Damnit, Jim, I'm a biologist, not a political scientist!
I wrote this essay on the role of government a long time ago for an elective I had to take in college. Given the disproportionate political influence of nihilistic libertarians in modern American political discourse, I now find myself frustrated enough to post it here.
This is only the first part of the essay. My boyfriend thinks it's overly idealistic BS, and I'm kind of inclined to agree with him. But I wanted to post it here to see what you all think.
Follow me below the fold to see the essay proper. If you guys like it, I can post the rest.
Without the luxuries of civilization, a modern human is not likely to survive for very long in any environment. Moreover, even if an individual could survive entirely on his or her own, procreation requires some surplus of resources, division of labor, and a non-zero level of cooperation with at least one other person of the opposite sex. Therefore, individual humans have been, and are now more than ever, forced to cooperate in order to ensure their own survival and (at the very least) the continuity of the species. To accomplish this, we must exist in productive communities of other individuals. Establishing and maintaining these communities is, intrinsically, a coordinated effort. Accomplishing this end requires agreement between individuals and sacrifices on the part of the individual. These agreements, and short-term personal sacrifices, represent a social contract between the members of a community; compliance with the terms of this social contract is an understood prerequisite for an individual to enjoy the benefits (most reductively, survival and transmission of genes) of living in any society. As human cultures have advanced and communities have grown, the terms of these social contracts have given rise to the cultural traditions and laws of the present day.
From our earliest prehistory, human society has codified these laws and traditions as a means of maintaining this minimum social order necessary for survival. The system through which these laws are created, interpreted, and enforced is government. Over time, societies have established successive systems of governance which are, like the laws they create, necessary for the survival of the peoples whom they represent. Far from being an intrinsically oppressive or exploitative entity, government is a human necessity. In fact, even in the most stratified societies, the separate entity known as “government” does not exist at all; all people who live under a system of laws participate in government simply by observing those laws and are, therefore, a part of their own government whether they realize it or not.
Simple obeisance, willing or unwilling, is a form of government participation because it perpetuates this same social order which government exists to maintain. Civil disobedience, or even rebellion and insurrection, is also a form of government participation because it is done with the intent to change the laws or (in more radical cases) the fundamental strategy of governance itself. In other words, there is no divide between the people and the government; the two are one and the same. Law enforcement, the military, legislators, and heads-of-state may be the prominent machinery through which a government functions but, even in the most extreme cases, they only exist as ancillaries to the societies which deign to empower them.
Thus, as an entity of the people, government can and does only exist with the consent of the governed. The machinery of government may secure this consent through violence or other dishonest means; however, under all forms of government, the consent of the people is present. Once again, this is because government is an abstract construct created by the members of a society in order to most effectively meet the needs of their society. As economic and social circumstances change, governments change too to better meet those needs. It is an unfortunate historical fact that democracy requires a certain economic surplus and level of infrastructure; the monarchial, oligarchical, and despotic systems of the past (and present) existed because those systems were the most immediately efficient means of coordinating the collective survival efforts of the societies in which they existed. This assertion may be disagreeable, especially when retrospectively examining the human rights atrocities that many of these governments have committed and continue to commit. However, even the most heinous of these incidents were still committed with the license of the consenting governed, in the name of providing (albeit, sometimes very indirectly) for the welfare of the state.
A hyperbolic illustration of this point would be a hypothetical military dictatorship over a population of subsistence farmers (a not-uncommon arrangement at various times in history). The dictator and those close to him are mostly free to serve their own self-interest in so far as they do not overexploit the people and natural resources to the point that they would cease to benefit from such exploitation. Furthermore, the soldiers, police, and other enforcers of the dictator’s will, generally enjoy greater social mobility and economic security than they would have in a gentler line of work. Finally, and most cruelly, the subsistence farmers on the ground labor both to simply survive and to enjoy the meager protection afforded by the state; even if the latter only means protection from the agents of the state itself.
Obviously, the example above is a grossly over-simplified model. However, it does reveal how, even in the most extreme circumstances, consent exists at all levels between the governing and the governed. Furthermore, as this model accentuates the division of labor (and resources) between the officers of the state and a significant portion of the people, it is a convenient place to begin the discussion on the specific role of the state in the lives of the people.
Certainly, our imaginary farmers would perceive their particular government as an intrinsically oppressive and exploitative entity; they are quite correct in doing so. However, as circumstances change, for example if improvements in technology allow a minority of the farmers to improve their economic clout, the system of government must adapt in order to maintain the power equilibrium. That is, as social and economic influence shifts within the population, political power follows it, even if only indirectly. This assertion is almost tautological, but it bears emphasizing because shifts in political power to peoples previously disenfranchised are generally called “revolutions”. If a sufficient number of our farmers become so enfranchised, it is unlikely that they would allow a system to persist which denies them a modicum of direct control over the machinery of state. Moreover, it is probable that many of the newly-empowered class would seek to take steps to protect themselves against any future exploitation.
A good historical example of this is the French revolution. Industrialization and urbanization increased the economic power of the third estate to the point that they were able to challenge and demand (often in severed head form) certain safeguards against their former oppressors. That the First Republic so quickly devolved into Napoleonic fascism, largely as a result of the economic upheaval in the wake of the revolution itself, underscores the inexorable populism of having food on the table. Most simply, a starving (or otherwise frightened) people are quite willing to jettison democracy if the dictator appears more responsive to their immediate survival concerns. And so, our discussion on consent of the governed brings us back to the question of government’s precise role in a society.