MonoRealism Philosophy Site

Governing Principles

Philosophical Reflections XXXIV

Part A: Constitution

The main branches of philosophy – metaphysics (the nature of reality), epistemology (how we know things), ethics (how we should live), politics (how we should live together) and aesthetics (the nature and purpose of art) – apply to the life of human beings as such.

These general principles then inform specific activities or more specialised philosophies. Thus in earlier Philosophical Reflections, we have seen how metaphysics, epistemology and ethics can be applied to various aspects of life to give us philosophies of education, parenting, love and sex, science and mathematics.

As important as those are, the application of the philosophy of politics may be even more important, as politics fundamentally is concerned with the control of physical force: and we have seen that the initiation of physical force is the opposite and negation of Man's fundamental tool of survival, the mind. Yet the use of force is inescapable, not only for defence from criminals and invaders, but to empower legal means to resolve disagreements objectively and peacefully.

The philosophy of politics naturally applies to two main areas. The first is concerned with how the law should be constructed and applied, including topics such as rules of evidence, how trials are conducted, penalties for crimes, etc.: this is the philosophy of law. The second is concerned with the structure and operation of government in order to achieve the ends prescribed by the philosophy of politics: this is the philosophy of government, and is our topic here.

Clearly, the philosophy of government isn't self-contained, but depends crucially on one's philosophy of politics. Belief in the divine right of kings, unrestricted majority rule, the subservience of individuals to an absolute State, or the primacy of the individual will require radically different ideas on how to run the government. Thus there is no philosophy of government separate from the philosophy of politics; we need not be concerned with the best way to run a dictatorship, as that is not a valid form of government (as the essence of dictatorships is the initiation of force against the population in order to impose the will of the dictator, irrespective of the consent of the governed).

In Philosophical Reflections I have described an objective philosophy of politics founded on the recognition that the individual mind is our basic means of survival. Thus its basic principle is the defence of individual rights, meaning that the initiation of physical force, being inimical to the mind, is not tolerated. Hence the valid roles of government are limited to the police, the law courts and the army: anything else requires the initiation of physical force (to override voluntary contracts, to forcibly take the money to fund it, or both). But how can governments be set up to achieve and preserve this goal?

Powers & Principalities

As noted in Philosophical Reflections 16, a valid government is essentially the agent to whom the people of a country delegate their right of self defence. Such delegation is necessary to take the application of force away from individual whim and put it under objective, just control. As it is merely the guardian of everyone's individual rights, its proper form is a constitutional republic: that is, the government is elected by the people (who are doing the delegating), but its power is strictly limited by a constitution protecting individual rights, which it cannot legally violate (as logically, you don't give up your rights by delegating the protection of those rights).

Lord Acton famously wrote that "power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." And that is the rub. While it is not true of every individual person, certainly power attracts those of whom it is true. The purpose of the philosophy of government is to work out how to ensure that the government remains subservient to individual rights, and cannot expand its power into violating those rights.

And government will expand that way if any crack is left open. This sad fact can be seen in any modern government. For example, in the USA the smallest loopholes, such as "eminent domain" (the power to take private property for "national need") or the power to regulate interstate commerce, have led to astounding expansions of government power no matter how fancifully related to the excuse (e.g., using eminent domain to seize houses to make way for shopping malls, on the grounds that higher tax revenue is "in the public good").

And that is in a country whose constitution and form of government were designed specifically to protect the individual's rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness: whose founders specifically forbade such abuses of power.

Why this is, is not hard to see. If those who want power can buy it by violating the rights of some individuals in order to bribe others (materially with stolen wealth, or spiritually by legislating morals), or can find any other way to impose their beliefs on others, they will. In addition, senior bureaucrats "succeed" by expanding their departments, and bureaucrats at all levels "succeed" only by ceaselessly inventing new rules to administer – or their career might stall and their jobs disappear.

So the primary problem for the philosophy of government is how to prevent a constant expansion of power by the government: when it is under pressure to expand both from within (the desire for power) and without (the desire to get something via political pull). And when it is the one body which by its nature requires and is granted an effective monopoly on physical force, the very tool that can enable such expansion.

Fertile Ground

Politics, including defining the role of government, derives from philosophy, so a good constitution and organisation of government can only arise in a society in which the right philosophy is prevalent. Hence the origin of the United States in the Age of Enlightenment, when reason and individual rights were ascendant. For similar reasons, the long term survival of such a system can only be assured by the survival of the philosophy which gave it birth.

Thus the first line of defence is philosophical: the government needs to explicitly understand and proudly state the principles upon which it is founded, and so do the people. People who explicitly understand the philosophy on which their country is founded, who understand the nature and meaning of their rights, and who see the proof all around them (a civilised, wealthy society) of why those rights are right, are the first and best defence against neighbours or rulers who wish to erode those rights. A major part of the erosion of rights in the USA and other Western countries is the erosion of such explicit understanding, and the consequent contamination of their philosophy with ideas and ideals antithetical to individual rights (such as the unquestioned views that it is right to impose morality and enforce charity).

A Strong Constitution

The second line of defence is the constitution itself. The constitution lays the ground rules, and is the final authority against which the validity of laws and the actions of government are judged. So how it is written, and the ground rules it lays down on how to interpret it, are of critical importance. As the proper role of the constitution is to limit the power of the government to its valid sphere, the constitution must say that; must name the areas the government can legislate in and forbid action elsewhere; and must be interpreted on the basis of its principles, not its concrete details.

The last two points require further elaboration.

First, as the power of the government is delegated from the people, whom it is effectively disarming in order to bring the force of arms under objective control, the purpose of the constitution is to limit what the government can do with those arms. Thus, the constitution does not exist to define the rights of the people, but to define and strictly limit the powers of the government, their agent. This requires that the basic rights of the people be identified, the valid functions of government be defined: and critically, the principle that omitting something from the former does not ban it, but omitting something from the latter, does.

Second, just as the purpose of epistemology is to discover general principles that can be applied to discover knowledge in any field; and just as the purpose of ethics is to discover general principles which can be applied, by reason, to any concrete circumstance that may arise: so the purpose of politics is to discover general principles that by reason can be applied to any circumstances, known or unknown. Consequently, that is how a constitution has to be framed. Its role is not to cover every angle or every circumstance, but every principle.

One can contrast this to the prevailing constitutional theories in the USA today. Some consider the constitution a "living document", eschewing a fixed meaning in favour of current popular fashions – effectively "interpreting" the constitution out of existence by letting it mean whatever enough people want it to mean. Their opponents seek the "intention of the framers" by looking at their words and their circumstances to understand specific concrete prescriptions, while ignoring the wider principles behind them. The former recognises that a constitution written at a specific time cannot prescribe everything, but uses that as an excuse to let it allow anything. The latter recognises that the constitution exists to prescribe things, but limits its ambit to the specific concretes known by the framers. Both of these ignore the chief purpose of a constitution, which is to lay down universal principles by which to judge any and all concrete situations.

A Constitution is a document of axioms and principles, not a listing of concrete laws, and must be understood and used that way.