The Shelf Life of a Government/Economic System

In the year or so that I’ve been reading this message board, I have really enjoyed the discussions of various governmental and economic systems. I find it particularly interesting how most of them end up comparing the ideal system to its practical application, accounting for the effect of human nature. A system’s proponents tend to push the ideal; its detractors push the lack of practicality. (See one of approximately umpteen threads on libertarianism to see what I mean.) All this discussion has led me to one conclusion:

There’s no good way to govern a whole big bunch of people, at least not for very long.

Libertarianism would work great…for a while. Eventually the unfettered free-market capitalism would concentrate the wealth in the hands of a few, leaving those few with total control over the many. The few have no recourse, since they’re not being “coerced”, exactly. For all but the plutocracy now in charge, the system has failed.

Socialism would work great…for a while. Eventually everyone would try to give according to less than his abilities, and take according to more than his needs. Those in charge of that distribution get corrupt, and start skimming off the top. With production slowing, everyone grabbing, and the government skimming, soon there just aren’t enough resources to go around. System fails.

Representative democracy would work great…for a while. Eventually the representatives grow increasingly distant from the represented. They begin passing legislation that serves them and their particular monied interests rather than the people they were elected to represent. For all but the representatives themselves and the monied interests, the system fails.

A constitutional republic would work great…for a while. Over the years the constitution is interpreted and re-interpreted, as its purposefully simple language begins to mean different things to different people. Those who interpret the laws and make new ones start to look at the Constitution not in terms of “What does this say we’re supposed to do?”, but instead “What can we get by with?” The laws get so complicated that it takes an army of lawyers to make even the simplest of transactions. Again, those who make and interpret the laws become increasingly self-serving. For all but the self-served and the lawyers, the system has failed.

In all these situations, it is probably not so much that the system has failed the people but that the people have failed the system. It’s easy to say, “Libertarianism would work indefinitely, because everyone would be a responsible consumer and they wouldn’t allow monopolies and a corporate plutocracy to arise.” It’s easy to say, “The people in a representative democracy would simply be educated voters who would simply not re-elect the leaders that don’t serve their interests.”

I think it comes back to the ideal vs. the reality. In the beginning, a system can approach its ideal. As human nature and the desire to take more than one gives seep in, though, that ideal becomes distant from the reality.


Dr. J

(PS: Sorry for the lengthy OP. I get long-winded at 3:00 in the morning.)

DoctorJ, thank you for beginning this thread… I almost brought this up in one of the many Libertarian threads, but held back.

I believe that a large group of people needs a governmental shift every so often in order to stir up “patriotism” or whatever. There are no current external threats to our system, so the only thing for people to rail against are ourselves (I’m referring to America here… apologies to you non-American folks). It seems that people strive on conflict, even those who are proponents of peace and pacifism (after all, if everyone was a pacifist, there’d be no need for pacifism, right?).

The only practical (in theory) solution to preventing a governmental system from becoming stagnant and corrupt seems to be near-constant shifts of governmental control. One decade, we have a democracy… the next, a dictatorship… the next, an oligarchy…

In my opinion, the larger a group of people, the quicker they “forget themselves” and their “patriotism”, and need something big to serve as an opponent, a source for venting small, everyday frustrations. After all, one doesn’t know what one has until one doesn’t have it anymore, right?

Immediately following the wars in the early days of American History (and during the wars, as well), there was a huge surge of patriotism (as opposed to today, where dedication and loyalty on the part of the American citizenry seems to be nonexistent). Could it be that patriotism is a feeling that normally lies dormant? People’s connection to their country fades when their country isn’t in any apparent danger (I mean that in the loosest sense of meaning). Could it be… that people need an enemy, a source of ultimate evil, for which to fight, lest they become weak and bored? And, finally… could it be that this enemy needs to constantly be taking a new shape, commit new transgressions, lest people forget that the enemy is their enemy at all?

I think I’ve discussed. It turn the conch over to someone else.

Most likely, not. But if it did, then that means the many no longer have liberty, wouldn’t it? Who is the final guarantor of individual liberty? The individual.

As long as the government is not given the power to coerce the people. As long as the right of the people to protect themselves from tyranny is not abridged. As long as people care enough about liberty to fight for it. You cannot take it from them.

Liberty is not granted by government, nor is it a gift that can be bestowed. The people have liberty only so long as they demand to have it.


Aw, Smartass, this isn’t a thread about Libertarianism, and you know it.

You have to admit that a Libertarian society would have unforeseen consequences. I doubt a lot of them would be negative consequences, but nobody’d be able to predict every single result.

THAT’s what this thread is about… those “unforeseen consquences” that arise with every Governmental system. There are just too many factors to take into account. So far, the US’s system hasn’t resulted in wars or the slaughtering of five million jews or the taxation of tea or raging famine and hunger throughout the land (not a comparison to Libertarianism, a comparison to numerous other world governments), which is why a lot of people are VERY hesitant to change it. It’s flawed, but not nearly as flawed as it could be… THAT’s the reasoning.

Smartass and DoctorJ appear to be agreeing with each other (please hold the flames until I finish, OK?).

Smartass says:

DoctorJ seems it be saying, in effect, “That’s not very long”.

A work that might be of aid here is Machiavelli’s The Discourses, in which he writes about (among many others things, of course) just that problem, and goes on to ask the question, “How are the people to be induced to demand liberty?”. Smartass may be somewhat disappointed in the results, as Machiavelli identifies the moral glue, as it were, that holds a society together as virtù (the word is cognate with English “virtue”, but the meanings are quite different), and indicates that a non-libertarian state is needed to foster virtù.

Incidentally, Machiavelli also concludes that the period for which people can be induced to demand liberty is rather less than the span of recorded history.

SPOOFE Bo Diddly:

No argument here. Most libertarians think this is a good thing.

I am afraid that Machiavelli may have been right, except for the part about how long it takes. Apparently, for some it takes longer than others.

My questions would be:
-What encouraged the people here to demand liberty after such a short time here and relatively little oppression? For our forefathers, taxation without representation led to “Give me liberty or give me death.”
-Why are the Russian people, to pose an example, still putting up with one bullshit kind of oppression after another?
-How bad do things have to get here before a measurable number of people here start demanding liberty again?

As an aside, many libertarians believe that Al Gore is the worst enemy of freedom in the presidential race. So, it may help our cause more if he is elected. The thinking is, the worse it gets, the more people will start listening to us.

I don’t know, though. Something about that kind of thinking makes me nervous.

And yes, to some extent, I do agree with DoctorJ. The problem is creating a limited enough government that it can’t grow to monstrous proportions. I think the founders tried to achieve this in the Constitution. Unfortunately, they’re not here to enforce the Constitution.


Smartass asks:

Well, the evidence is good that such liberty as was asked for (eventually at gunpoint) at the time of the Revolution wasn’t related to the length of time that European settlers had been here:
[li]“Liberty”, in the sense of a less-than-absolute government, has a long tradition in English political thought and action, going back to Magna Carta. Both the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution resulted from political realities and theories that strictly limited the rights of government.[/li][li]A large part (roughly two-thirds) of the population of the rebellious colonies either felt that loyalty to England was more important than liberty, or felt that liberty was not important enough to take up arms for (presumably, Canada and the West Indian colonies also had their liberty-loving minorities, but not sizable enough for them to go into open rebellion. Indeed, Canada actually rebuffed the Continental Congress on joining the rebellion).[/li][li]It is important to note that both the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution purported to limit the powers of the central government. The states were largely left unaffected by both, and many were distinctly unliberatarian in nature (check out their constitutions and codes). It was not until the beginning of the 20th century that the Federal courts, prehaps influenced by the 14th amendments, began to hold that the “Bill of Rights” (the first ten amendments to the Federal Constitution) was binding on the several States (as we pedants like to call them). The relative unimportance and impotence of state and (even more so) local governments owes much more to the power-hunger of the Federal government from Lincoln to Feather Duster Roosevelt than to the plan of government adopted by the Founders.[/li][/ul]

Dunno; ask them. My own WAGs would be that there is no tradition of self-rule (in both the individual and collective senses) in Eastern European lands; on the contrary, there is a strong tradition of reliance on one’s lord (the peasant demonstrators before the Revolution of 1905 didn’t call the Tsar the “Little Father” simply because they’d been taken in by government propaganda).

Again, dunno. The limitations on democracy are not as great or as obvious as they were before the American (or the Glorious) Revolution. OTOH, the limitations on personal freedom, so much so that, if they were presented to a 17th century Englishman or an 18th century American, they would likely be torn by disbelief that we would put up with them, and disbelief that they could occur.

It should be remembered that tyranny does depend in part on technology. A Roman of the Dominate would not believe in the IRS, because the technology of his day simply didn’t allow the kind of data collecting that the IRS does. OTOH, Tokugawa Ieyasu and his immediate successors managed to create a pretty thoroughgoing tyranny in 17th century Japan without the aid of modern technology.

The life of a good capitalistic free enterprise economy doesn’t have to end. The Bible clearly states that righteousness exalts a nation. (see Proverbs 14:34) The Bible also says, “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord…” Psalm 33:12

Scripture also states: “If my people, which are called by name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.” 2 Chronicles 7:14

The Godly nation prospers. The ungodly nations do not. Israel and Assyria are classic examples of this; America and the former U.S.S.R. are good modern examples.

If we study the Bible closely we seem to find that God approves of private property(“Thou shalt not steal”),
paying a reasonable amount of taxes to support the existing government(“Render therefore unto Caeser…”), defending one’s nation with an adequate army(note some of the large armies the children of Israel had), and fair treatment of employees-which eliminates any Biblical endorsement of communism. (Ephesians 6:9, Colossians 1) This would all seem to imply God’s design of our freedom and market economy.

If a nation does things God’s ways He will bless them.

I like you jenkinsfan, you’ve got moxie.

SPOOFE Bo Diddly:

I believe that George Orwell came to a similar, albeit more cynical conclusion in 1984. The working class, oppressed by a small group of powerful tyrants, would become increasingly disenchanted with the political system. The middle class, seeing an opportunity to get a collective foot in the door, would foment a revolution of the working class, toss out the old ruling class, and assume a new position of leadership. Things would be just peachy for awhile, but eventually the new ruling class would become as self-serving and greedy as the last batch of tyrants, and the working class would become just as oppressed as it had been under the old system. A new middle class would arise to lead a new revolution, and the cycle would begin again.

Maybe an optimal system can be designed, knowing what we know about human nature. After all, some societies seem more successful than others (would anybody argue that the American experiment in democracy is less successful than the Russian experiment in communism?). Perhaps a set of checks and balances can be designed to insure that a society remains stable and healthy for an indefinite period of time, without making unrealistic expectations about human behavior. I’m not saying it’s likely to happen, but it might be possible …

  • JB

(I’ll be a bit more assertive of a Machiavellian than usual; presumably the other participants in the thread can be trusted to make the counterarguments:)).

Machiavelli belived in the classical description of governmental forms going back at least to Aristotle. He thought that there were three pure (i.e., unmixed, not necessarily morally pure) forms, viz., monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, according to whether the actual political power was possessed by a single person, a small group, or a large group (note that Machiavelli did not view democracy as being inconsistant with the existence of a non-citizen class, without the franchise or political rights, that might actually constitute the majority of the population of a given state. Generally, Machiavelli thought that only urbanites could be true citizens; rural residents he either ignored or was actively hostile towards; see his advocacy of killing landed gentry (gentiluomini) in the Discourses.)

Machiavelli also believed that an unmixed form of government would rapidly become corrupt. A man would, through a combination of inherent ability (virtù) and the circumstances that allowed him to exhibit it (fortuna) would rise to kingship. His descendants would become corrupted into tyrants, thinking only of the short-term utility of their actions to themselves. The nobility would overthrow them and, with the example of the corruption of the monarchy freshly before them, constitute themselves an aristocracy. Their descendants would be corrupted into oligarchs; the people would overthrow them and constitute a democracy. Demogogues would arise, evidence and cause of democratic corruption, and the state would descend into anarchy. To end this state of affairs, a man would, through a combination of…and so on.

Machiavelli believed in the “mixed state”, where the constitution (which should be understood in the sense of “the British constitution”) included monarchic power (not necessarily hereditary, or even an office always occupied), aristocracy, and democracy; these elements would keep watch on each other, preventing each from growing too powerful, assuming the reins of state, and being corupted by the enjoyment of near-absolute power (cf. Lord Acton’s apothegm on the subject).

Even more than that, however, Machiavelli believed that it was necessary for people to have civic spirit (which he also called virtù); where many had it, true republican, urban, and political life was possible, but where few had it, only large monarchies could be held together. How then could virtù be inculcated and kept in people? Machiavelli seems to have felt that only a continual series of difficult but realistic challenges, where the cits could overcome them, but only by exerting themselves, could do so (and the only such challenges that he could see were those of imperialism). Unfortunately, as far as Machiavelli was concerned, those who arose to meet such challenges would overcome them (those who didn’t would be dead or enslaved), and, having overcome them, would then give way to sloth (ozio), lose the virtù that made them fit to be citizens, and descend to the degree of subjects. Political and social corruption, in Machiavelli’s view, could be slowed and sidetracked, but not stopped.


Actually, I was being rhetorical. But very interesting.