Friday, December 13, 2013

Consent of the Governed

My friend Ignoto has been hassling me a bit about my allegedly misty-eyed daffiness over the Somalis. Somalia is not a "failed state" I argued; it is not "ungoverned;" it is just governed by principles other than those we recognize.

Well, I'm sticking to my guns (ahem) here, though I will grant it would be useful to drill down a little further.  I think Ignoto's point is that it can't be a government worthy of the name unless in some sense it concerns itself with the welfare of its citizenry.  

That's a very seductive proposition.  Consent of the governed blah blah.  Social contract blah blah.   Hold these truths to be self evident, long train of abuses and usurpations, hoo boy where have I heard all that before.

Actually, you know the answer to that last question.  The snippets were, of course, from the Declaration Independence, the crowning achievement of a long struggle to establish a theory of government on the principle of the welfare (or at least the "consent") of the government.  It's the ornament of our history, our presiding narrative, but that's the trouble: it is so much a part of the fabric of our lives that we forget that it is a human creation, a cultural artifact that lives in time and space. We cannot conceive it otherwise.

Cannot conceive it otherwise; this doesn't mean it can't be otherwise, and that is where I give myself the prize.  I'd hate, hate, hate, to give up this presiding narrative; still my point is that societies can operate without it. Can?  Hell, most have, and still do.  We live now in a world where our presiding narrative is so deeply ingrained that virtually everybody has to pay obeisance to some version of it.  Some are sincere; some are sincerely deluded.  Some barely bother with the pretense.

Am I saying that "common weal" begins with, e.g., John Locke?  I wouldn't go quite that far.  I suppose going back to prehistory, contenders for elite status made a habit of appealing to some model of the common interest.  It is good that you delegate to me because I am stronger, tougher, wilier than the rest of you and thereby better than you at implementing your own interests.  I suppose  fair amount  of that goes on today.  I suppose also it was common enough that after a few years in office, he'd decide that God's real plan was to be implemented through his own (earthly) DNA, his own spawn.  And after a few more, the idea of general welfare probably fell under the bus* altogether.

Other times, other strategies.  The Classical Greeks are a fascinating example because they seem to be a rare outlier in which some combination of weak leadership and endemic paranoia seemed to provide for decentralized authority to exist for more than just a few weeks.  But that's the point: they are fascinating because so unusual.

I don't see much evidence that Roman emperors (say) took much thought of the common welfare, though they may from time to time have pretended to--out of grandiosity, out of fear, or both.  But in his heart of heart, each knew that he was the one who counted, and the rest of the multitudes could go fry or not, as they saw fit.

This is an artless adolescent-style lurch at an issue that deserves (and, let's admit it, often gets) more serious or sophisticated treatment.  My narrow point for the moment is that there is nothing inherent about "welfare of the people."  It's a feature. not a bug, but you can perfectly well organize a society without it, and usually do.

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