All governments are based on the “strongest gang” principle. Think about it. In order to exercise power, a government must be stronger than any who would oppose it. If it is not, it is open to revolution. A second point is that governments are, at best, symbiotic, and at worst, parasitic on a population.
Some governments are relatively benign and exercise only modest power. These governments provoke little opposition as people under them usually have better and more productive things to do with their time. Matt Ridley points out that innovation flourishes under freedom – a sure indication that people have more fun things to do than to fight against oppression.
Tyrannical governments usually engender powerful opposition The tighter they try to clamp down, the more restrictive they become, the more appealing, and even necessary they make resistance. We have seen that worldwide today in response to the lockdown and other restrictions imposed by formerly free and democratic governments.
How governments start
We don’t really know how the first governments started or why, although we can make some educated guesses. Picture primitive tribes operating in the same territory. Sooner or later they would come into conflict over hunting or foraging activities. One group might learn that organizing under a single leader would make them more effective in attacking and chasing off other groups.
Another tribe might select some of their members to be on guard to respond to attacks. The defenders could be given food and other items to compensate them for the time they lost from hunting and gathering. Some of the defenders might learn that they could apply the same skills they developed defending the tribe in demanding things from their fellow tribesmen.
In either case, before too long, you have a division developing where there is one group that not only has the power to defend the tribe, but also has the power to demand what they want from other tribe members. Since they are the strongest gang within the society, no one can oppose them effectively.
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Some gangs would learn to limit their demands as too much control becomes counterproductive. Others learned the advantages of division of labor and the benefits of repressing uncooperative elements.
All the colors of power
As time went on, the tribes became larger and larger. People began to sort out what worked and what didn’t when it came to use of power in a society. As societies became more complex, there was greater division of labor and specialization. A growing need for coordination of activities was present in addition to the original need for defense. There also grew a need for a consistent set of rules for people to follow, as well as a system to adjudicate disputes.
Along the way, people started to realize a few points about government and what distinguished good ones from bad. The good ones tended to be effective at certain basic tasks such as defense, while placing minimal demands on the behavior of citizens. Others severely constrained their populace and hemmed them about with arbitrary rules. Some provided honest and fair laws and systems of justice, while others were arbitrary, whimsical, and inconsistent.
In the course of history, many different systems of government have been tried. Some have even tried to do away with government entirely, relying on cooperation between members. These latter ones rely heavily on trust which limits them in size and generally they have failed quickly.
Alexander of Macedon assembled a large and powerful gang, and proceeded to conquer most of the known world at the time. Since his government was based solely on raw exercise of power, it fell apart as soon as his death was known. Another ancient of about the same period, Plato, took an opposite tack and proposed a system of government he thought ideal and left it to others to implement.
The ancient city of Athens was an early experiment in democracy, where power was allotted to those chosen by vote of citizens. Its history has informed ideas of good governance for thousands of years. A contemporary city and rival to Athens was Sparta. Sparta was organized as a militaristic society – essentially organized along the strongest gang principle. Although Sparta defeated Athens in the Peloponnesian War, it had little influence on Western theories of good governance.
Sparta was ultimately defeated by Rome, which was, at the time, the strongest gang in the region. The history of Rome is fascinating in itself as its various forms of government changed when different groups (gangs) acquired or lost power. One of Rome’s most significant contributions to the theory of governance was the delegation of power to provincial governors. In other words, a local gang could call on the power of a bigger gang if the locals got too uppity.
Having, by now, offended a great number of historians, I will proceed to look at what all these systems of governance had in common – a common element that led to the failure of each and every one of them.
A worm in every apple
The one factor that all these governments had in common, and which is common in modern governments as well is the desire for ever increasing power. No matter how much power a government might have, it will never be satisfied and will always seek more.
Let me repeat – a government, unless it is curbed in some way, will always seek to increase its power.
The two most popular ways to curb the increase of power is through rebellion from within, or by conquest from without. I doubt there is any example of a government that relinquished any of its power voluntarily. In large part, this is due to something I might call Newton’s law of political action, where for every amount of political force a government might exert, an equal and opposite resistance will arise to oppose it.
When a government relinquishes power, the opposing force has an opportunity to take over, resulting in a rebellion. Indeed, government giving up some of its power may be due to a strong resistance just short of revolution.
The growth and decline of the British Empire illustrate this process. Starting in the late 16th century with early trading and colonies, more power, especially in the form of naval power, was needed to protect trade from pirates (local gangs) and other depredations. The increases in power led to the acquisition of more territories, which led in turn to the need for increased power, until the entire edifice spanned the globe. At the height of its power, it was said that the sun never set on the British Empire. When asked why that was so, one wag responded: “Because God wouldn’t trust it in the dark”.
Reflection on this history led John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, first Baron Acton (1834–1902) to offer his famous quote: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”
It was from this Empire that the United States rebelled. There were several factors at work that made our rebellion different from most other revolutions in history. Unlike previous rebellions that simply sought freedom from the rule of an oppressive government, the American Revolution not only sought freedom but also had a philosophical underpinning that sought to create a new system of governance where the people would form their own government. They would create their own “strongest gang” and create systems that would provide automatic curbs on the growth of power.
An exceptional America
For well over a hundred years, there had been an extensive discussion throughout the Western world about the nature, purpose, and philosophy of government. It was recognized that governments served certain important, and even essential functions. Defense was paramount. Providing a system of laws and a system to administrate the laws was also essential. It was further recognized that it was the duty of a government to protect and maximize the rights and freedoms of its citizens.
As part of the discussions on government, there was an extended discussion on the concept of rights. The idea of a right was distinguished from that of a permission. A right was recognized as something inherent in the simple existence of a citizen and was something that a government was obligated to recognize and respect. By contrast, a permission was something granted by an authority, such as a government, and could be revoked at will. In other words, a right did not require permission to exercise, while permissions were subject to authority sponsorship.
One of the innovations of the Founders was to recognize that our most basic rights were inherent in our human existence. This recognition grew out of the Christian heritage of the Founders, and was explicitly stated in the Declaration of Independence as “… that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. Recognizing that rights were from God removed them from the province of human origin and control.
Our Founders were well educated in the Classical histories of Greece and Rome, of the Renaissance and the Reformation. They were keen followers of the debates on government, and even participated in those debates. They lived in the full flower of the Age of Enlightenment. Many of them were avid readers of Locke, Hume, Voltaire, Rousseau, Adam Smith, and many other authors of the Enlightenment. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were deeply influenced by these Enlightenment ideas and incorporated many of them in our own Constitution. A simple review of the catalog of the contents of Thomas Jefferson’s library is enlightening, but he was far from alone in his studies.
As a group, our Founding Fathers were unique in world history for the depth of their knowledge regarding the history and philosophy of government. It is doubtful that any similar group with such knowledge could be assembled today. From that knowledge and understanding our Founders realized two things: a certain amount of government was necessary to perform basic essential functions, and that measures were necessary to keep that government from growing out of control. Thus they had to confront the paradox of creating a government that was strong enough to overcome any normal resistance while being sufficiently weak that it could be overcome should it overstep its bounds.
On the horns of a dilemma
Thinking of government, for a moment, in biological terms, one can consider the case of two organisms having mutual dependence. In symbiosis, neither organism can live alone. Both require something from the other in order to survive. Examples of symbiosis abound, ranging from the simple case of lichens to higher organisms like cows that depend on gut bacteria to digest the grass they eat while the bacteria depend on the cow to harvest the grass. A good government exists in symbiotic relationship with its citizens, both providing benefit to the other without harmful side effects.
In some cases, though, a parasitic relationship develops where one organism lives and grows at the expense of another. A tapeworm is a classic example, where the worm grows in the gut, intercepts food the organism consumes and grows to the point where the host suffers. The relationship may have started in some benign form, but has progressed to the point where only one organism benefits from the relationship.
Governments can exist in parasitic relationship to their populace. We call these governments tyrannies, dictatorships, autocracies, Socialism, and other names, but all share the common feature that the government has grown so powerful that it operates at the expense of its people. As with biological parasites, a parasitic government may begin as a benign entity, but through unchecked acquisition of power grows to oppressive size.
The solution to the paradox that our Founders implemented was in the checks and balances set forth in our Constitution, and especially in the first two of our Bill of Rights.
A Constitutional solution
To combat the unchecked growth of government power, the Founders deliberately made the process of government slow and difficult. They required two houses of Congress to agree on new laws, and empowered an executive to veto but not enact laws. They further added a judiciary that could strike down unjust laws as well as render interpretations of laws that would restrict their scope. These constraints and restrictions on government have rankled the proponents of power for over two centuries.
The first two Amendments under the Bill of Rights further act to restrict the growth of government power. Freedom of speech, of assembly, and of the press were recognized as essential rights for a people to maintain watch over their government. These rights were necessary for people to observe the actions of their government, to discuss the pros and cons of various actions, to gather in protest against improper actions, and to disseminate information widely among the population affected by government actions.
Further, recognizing that governments could grow to oppressive levels even in spite of the numerous checks incorporated in the Constitution, an ultimate check on government was provided in the second of the Amendments, where the populace could themselves form a “strongest gang” to counter an overbearing government.
In his comments on the new Constitution, Thomas Jefferson wrote his famous justification for the ultimate power of the people:
“And what country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it’s natural manure.”
The continuing lust for power
Our Constitution didn’t eliminate the accumulation of government power. It just made it more difficult. Ever since our founding, people have been working to evade the Constitutional limits to power. There has been a slow erosion of the Constitution throughout our history. The progressive Left has been telling us for decades that the Constitution is obsolete, outmoded, and should be ignored and replaced. Of late, they have been acting as though it were an established fact that the Constitution is no longer valid.
The Constitution continues under attack on many fronts. The right to free speech has been abridged by laws relating to “hate speech” which limit what can be said without giving clear guidance as to what actually constitutes such speech. As a result, nearly everything that someone finds offensive can be categorized as hate and thus restricted. We even now have restrictions on mis- and dis-information that some wish to restrict, where those labels are applied to any speech that disagrees with an official position of the government – the very disagreement that the First Amendment was designed to protect.
Attacks on the Second Amendment are legion. Any number of specious claims about the meaning and purpose of the Amendment have been made by those who see it as a barrier to their growth of power. There have been and continue to be claims that it only applies to an official military, that it was designed for a time when people hunted for food, that it only allows a limited set of arms, and many other attacks. Some try to assert that such rights are meaningless in the face of a modern military with tanks and jet aircraft and drones. They have little knowledge of the history of asymmetric warfare nor understanding of the consequences of the fact that our military is drawn from the general population, returns to that population, and depends on the support of that population to function.
The function of crisis
For years the various crisis situations that normally arise have been used to justify increases in power with the corresponding abridgement of individual liberties. Although originally spoken by Winston Churchill, the expression has taken new meaning with the quote from Rahm Emanuel: ” You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”
Time and again, one crisis after another has been used to implement more government power. Throughout our history, response to crisis has justified further erosion of rights and liberties. The Civil War established the primacy of the Federal government over the Constitutional rights of States. The Great Depression was used by FDR to institute numerous financial controls, to regulate labor, and to restrict private commerce.
One of the greatest tools for increase of government power – the establishment of administrative offices largely independent of legislative control – was initiated by Woodrow Wilson, who, taking advantage of the economic depressions of the period around 1900 to 1915 – the period that gave us the music of ragtime – instituted the Internal Revenue system, the Federal Reserve, and other expansions of government power. Wilson, a Progressive, and a staunch Democrat was also strongly racist and worked to segregate the Federal government.
Most recently, the Covid crisis has been used extensively to abridge Constitutional limits and to greatly increase government power, not only in the US but throughout the world. Of note has been the numerous attacks on fundamental rights – supposedly inviolate, granted in various government charters. Exemplary is the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms which is supposed to guarantee, among other things, the right to peaceful assembly. We have seen just how much the Canadian government cherishes and protects that right in their response to the recent Freedom Convoy that sought to protest a mandate for vaccination by a deadly substance.
I’m from the government, and I’m here to help – trust me
We have today, a large number of Progressives. Largely ignorant of history, and especially the history of the growth of tyrannies, these people see government as a benign force able to right wrongs, fix problems, and enact changes to make the world a better place. They dismiss any concerns that a strong and unrestricted government would ever become tyrannical. They see no contradiction in using the coercive power of government to force compliance with programs and projects they see as improvements on things as they are. These people are, after all, acting for good and in the best interests of the people and the world, so their good intentions excuse any and all minor inconveniences that might arise as consequences of those actions. Anyone opposing these good and wonderful changes must be cancelled and eliminated in the name of the common good. They forget, or have never learned that most of the worst acts of governments have arisen from good intentions.
The way out
We must constantly struggle against complacency. It has been said repeatedly by many sources, perhaps most famously by Wendell Phillips in 1852:
“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty; power is ever stealing from the many to the few. The manna of popular liberty must be gathered each day or it is rotten. The living sap of today outgrows the dead rind of yesterday. The hand entrusted with power becomes, either from human depravity or esprit de corps, the necessary enemy of the people. Only by continued oversight can the democrat in office be prevented from hardening into a despot; only by unintermitted agitation can a people be sufficiently awake to principle not to let liberty be smothered in material prosperity.”
We must recognize and support efforts to trim back the encroachments of power. An example is the recent 11 point plan to rescue America proposed by Senator Rick Scott. If implemented it would go far to restore many of the rights and liberties recently abridged in the name of public health, among other excuses.
Restoration of our Constitution and our Republic is not an easy process. We have lost much through a slow erosion process. Few today, with their limited perspective of history, realize just how extensive the losses have become. Diligent effort will be required. We will need to do a much better job than we have so far in explaining to current and future generations why so many of the freedoms we take for granted are essential and worthy of defense.
We must not give up hope. The progress down the road to tyranny is not certain and a new path to liberty can still be made. We owe it to ourselves and to future generations to make the effort. Previous generations have paid the price for our freedom many times over, but it is not a price to be paid once and forever. Each generation must pay their price or forfeit all that has been won.
Trust is something that must be earned, and can be lost at any time. Governments must earn the trust of their citizens every day of their existence. Breach of that trust is serious and must be rectified immediately. Every citizen has the obligation to hold their government accountable and to take what actions might be necessary to counter and correct any breach.
Do we still have what it takes?
By David Robb
David Robb is a regular contributor to The Blue State Conservative and a practicing scientist who has been working in industry for over 50 years. One of his specialties is asking awkward questions. A large part of his work over the years has involved making complex scientific issues clear and understandable to non-specialists. Sometimes he even succeeds.
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The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Blue State Conservative. The BSC is not responsible for, and does not verify the accuracy of, any information presented.