A Philosophical Doubt
Often my take on government and policy boils down to an inherit distrust of the government and any authority figures. Even when there is a figure I support or agree with any attempt to expand the purview of the federal government is met with a default “no.” State government is a little different but still not trusted — the reason for a preference for local government is the ease of having grievances heard. Supposedly. Now I will explain why from a purely philosophical and moral point of view without using any current government or politicians as examples. This is about the idea and not the people, because the people change but our nature does not.
First, some background on words.
While often associated with chaos, the word anarchy at its core simply means a state of society without government or laws. That’s all: the chaos comes from our inherit flaws as human beings. It’s easy to see why the idea of anarchy is mostly kept alive by teens spray painting a symbol they don’t fully understand on road signs. If the governments of the world vanished tomorrow we would have chaos and many people would suffer — until we got together to form new governments. While I distrust government, I also do not believe in anarchy because there are too many people that need to be checked by authority.
Laws (and the regulations that spring from them) are simply rules set up by the government, whichever government it is. At their core they are things we cannot do because in an absence of government (anarchy) we can do anything we are capable of. Laws, by definition, restrict the freedoms of people living under their rule. This is a Good Thing from a neutral point of view: as long as everyone is treated the same under the laws and the laws are just and fair then there is no problem with restricting freedom to, say, rape and murder. At their core laws exist to protect people from the bad behavior of others. Morally speaking every person has a right to self determination and no one should be allowed to intrude upon their person in any way. The saying “your right to swing your fist ends at my nose” exists as a pithy way of saying that while you have freedoms, I also necessarily have rights as well.
Many people wrongly believe that rights are given to us by the government but this is not the case. Human rights are merely freedoms that exist in anarchy that cannot be infringed by the government. The reason they are often codified in law is to explicitly forbid the government from infringing on them and not to grant them. They exist outside of government and should be treated as sacrosanct. Rights cannot be imposed on by another person without them running into trouble with just and moral laws: hitting me in the nose, in a just and moral society, will result in the attacker having to explain himself to the police.
Of course, reasonably speaking if I am hit in the nose to prevent me from committing a greater crime then that’s where you need the balance of laws and that is why Lady Justice has a scale. My right to do what I wish must be tempered against the rights of anyone impacted by it within reason.
When people violate the rights of others they must be dealt with, and prisons should then be that place. All too often the purpose of prisons is seen as only too punish when in reality there are three purposes: Punishment for crimes, separation of the criminal from the citizen, and correction of the criminal. The latter is why there is a “Department of Corrections.” Criminals are still people, and thus have certain rights as well, so there is a public interest in checks and balances regarding their operation. A criminal should come out rehabilitated to the best ability of the State but must also serve their time. Thus the term “paid his debt to society.” He pays that in time served under great restrictions to his personal freedom. He should also come to regret his actions and be penitent but that’s asking for more than is often possible.
As an aside there is not much that is more horrible than the idea of being locked away and unable to come and go as I please. That alone is a great punishment because our time is a limited and precious resource that can never be reclaimed.
Government is many things: bureaucracy, laws, regulations, politicians, et cetera, but it is at its core force. If you disobey the government it has the ability to take your property or your freedom. Both of these are that limited, precious resource: Property takes time to acquire. When a criminal steals your property they are not just taking from you the ability to use that property but the time it took you to earn it. You can never get that time back.
Another word for force is violence.
Government is Violence
The government is violence that all citizens agree to and take part in. While they may not commit the violence themselves the citizen supports the government (in taxes, votes, compliance), and the government hires agents from among the citizens to do the violence they have agreed upon: People are put into prison under threat of violence, property is seized under threat of violence. But more importantly people obey laws and modify their behavior under threat of violence. This isn’t theoretical but is a true fact. Upright moral citizens may claim to obey because it’s the moral thing to do but this only applies when your morals align with the government’s laws. This is not always the case: in many places through out history human slavery was legal, but it is never moral.
When the government or its laws are unjust or immoral the citizen should address that with whatever power they have.
For government to function properly the citizens must consent to be governed. This requires trust on the part of citizens that government has their best interests at heart and is often not the case. People will infiltrate any system to take advantage of it for their own gain and this is one of those inherit flaws mentioned earlier. Avarice and other sins are spelled out specifically by most religions because they will drive a man to do a great deal of ills to his fellow man. Because of this the citizen needs a healthy skepticism of the government — violence, remember — that can imprison or execute them.
Give me six lines written by the most honest man in the world, and I will find enough in them to hang him.
When a government has too much power it becomes a direct threat to citizens and their well-being. When even an honest, upright, and moral citizen could unknowingly commit crimes worth depriving him of life or liberty then government has grown too powerful. The quote above is disputed but exists because government can and will selectively choose when to prosecute who. This is the start of tyranny because now the government has an open venue to attack citizens outside of its good graces. While any system with proprietorial discretion runs the risk of favoritism ruining lives and treating citizens unfairly there is a need for allowing those appointed to prosecute crimes latitude in which crimes to prosecute in order to address the randomness of human behavior. Sometimes crimes may be committed by a citizen unknowingly, or unintentionally, or there will be special circumstances. While ideally all would be treated the same under the law there is an understanding that circumstances aren’t equal.
The problem is when the circumstances are decided for immoral reasons: racism or sexism within the government, political enemies treated differently. That is unjust and the citizen must challenge that.
There is also a strange idea that the justice system and prisons exist to protect citizens from criminals. This is ridiculous on its face because the criminals are only punished after the fact. In reality the justice system and prisons exist to protect the criminal from the righteous anger of the citizens: citizens agree to allow specially appointed citizens (prosecutors, judges, juries) to handle determining guilt and others (correctional officers) to handle punishment. The punishment of the government is often much less severe than the punishment that would exist under anarchy. We can see this in the history of men: vigilantes and mob justice (whether just or not) often hurt the object of their ire in ways a government would not.
Citizens surrender control of these matters in an effort to provide a more just and moral outcome than at the hands of the anarchist mob.
Humanity has the benefit of millennia of philosophers and governments to draw on when it comes to the concepts that must dictate the behavior of government. There is much more evidence of the misuse of power than there is benevolence among the powerful. This, again, boils down to the inherit flaws of imperfect beings. Man will behave badly in order to increase his own wealth (avarice), or to satisfy primal sexual desires (lust), or because his lizard brain is angry (wrath). Even the non-religious person can see that the seven deadly sins often taint the behavior of the worst among us, and often stain the offices of power.
For a non-governmental example of an abuse of power that may or may not be legal but is almost certainly immoral: A professor rewards students with better grades for sexual favors. In this case, the professor has all the power: he gets to assign the grades (normally determined by base intelligence, understanding, and the time a student dedicates to her studies), which impacts the student in myriad ways. This professor is acting out of the base instinct toward lust. Or, perhaps, a bank manager agrees to more favorable loans for borrowers who kick money into her preferred charity — herself. Here she is acting out of greed and it is immoral but may or may not be illegal. The government must determine, then, how to address this abuse of power by citizens against other citizens. Of course in our current world the latter is most definitely illegal while the former is only illegal in some jurisdictions and both are plainly wrong to the reasonable person.
In both examples above the perpetrator is acting on base behaviors and if they were to be totally honest they would know this is ill behavior toward their fellow citizens. The professor is abusing his relationship not only with those who perform the sexual favors but he is also impacting those who do not by giving them grades solely based on how they perform and inflating the grades of others. The bank manager is abusing her power to exhort money from borrowers. Unless they are sociopaths they will have guilty minds about their behavior or at least understand what they are doing is wrong and abusive. Neither works in a government (though both institutions will be somewhat impacted by government), but they still hold power and are using it unfairly and at the expense of others.
The legal concept of “mens rea” is that for a crime to be punishable it must be done with a guilty mind or at least malicious intent (though the words specifically mean “guilty mind”). My examples above aren’t necessarily the best: a true predator may not view his crimes guiltily, and that makes him more dangerous. The difference between murder and manslaughter is much more pertinent: Murder is often defined as having malicious intent while manslaughter is often the unintentional killing of another human being. In criminal law these are held to different standards even if both are often punished. This is an incredibly important concept to keep the government just because, while the result is the same, there is a great gulf between killing someone accidentally and doing it because you are angry. In the former case you could be careless or it could just be completely unavoidable, but in the latter you have intentionally, maliciously killed someone and thus deprived him forever of their rights and their family and friends of your victim.
This distinction, and the concept of mens rea, exists not to strengthen government but to reduce the power of government to imprison people based on their intentions. This is just one of many examples of the restrictions developed over our history as a species to address government power because people understand that all acts are not the same.
But at the same time the flexibility allows for government to treat a citizen unfairly. All flexibility does and this is the central reason for the necessity of distrust: The government has the power to imprison or execute the citizen and is, therefore, a threat to the citizen and must be constantly questioned and looked upon with suspicion. The power of the government is dangerous and the people operating it are no more perfect than any other human being. They are just as vulnerable to corruption, to giving in to their base instincts, as the rest of us. In many ways they are more vulnerable to these flaws because the temptation exists much more for them than the regular citizen. The motives of the government cannot be pure because people cannot be pure, and a government is made up of people.
Outside of criminal justice everything government does it does using the money of the citizen and therefore must take from the citizen to accomplish its goals. The only exception to this would be government controlled natural resources but even then they are controlled by the government to the detriment of the citizens. Taxation, while necessary, is done under threat of violence. While it is simple to say, “well, they have extra and we’re going to take it” this ignores the truth that money is not what the government is taking: it is the time that went into producing that money, which is a precious limited resource. The citizen is thus, under threat of violence, deprived of their time and their freedom for the needs and wants of others. We have a word for forcing another person to work for the benefit of others under threat of violence. But citizens can agree on a reasonable tax and then reasonable uses for it. Any citizen paying into the public coffers or any citizen dependent on the tax payer should be extremely skeptical of any spending by the government.
At every turn the government is an authorized use of force by the citizenry. It is violence wrapped into bureaucracy and good intentions. We must question and doubt and mistrust anyone with the power of violence over us.