Government by Men
MARCH 01, 1967 by ROBERT K. NEWELL
Mr. Newell operates a farm near Marcellus, Michigan.
Since the dawn of history men have willingly allowed themselves to be governed by an imposed authority in preference to accepting the responsibility for governing themselves. Consequently, history abounds with men contending for power to rule others, and all marching under banners of governmental reform and declarations that better governors ultimately produce more desirable social organizations. But, if there is one lesson to be learned from history, it is that, regardless of noble appearances and lofty claims of idealism, human limitations are such that no human being can safely be entrusted with authority to govern the lives and fortunes of others.
The basic philosophy of constitutional government above all else expresses public suspicion of the human frailties of those who govern. Constitutional philosophy has learned well from history that human beings invested with any political authority must have such authority precisely defined and constantly limited by counterbalancing forces. But, constitutional process erroneously presumes that majority consensus automatically provides an adequate counterbalance to restrict the political ambitions of potential autocrats and insure the civil liberties of societies so governed. Authoritarianism is quick to accept whatever governmental powers a free society is willing to abandon.
The United States outwardly has remained a stanch advocate of individual political responsibility. However, like so many historical predecessors, the citizenry inwardly has been overly and increasingly generous in bestowing gifts of centralized power and investing ever-strengthening authority in public office. The wisdom of such generosity is subject to debate in a society that has placed its faith in popular consensus. But, obviously, human freedom suffers when men abandon the personal responsibility of government and allow themselves to be governed by imposed authority.
It is argued by popular consensus that the complexities of modern society have so completely outgrown the individual’s capacity to understand them that strong centralized government by skillful politicians is now needed to administer social justice and deal effectively with human problems. Proceeding logically from this premise, centralized government has experienced little difficulty in effecting periodic increases of already vast authority under pretense of necessity to cope with contrived emergencies. But, any systematic destruction of human freedom, no matter how quietly and peacefully it is accomplished, ultimately is no less tyrannical simply because the tyranny developed by degrees within the political framework of a society that under all circumstances has imagined itself to be free.
Evolutionary constitutional oligarchies apparently founded on sound principles of freedom are far more insidious than authoritarian governments that come to power by violence. For unlike violent usurpations, gradual processes of governmental growth allow the citizenry to retain a false sense of well-being stemming from the belief that they are actively participating in government through public elections and thereby exercising adequate restraint on governmental excesses. Ironically, it is the societies that most ardently extol personal freedom and are the most resilient adversaries of crude forms of political usurpation that are most easily deluded and subjugated by subtle concentrations of governmental power.
When an autocrat comes to power through usurpation, he establishes a government and arbitrarily decides how much authority he will exercise. However, his governmental policies continue only as long as he retains absolute power of enforcement. Fortunately, political power implemented by force is seldom of long duration, for the tremendous counterbalancing force of human dignity insures that those subjugated will eventually depose the tyrant and with him all authority associated with his regime.
No such dramatic course is open to victims of constitutional tyranny for constitutional process takes no direct interest in the personalities involved in governmental authority. Rather, the constitutional system, and its periodic corruption, concentrates vast powers in political office and hopefully challenges the voting public to fill the authoritarian power structure with wisely chosen politicians. One candidate might declare his intention to use the vested authority of political office with somewhat more discretion than another.
This provides the voting public with motivation in the delusion that by supporting such a candidate they are casting a ballot for human freedom. But whatever the outcome of a given election, the constituted political power inherent to the contested office is in no way diminished by any temporary lack of use, and in due course, such authority not only is fully utilized but extended by more ambitious office seekers.
Despotism can never subjugate a people who responsibly undertake to govern themselves; and conversely, nothing can save a society from despotism if, in the name of self-government, the people willingly impose elective authoritarianism on themselves. When one considers the incredible extent to which the powers of elective and appointive public offices have grown, and are continuing to grow with the full consent of the American people, we are indeed fortunate that a more calamitous despotism has not yet engulfed the Republic.
A Degenerate Form of Freedom
Everyone is well aware of the size, scope, and increasing authority that political government has gained at the expense of individual liberty. Few seem overly concerned. Most prefer to trust the adage that better governors ultimately produce more desirable societies and logically assume that bigger government simply requires a more competent political oligarchy. The electorate has come to feel that individual responsibility begins and ends with voting for candidates that seem best qualified to utilize effectively the tremendous power that unwittingly has been concentrated in political office. The concept of personal freedom has degenerated to such a low ebb that liberty is now considered to be synonymous with superficial processes that attempt to place better men in an insatiably authoritarian government.
It would be a disheartening commentary on the social and moral progress of any nation to find a governmental structure that confiscated one-third of the national income; that diverted for political purposes one-fifth of the gross national product; and that directly, indirectly, or through conscription, provided employment for one-fourth of the citizenry. But it is doubly disheartening to find that a nation with its traditions firmly rooted in the responsibility of personal freedom, has deliberately installed such a government. Placing better men in that government might appear to be a worthy objective but free societies are completely dependent upon better government in men.
An Air of Respectability
Political freedom can exist only where men conscientiously accept the responsibility for governing themselves. When consensus no longer expresses a desire to retain the responsibility of solving human problems within the framework of free social intercourse, constitutional process simply lends an air of respectability to governmental tyranny. Political campaigns, by the very nature of the totalitarian offices the aspirants seek to fill, are resolved by transitory majorities skillfully gathered by demagogic promises to use the vested powers of political office to favor certain segments of a society at the expense of others.
If a man rules himself wisely, it is all that can be expected of him, for no man is morally capable of doing more. But if men are not morally qualified to govern others, neither are they morally released from the responsibility of governing themselves. The degeneration of moral government and subsequent increase of formal political government precisely measures the degree to which the self-reliance, self-respect, and human dignity of a society has eroded.
Rather than zealously searching for more capable politicians, those who seek liberty must instead undertake the prerogatives of self-sufficiency and the moral responsibilities of self-government. The functions of formal political government will then automatically be restricted and systematically reduced until at last government is confined within the moral capabilities of human limitation.