The Moral Role of Government

Thomas Hobbes, an English Philosopher active during the Cromwellian Revolution, is remembered today as the founder of the social contact school of political philosophy, encapsulated in his famous aphorism: [L]ife in the state of nature is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”.

In a world of anarchy (despite the protestations of Randites and rational anarchists) it is likely to be, for it takes only one or two who decide to act against their long-term interests as a member of that society to reduce it to precisely what Hobbes describes.

What does this mean for the moral role of government, then? What is a government required to do (by virtue of its reason for being created)? At what point do demands for action by government move beyond that moral foundation?

This article is concerned not with the limits — that’s for other days to come — but with the moral requirement placed on any who act to govern society.

Certainly, first and foremost (looking at Hobbes’ aphorism), the safety of the commonweal, or of the society is a moral requirement of government. This takes several forms:

  • A degree of security from external attack. This is the role of a military.
  • A degree of security from internal attack. This is the role of a police force.
  • A means by which authority is held to account, requiring that sufficient proof of a violation of security has occurred. This is the role of a system of law and criminal justice.
  • A means by which disputes and claims one against another for redress can be heard and publicly adjudicated. This is the role of a system of civil law, mediation and hearings.

  • The essence of openness to opportunity, making local (i.e. the efforts of an individual or a small group of people working in common) economic life possible. This is the role of regulation.

That is what Hobbes’ aphorism describes — this much, and no more.

I think most of us understand the notions of community defence — whether that be keeping a village safe in a world of highwaymen, as in Hobbes’ time, or in our modern sense of national defence — and I think most of us understand the idea of policing. (We may not understand the limits that should be placed on this, but we understand why these exist.)

Military capabilities avoid war and counter-war and raids. At its core, this can be the Swiss notion that everyone serves in the military for most of their life and keeps their weapons: rifles, machine guns, mortars, etc. at home: more than sufficient for neutrality, simply by making invasion “too expensive”, although most prefer a professional military cadre (modern weapons are not easily operated by the traditional order-following “cannon fodder”). The moral authority to attack I shall leave for another day, but certainly the military is founded on the idea that one must defend ahead of the community’s actual invasion and destruction.

Policing used to be similar to this: the constable patrolling on foot did not presume the criminal intent of the citizens, and did watch for the early warning signs of a crime being undertaken. (Today’s motorised police, aided and abetted by cameras and other recording instruments, presume the criminal intent of everyone. The price of fighting terror is, again, something to leave for another day, as is the morality of traffic cameras and the like as a revenue source.)

The military does not decide to attack (or to down weapons and fail to defend) in a moral society; it is an arm of government, not its master. So, too, police are an arm of government, not its master — but because it is easier to accuse an individual than to take up arms as a community, there are requirements to (a) define what is a crime and (b) the rules of evidence and procedure to establish that a crime was committed by this person so charged. So to their third pillar: criminal justice.

For a matter of criminal law to be morally proper, the law must tie back to the moral principle underlying government: the safety of the citizen. Note, please, that I do not say “security”: security is a licence to exceed moral bounds on behalf of interests, which inevitably set one part of the community against another given enough time. Safety is the commitment and the goal, but not the driver.

Questions about laws taken beyond this point are also for another day.

Finally, we come to regulation. The reach of an individual is quite limited: even if, as in some massive family enterprises, covering many types of initiative, the hands drop with death. We need not therefore fear the successful person of high ambition. What we do need to fear is the body corporate: this is a “person” who need not die (if properly managed).

But corporate bodies can also reach far beyond what an individual or family can do in a single lifetime. They thus can bring power to bear that diminishes opportunity for individuals, risking their economic safety (the opportunity to succeed at making a living). Thus some forms of regulation are the final moral responsibility of government. Indeed, without regulations about scale, the economic space is diminished. Take a hard look at our society today.

How is our military used? Canadian Governments have systematically underfunded and under-equipped the Canadian Armed Forces for national defence, yet think nothing of committing our fellow citizens into matters of geopolitical interest. They are not fit for their moral purpose despite the heroism and efforts of the troops.

How are our police used? Increasingly, these are used to anticipate rather than protect: people are arrested because they might do something. No one dare challenge an officer: the charge of interference or resistance is immediately laid. Police, in other words, are beyond the citizen’s control; police budgets are never really challenged. Meanwhile the police make themselves remote to the citizenry: beat patrolling is a lost art, and no officer knows a person as an individual. There is only a long list of “people well known to the police”. They are — again, despite the personal moral commitments of many officers — not fit for their moral purpose.

How is our justice system working? Our system of criminal law has routinely made criminal many normal acts, either to enforce ideas of social justice, or to make personal moral choices a criminal matter, or in the name of “security” simply to observe, spy and control. Our courts, in trying to redress these imbalances, fail us by bending too far in the other direction, and there are not adequate checks and balances in our legal procedures to avoid endless appeals and interventions, or unnecessary delay. (Civil procedure has similar failings, but as mediation and arbitration are alternatives it is only when the individual faces off against a corporate person that such inequity is likely to lead to damage to self and property.)

How do we do in regulating for opportunity? Alas, we encourage the destruction of the community as a community by encouraging the destruction of local enterprise, through a misunderstanding of the role of regulation allowing far too many corporate bodies to plunder while, at the same time, making change difficult due to many other regulations that can only seriously be met by such bodies, not individuals. From those originally designed to correct social ills, to those designed to protect against patronage, to those designed to create innovations and local economic expansion, we have created a world wherein the large can do as they please and take their jobs elsewhere if not appeased, while the small are crushed under rules, regulations, minimum size requirements, forced joining to associations and rent-seeking that chains can support but individuals cannot. (Ask yourself why your local shopping street is filled with empty stores, transient businesses [the tattoo parlour, the seasonal enterprise] and franchises and chains as opposed to your neighbours’ businesses.)

When a government acts immorally, it needs to be set right if possible (reformed) or, if all else fails, put down and society reordered. (This is more likely to come about because the centre does not hold than because of revolution, but communities need to be prepared for the opportunity to “separate from” higher orders of government as they weaken). It is my belief we are moving back toward greater locality in the near future. We should take this opportunity to build new communities founded with governance that is fit to purpose.

Otherwise, I fear many of our lives will end up being nasty, brutish and short, regardless of how we solve our pending energy, communications, financial and climate problems.


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