but this enumeration of certain rights should not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people. In this pursuit, governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, and whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.

So what institutions of government succeed in these ends? Yezida is a utopian anarchist ... with the “utopian” coming from the need for a citizenry of fully self-possessed people to populate that civilization. She believes that this is achievable, and most days I agree, so ultimately I am a utopian anarchist as well. But I'm not holding my breath waiting for that one, and in the meantime I've catalogued the interlocking attributes of good governments:

  • Democracy: All of the government's mechanisms must be publicly accountable. Legislatures of representatives chosen through free elections of the whole of the citizenry using secret ballots are the best-known of these mechanisms, but they alone do not a democratic government make. Other institutions along this principle are also important, like trial by jury, the ability to file civil lawsuits against the government, and perhaps most important of all ...
  • Transparency: The operations of government must be visible to the citizenry. This means government proceedings must be open to the public, and the proceedings published where individuals and private organizations can read them. Likewise for laws and the operations of all government agencies. Pragmatically, government must keep a few secrets for the sake of privacy and security, but these secrets must be checked by publicly accountable means of review.
  • Legalism: Government must operate through written regulation of universal applicability, rather than informal agreement or the empowerment of individuals: “a government of laws, not men.”
  • Limitation: The legislation giving government its form must specify limitations to what the government may do. The US Bill of Rights is a good example.
  • Separation of powers: The mechanisms of government are divided into distinct elements which hold checks and balances against one another to prevent the accumulation of power by any one element. Most important among these separations is ...
  • Civil control of police and military organizations: The use of force by government organizations must be subject to the direction and review of authorities outside those organizations, with the democratic accountability, transparency, and limitation that implies.

The fundamental structure of the government of the US under the US Constitution embodies these principles, if imperfectly. Many years ago, during a short stint as a government employee, I swore an oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the US against all enemies, foreign and domestic; I swore it gladly, still count myself bound by it, and will continue to do so for as long as it remains evident to me that the US Constitution is the best available institutional embodiment of these principles.

Certainly the US currently has a government which violates these principles in many of its actions, if not in its structure. So I have given this question a great deal of thought, which is why I have this answer ready for Veleda. But prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that people are more disposed to suffer while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. So I am not a rebel against the Constitution, nor against the current US government.

But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce people under absolute despotism, it is our right, it is our duty, to throw off such government and to provide new guards for our future security. And to that, yes, I would pledge my life, my fortune, and my sacred honour.


Erik said...

Proposed addition: Recursive self-modification.

One of the strengths of the US Constitution is that there are mechanisms built into it to allow it to be altered when it becomes apparent that certain aspects of it are incompatible with modern life. Contrast this with the sedimentary style of British precedentism or the dictatorial style of the draconic Napoleonic Code.

This is not only useful for rectifying evils of a previous age (slavery) but also useful for reversing previous misguided corrections (repeal of prohibition, anyone?).

Jonathan Korman said...

Point taken, but I think of that as an implementation detail below the level of the fundamental principles I'm talking about here.

I think of this sort of from the other direction. All legislation is modifiable by later legislation, but the Constitution is a special class of legislation: it wins out in conflicts with lesser legislation, and it's harder to modify than normal.