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American Government: True or Perverse According to Aristotle?

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Its been over 2000 years since Aristotle provided his insights into all areas of philosophy, including politics, and yet many of his observations are still useful today. One concept that still has value is that of “true forms of government” and perversions of those forms. Aristotle explained that “true forms of government…are those in which the one, or the few, or the many , govern with a view to the common interest; but governments which rule with a view to the private interest, whether of the one, or of the few, or of the many, are perversions.” (Tilly, 2005:424). He also provided three examples of true forms of government and their perverse forms: Monarchy is the rule of one for the common good and tyranny is the perverse form where the king or dictator seeks his own interest to the detriment to the common interests; Aristocracy is the rule of rich benefactors of society while oligarchy is rule by rich exploiters of their lessers; the final example is Constitutional government is the rule of the masses through established law, again for the common good and the perversion, according to Aristotle, is democracy where the masses live parasitic lives exploiting the rich whom they outnumber and replacing established law with arbitrary decrees. (Tilly, 2005: 424) Another category not included by Aristotle that follow the rule by one, few, or many and perversion based on pursuit of common or contra common interests could be voluntary society, the rule by none with members seeking the mutual benefit of one another through market based exchange, and its perversion lawlessness, a dog eat dog world where each member seeks to gain through the coercion of his neighbors. Even with this fourth category this form of categorization is to simple to capture all of the complexities and subtleties of government types, mechanisms, and their various perversions, nor does it seem to recognize the various degrees of perversion between the “true form” and the perverse form. Also, it does not address the major controversy of discerning what is in the “common interest” or who decides what is in the common interest. There are very few, if any, issues that will have unanimous agreement and so each decision pursuing one goal over another will be against some part of the common, and yet they will be obliged to follow regardless due to the nature of the state as being a monopoly of coercive power over the geographic area they reside in.

When applying these categories to modern American government, it is necessary to create another category not mentioned earlier. Aristotle mainly addressed government of direct rule, either by one, few, or many, but America is not ruled directly but through representatives. The power holders are not in the polity, per se, but use proxies to exercise their will. The true form of this government would be representative constitutional government, where the representatives act in the, so called, common interest within strict limits of established law and the perversion is corporatism, where the representatives’ actions are detrimental to the public in order to gain favor or wealth from organized interest groups or from wealthy individuals or businesses. Currently, it would seem that American government is closest to this perverse form, corporatism. The masses have very little political participation, usually limited to a portion voting once every 2-4 years, with not further recourse or actions available to them for the remaining duration of time. However, organized interest groups and wealthy members are able to lobby and influence the polity at will and they find ways to use state coercion against the masses and each other to gain a perceived advantage, as opposed to seeking mutually beneficial means to achieve advantage, though perhaps slower or lesser than what is possible to achieve by exploiting others through the state.

The very nature of any state is to move towards its perverse form of government. All of the precautions taken during its formation such as federalism, written constitution, division of powers, etc. are simply recognition of this natural degradation and are meant to act as resistance to slow the inevitable process. The only way for this process to be “reset” is for the government to become intolerable to the people, causing them to revolt and re-establish a new state so that the process can begin again. This again was recognized in the formation of the United States, Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, “whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government…” The only possible category that can avoid this cycle is that of the voluntary society. So long as all individuals are able to leave and/or form new government-like institutions, then each institution will be forced to act in the common interest since its members will leave, since there is no monopoly or arbitrary exertion of coercion based on geographic boundaries, if the perceived costs of being a “citizen” or member of that institution ever exceed the benefits. All members will be voluntary and their consent to the authority of their chosen institution will be explicit, as opposed to the “implied consent” that existing governments claim to have.

 

Tilly, C. (2005). Regimes and Contention. In T.A. Janoski, A.M. Hicks, & M.A. Schwartz (Eds.), Handbook of Political Sociology: States, Civil Societies, and Globalization (423-440). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Its been over 2000 years since Aristotle provided his insights into all areas of philosophy, including politics, and yet many of his observations are still useful today. One concept that still has value is that of “true forms of government” and perversions of those forms. Aristotle explained that “true forms of government…are those in which the one, or the few, or the many , govern with a view to the common interest; but governments which rule with a view to the private interest, whether of the one, or of the few, or of the many, are perversions.” (Tilly, 2005:424). He also provided three examples of true forms of government and their perverse forms: Monarchy is the rule of one for the common good and tyranny is the perverse form where the king or dictator seeks his own interest to the detriment to the common interests; Aristocracy is the rule of rich benefactors of society while oligarchy is rule by rich exploiters of their lessers; the final example is Constitutional government is the rule of the masses through established law, again for the common good and the perversion, according to Aristotle, is democracy where the masses live parasitic lives exploiting the rich whom they outnumber and replacing established law with arbitrary decrees. (Tilly, 2005: 424) Another category not included by Aristotle that follow the rule by one, few, or many and perversion based on pursuit of common or contra common interests could be voluntary society, the rule by none with members seeking the mutual benefit of one another through market based exchange, and its perversion lawlessness, a dog eat dog world where each member seeks to gain through the coercion of his neighbors. Even with this fourth category this form of categorization is to simple to capture all of the complexities and subtleties of government types, mechanisms, and their various perversions, nor does it seem to recognize the various degrees of perversion between the “true form” and the perverse form. Also, it does not address the major controversy of discerning what is in the “common interest” or who decides what is in the common interest. There are very few, if any, issues that will have unanimous agreement and so each decision pursuing one goal over another will be against some part of the common, and yet they will be obliged to follow regardless due to the nature of the state as being a monopoly of coercive power over the geographic area they reside in.

 

When applying these categories to modern American government, it is necessary to create another category not mentioned earlier. Aristotle mainly addressed government of direct rule, either by one, few, or many, but America is not ruled directly but through representatives. The power holders are not in the polity, per se, but use proxies to exercise their will. The true form of this government would be representative constitutional government, where the representatives act in the, so called, common interest within strict limits of established law and the perversion is corporatism, where the representatives’ actions are detrimental to the public in order to gain favor or wealth from organized interest groups or from wealthy individuals or businesses. Currently, it would seem that American government is closest to this perverse form, corporatism. The masses have very little political participation, usually limited to a portion voting once every 2-4 years, with not further recourse or actions available to them for the remaining duration of time. However, organized interest groups and wealthy members are able to lobby and influence the polity at will and they find ways to use state coercion against the masses and each other to gain a perceived advantage, as opposed to seeking mutually beneficial means to achieve advantage, though perhaps slower or lesser than what is possible to achieve by exploiting others through the state.

 

The very nature of any state is to move towards its perverse form of government. All of the precautions taken during its formation such as federalism, written constitution, division of powers, etc. are simply recognition of this natural degradation and are meant to act as resistance to slow the inevitable process. The only way for this process to be “reset” is for the government to become intolerable to the people, causing them to revolt and re-establish a new state so that the process can begin again. This again was recognized in the formation of the United States, Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, “whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government…” The only possible category that can avoid this cycle is that of the voluntary society. So long as all individuals are able to leave and/or form new government-like institutions, then each institution will be forced to act in the common interest since its members will leave, since there is no monopoly or arbitrary exertion of coercion based on geographic boundaries, if the perceived costs of being a “citizen” or member of that institution ever exceed the benefits. All members will be voluntary and their consent to the authority of their chosen institution will be explicit, as opposed to the “implied consent” that existing governments claim to have.

 

Tilly, C. (2005). Regimes and Contention. In T.A. Janoski, A.M. Hicks, & M.A. Schwartz (Eds.), Handbook of Political Sociology: States, Civil Societies, and Globalization (423-440). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Its been over 2000 years since Aristotle provided his insights into all areas of philosophy, including politics, and yet many of his observations are still useful today. One concept that still has value is that of “true forms of government” and perversions of those forms. Aristotle explained that “true forms of government…are those in which the one, or the few, or the many , govern with a view to the common interest; but governments which rule with a view to the private interest, whether of the one, or of the few, or of the many, are perversions.” (Tilly, 2005:424). He also provided three examples of true forms of government and their perverse forms: Monarchy is the rule of one for the common good and tyranny is the perverse form where the king or dictator seeks his own interest to the detriment to the common interests; Aristocracy is the rule of rich benefactors of society while oligarchy is rule by rich exploiters of their lessers; the final example is Constitutional government is the rule of the masses through established law, again for the common good and the perversion, according to Aristotle, is democracy where the masses live parasitic lives exploiting the rich whom they outnumber and replacing established law with arbitrary decrees. (Tilly, 2005: 424) Another category not included by Aristotle that follow the rule by one, few, or many and perversion based on pursuit of common or contra common interests could be voluntary society, the rule by none with members seeking the mutual benefit of one another through market based exchange, and its perversion lawlessness, a dog eat dog world where each member seeks to gain through the coercion of his neighbors. Even with this fourth category this form of categorization is to simple to capture all of the complexities and subtleties of government types, mechanisms, and their various perversions, nor does it seem to recognize the various degrees of perversion between the “true form” and the perverse form. Also, it does not address the major controversy of discerning what is in the “common interest” or who decides what is in the common interest. There are very few, if any, issues that will have unanimous agreement and so each decision pursuing one goal over another will be against some part of the common, and yet they will be obliged to follow regardless due to the nature of the state as being a monopoly of coercive power over the geographic area they reside in.

 

When applying these categories to modern American government, it is necessary to create another category not mentioned earlier. Aristotle mainly addressed government of direct rule, either by one, few, or many, but America is not ruled directly but through representatives. The power holders are not in the polity, per se, but use proxies to exercise their will. The true form of this government would be representative constitutional government, where the representatives act in the, so called, common interest within strict limits of established law and the perversion is corporatism, where the representatives’ actions are detrimental to the public in order to gain favor or wealth from organized interest groups or from wealthy individuals or businesses. Currently, it would seem that American government is closest to this perverse form, corporatism. The masses have very little political participation, usually limited to a portion voting once every 2-4 years, with not further recourse or actions available to them for the remaining duration of time. However, organized interest groups and wealthy members are able to lobby and influence the polity at will and they find ways to use state coercion against the masses and each other to gain a perceived advantage, as opposed to seeking mutually beneficial means to achieve advantage, though perhaps slower or lesser than what is possible to achieve by exploiting others through the state.

 

The very nature of any state is to move towards its perverse form of government. All of the precautions taken during its formation such as federalism, written constitution, division of powers, etc. are simply recognition of this natural degradation and are meant to act as resistance to slow the inevitable process. The only way for this process to be “reset” is for the government to become intolerable to the people, causing them to revolt and re-establish a new state so that the process can begin again. This again was recognized in the formation of the United States, Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, “whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government…” The only possible category that can avoid this cycle is that of the voluntary society. So long as all individuals are able to leave and/or form new government-like institutions, then each institution will be forced to act in the common interest since its members will leave, since there is no monopoly or arbitrary exertion of coercion based on geographic boundaries, if the perceived costs of being a “citizen” or member of that institution ever exceed the benefits. All members will be voluntary and their consent to the authority of their chosen institution will be explicit, as opposed to the “implied consent” that existing governments claim to have.

 

Tilly, C. (2005). Regimes and Contention. In T.A. Janoski, A.M. Hicks, & M.A. Schwartz (Eds.), Handbook of Political Sociology: States, Civil Societies, and Globalization (423-440). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Filed under Philosophy, Politics
Apr 6, 2011

Political Participation: Consent of the Governed

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Recent response in a class concerning political participation, centralization of government, and consent of the governed:

The “reversal” of the “amount of responsibilities held by each level government” is going to be very difficult to bring about under the current system and with the history of the United States. Since the Civil War the federal government no longer depends on consent of the governed. While everyone should agree that the Southern states were wrong to insist on continuing the institution of slavery, the implications of the Civil War are far more universal than a single issue. Since that war, states no longer have the illusion that they could withdrawal their consent from a contractual agreement their predecessors entered into and if you are not able to withdrawal consent then you are not able to truly give it. The consequences of this is that the states no longer act as a true check against the expansion of federal government since they are no longer competitive with it, but are in fact subordinated to it. As long as the states to do hold the power to check the federal government either through nullification, refusal to enforce federal laws, or through the possibility of peaceful secession, then there will be no way to reverse the roles as you advocate.

Mainstream political thinkers call nullification and secession extreme views but they were tools often utilized by the states prior to the civil war. While the attempted secession of the South may have been the first time a group of states went through with secession, there were several other incidents where groups of states threatened to secede in order to protest and influence the federal government. Also, just because one advocates the right to secede” does not mean that one advocates actual secession. The mere possibility or threat of secession would be enough to check the federal governments power in most cases. As for nullification, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison passed resolutions in Kentucky and Virginia stating the right of states to judge the constitutionality of laws passed by the federal government and to refuse to enforce those laws they viewed as unconstitutional.

These principles can be applied all the way down to the individual level. Many western philosophers have recognized a “consent” problem with any government body, since it holds a monopoly on coercive power in a geographic area and the residents in that location have no real option in giving or withdrawing their consent. However, they try and rationalize it through the idea of “implied consent.” In other words so long as the people are not in revolution it can be taken for granted that they continue to consent to being governed by the current political establishment. This is also how they bypass reaffirming consent from generation to generation, since even if we assume that the founding generation actually all consented to the establishment of a government it does not follow that their children and grandchildren also agreed to the formation so their consent was never provided. People confuse the act of voting or other forms of political participation as giving consent to be governed by the current system, but the boundaries of political participation is only to influence “how” you are governed not “if” or by “whom”, you are governed. While many people may not have explicitly realized this consent problem they still feel the restrictions of their choices to those provided by the current political paradigm and if their will lies outside of that paradigm they quickly lose incentive to participate in the political process.

Filed under Philosophy, Politics
Mar 26, 2011