Government: by the people, for the people

Discussing Mortimer J. Adler’s Ten Philosophical Mistakes, Chapter 9, “Human Society.”

Why do people live in groups? It can’t be totally out of instinct, like termites. In that case, all of our “colonies” would be identical, and that’s not the case: the basic social unit is the family, but even that can vary according to our needs. But we do have a natural inclination to live in society (yes, even the introverts among us) and participate in some form of government, have some say in how things are run.

Why do we have government? According to Richard J. Maybury’s Uncle Eric books, the schoolbook idea  is that people “needed certain essential services, especially law enforcement, so they got together [and] chose someone to be their government.” (Whatever Happened to Justice, page 163) “Uncle Eric” goes on to say that a more accurate history begins with “one of our more violent gangs riding into town…[to] steal food, clothing, and whatever else they could carry,” and then continues with the gang deciding that it is more convenient to stay and collect taxes.  Maybury insists that “all governments today have evolved from these origins.” (page 165, italics mine).

Adler differentiates, as I think Maybury does too, between the “motorcycle gang” type of despotic government, and a legitimate form of civil government (such as the American constitution in its original conception). Like Maybury, he is not interested in fairy tales about how people came out of a “natural state” and then formed “social contracts” to meet their needs for government. There was never peaceful anarchy (it would be against human nature). There was never complete autonomy. In Adler’s view, the point is more that adoption of a constitutional form of government is the origin of the state; that it is an escape from the default of absolute, despotic rule, from barbarians and motorcycle gangs.

I think the Roman Republic would be a good example of this kind of civil “reset” (have you read Plutarch’s Life of Publicola?). Not perfect, but better (in the Romans’ eyes) than being ruled by King Tarquin. Two consuls at a time, elected for only a year at a time, plus all the guys under them, plus the Senate and so on.  And it appeared to work.

“The state or civil society came into existence to satisfy man’s natural need for the conditions requisite for achieving a morally good human life–not just to live, but to live well.” (Adler)

The philosophical mistake that Adler refers to in this chapter is mostly the idea that government is not “natural,” so therefore it is disposable. The problem is again, how you define “natural.” As in the quote above, “natural” isn’t only about basic human survival instincts. It’s also about the natural desires that give us reason to do more than just live.


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