Government: what is it good for? Many find themselves asking this question on a nearly daily basis. Especially now in these dark economic times, the hoi polloi is wondering what exactly the government owes them. However, before one can establish exactly what he or she believes about government, he or she should first (1) decide how he or she thinks about ethics, morality, etc. and (2) examine all forms of government, weigh the pros and cons, and decide what aligns with his or her personal ethics. While no essay will truly enlighten anyone on his or her own character, it is paramount for individual to learn about the various forms of government, their moral bases, famous documents arguing for them, and how they correlate to human happiness. Upon doing this, perhaps one can synthesize an “ideal” government that satisfies, protects, and fulfills those it governs. If one does not decide what he or she believes about government, how can one know if he or she is being truly fulfilled by his or her government or if he or she agrees with the courses of action his or her government take? Indeed, determining and evaluating what one believes about the responsibilities of government is without a doubt one of the most important odysseys he or she will ever embark on.
Before one sets off down the road of moral and political discovery, he or she should make his or herself familiar with the basic types of government and common recurring themes in famous political and social treatises. One should know that there are five basic types of government, each with its own moral presuppositions and level of control. However, one should know these forms on a basic level before he or she analyzes them any further. Anarchy, the form of government with the lowest level of control, can be defined on a basic level as the absence of authority, such as a natural state. A democracy has a bit more government authority than an anarchical state, but most decisions lie in the hands of the majority. A republic lies in the middle of the spectrum of government control, ideally with an equipoise of individual freedom and centralized power. The oligarchy is a government in which executive power rests on a select few and is wrested from the general population. Finally, a monarchy, the absolute rule by one individual, is least concerned with individual liberty. Of course, there is a myriad of other types of governments, but they all fit nicely into one of the preceding categories.
The last thing that one should know before he or she sets off to find his or her ideal government is that all ideas of government are based on answers to the question “What is justice?” This question was first answered by Socrates in Plato’s Republic, and many authors of works that define a form of government answer the age old question of justice in their own ways. One needs sharply examine the arguments set forth by authors in their political works in order to effectively evaluate what his or her ideal form of government is. With all of that out of the way, one can begin delving into the deep oceans of political and social thought.
If one starts anywhere, it may as well be from the very beginning, and Plato’s Republic is certainly the first. The Republic was one of Plato’s mid-life works, where his views were layered on top of those of his mentor Socrates. Plato’s political views spring from his belief that knowledge is the greatest of virtues and his aristocratic and noble birth. In the Republic, Plato is the first to work out the answer to the question of justice. In the story, Socrates asks some of his friends what exactly justice is. One answers that justice is fulfilling one’s legal duties with honesty and returning what he or she has borrowed. Socrates countered this definition by asking if it would by just to return a knife to someone who had gone insane since the person had borrowed it. Another friend answers that justice is being benevolent to friends while striking against enemies. Socrates then states that knowledge is required to know the difference between friends and enemies and that harming enemies simply makes them worse, which is unjust. Another friend answers that justice is whatever is in the interest of the strongest person, since he or she would enforce laws. Socrates rebuts this by saying that rulers do not always know what their interests are and make mistakes. By his rebuttals, one can infer that Socrates believes that government is directed toward the interest of the hoi polloi and that rulers should have intelligence to rule his or her self and others. Socrates goes on to say that the state, or government, is analogous to the individual in that a healthy individual has his or her reason, will, and natural desires, such as hunger, in complete harmony. The rulers represent the reason of the state. Rulers are to be trained in philosophy for their entire lives and will take the throne when they are of age. The soldiers and other such guardians represent the will of the state, while workers and artisans represent the appetite, since they are all working to fulfill their natural desires. What was previously described is Plato’s utopia. This utopia declines when the balance shifts from the philosopher kings to the “unknowing” majority. The Republic describes an elitist, intellectual oligarchy. However, even if one studies philosophy and music his or her entire life, can that person be assured to never make a mistake or two? Also, contrary to the father of philosophy’s theory, the majority of people generally do know what they want, and if their government is not securing their desires, revolt is certain. Perhaps it would be better for people just to be more educated and for the philosopher kings to work in conjunction with the masses to secure true justice.
Some of the next great political writings were created by Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes strongly believed that empirical logic should be applied to the questions of government and justice, and his line of reasoning is exemplified in his treatise Leviathan. In Leviathan, Hobbes spins his definition of natural law into the treatise to reinforce his idea of an absolute monarchy. His natural law is basically a set of regulations that any reasonable, thinking being would follow for his or her advantage. Hobbes states that man obeyed the law of self-preservation. In other words, humans would do whatever it took to survive, regardless of the morality of their actions. This becomes a dilemma, since people are equal, for the most part, in strength and cunning, no one is really safe in a natural safe. Simply put, until a civil government arises from this natural state, society is a “war of every man against man.” This civil government will be created whenever one person rises up to gather others under his or her wings and protect them all. According to Hobbes, the only purpose of government is to protect man from man. Society is basically a means to an end for man’s need for self-preservation. Everything deeper than that is left up to the sovereign, who is the person who promises and procures the protection of the populous. Subjects surrender all individual liberties and rights at the price of protection. While this is empirically sound, this theory leaves much to be desired on an individual level. Look at it like this: if people must surrender the things for which they live just to be safe and to survive, what exactly are they living for?
Hobbes’s theory was generally accepted as the way to go until the Enlightenment period in the eighteenth century. During the Enlightenment, writers such as John Locke argued for a more democratic, constitutional government. In fact, John Locke’s treatises on civil government are still widely read today and are regarded as some of the most significant writings on government ever created. Of course, Locke agreed with Hobbes that the government should protect its subjects, but that is about all they agreed on. Hobbes stated that morality and laws are subordinate to the sovereign, but Locke argued the exact opposite. Locke’s natural law also differed from Hobbes’s in that Locke believed that people are born with innate rights and liberties and that government and society arise to protect these rights. Simply put, even though these theories cannot be empirically proven, Locke argued that the government should be subordinate to individuals and their liberties, morality, and man-made law. One can see some flaws in this thinking, namely the lack of empirical evidence. Rather than marrying common law and society, Locke created an inherently impotent body to protect individual liberty by assuming that preserving the common good and society are means to the same end. While this certainly seems true, Locke cannot offer any evidence as to why this is convincingly true, making the task of dissecting his arguments a challenge.
Locke’s theories, along with other writers of the Enlightenment, had a direct impact on the development of the American republic. America was one of the first countries to have a completely constitutional and democratic setup. Most Americans believe in the arguments put forth by Enlightenment thinkers, but many disagree about how much power should rest on the government. In fact, because of these differences, America has pretty much always been a two party nation politically. Back in the days of Adams and Jefferson, the two parties were the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans. Federalists wanted greater government intervention, while Jeffersonian Democrats wanted a laissez-faire approach from their government. Eventually, the founding thinkers of the Federalists died off, and with the inauguration of President Jackson, the Whig party was born. The Whigs did not have many standard beliefs, but the ranks of the party were filled with anti-Jacksonites. Jacksonian-Democrats wanted the government to help out the common man, giving rise to the spoils system, while the Whigs just wanted the opposite of what Jackson wanted. Since nothing can really stand on a ground composed of doing the opposite of one person, the Whig party fractured and died off, giving rise to President Lincoln and the Republicans. Nowadays, Republicans want smaller government, while Democrats want stronger government that helps out those it governs. It is open to debate whether or not America has idealized the republic, but upon its founding, many considered the United States a bastion of freedom in a world full of overbearing governments.
The next major development came as a colossal threat to America and democracy: communism. A Communist Manifesto by Carl Marx was one of the first examples of communist writing and is still read today. In his manifesto, Marx lays out that the “march of history” advances to the tune of the exploitation of those who have little or nothing by those who have plenty. It seemed to Marx that all revolutions in history simply reassigned the powers of government to new systems and leaders. In order to break this cycle, he proposed that a new kind of revolution must occur: one that destroys all forms of ownership, thus eliminating societal classes. However, as time has shown us with the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia that led to the establishment of the U. S. S. R., communism fails to give the people their human needs. Without any feeling of a possible upward mobility, why should people work hard at their jobs? Why should people work for anything if it is assigned to them by the state and there is no chance for anything improving?
Finally, there is one more movement that is gaining popularity today that calls for an end to government in general. Anarchists like Emma Goldman write bashing all forms of government and have developed a surprisingly human definition for this non-government state. Here is a definition provided by Emma Goldman in her essay Anarchism: What It Really Stands For: “ANARCHISM: The philosophy of a new social order based on individual liberty unrestricted by man-made law; the theory that all forms of government rest on violence and are therefore wrong and harmful as well as unnecessary” (Goldman). Anarchists really believe that anarchy is really getting rid of everything that is wrong with humanity by overthrowing governments. Really, why do people need governments anyway? Suppose that there was no government. How would life change for people? Well, for starters, there would be no law enforcement to protect man from itself. There would be nothing protecting the rights and property of people. People would have no assured health care or doctors to help treat their illnesses and injuries. Finally, people would not be educated formally. People might know how to hunt and farm and track animals and gather berries, but other than that, what could they possibly learn? Also, what kind of life is a life devoted solely to survival?
In short, government has taken on many forms throughout the years, including a lack of it. All forms of government rest on various morals and fast-held beliefs, but in the end, they boil down to the same thing. Ideally, government should protect its subjects, ensure individual liberties, and eliminate persecution and injustice in society. All throughout history, it seems as though this is what people really want from their government. Not overbearing, but still present enough to protect them. If our governments can do these simple things, people would be genuinely satisfied with the way they are ruled.