The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Politics Series: Government

(Previous: Power)

(Introduction and Table of Contents)

Government is the people who make choices about law and policy, plus those who implement the policies and enforce the laws.

The strength of a government can be measured by how easily they are able to implement those policies and enforce those laws, and by how many non-approved actors are running shadow governments. It is normal for apparently non-governmental organizations to implement the will of government.

In our society, large firms actually enforce or fail to enforce most tax law, private companies build most buildings and weapons using government funds, and so on. These organizations are effectively arms of government.

Organizations like gangs, mafias, or corporations which are able to ignore the government and do what they will against both law and policy are indications of government weakness. Depending on the government’s strength, this can include warlords, churches which cannot be taxed, self-defense militias, and feudal lords who no longer follow the King’s laws.

Government which uses proxies to enforce its will, as opposed to its own internal resources is generally weaker than governments that have their own capacity. This can, most recently, be seen in China’s response to Covid, which, when necessary, has included door-to-door food delivery, testing of the entire populations of millions of people, and so on. This is capacity that does not exist in most other countries, and which existed in China prior to Covid, and thus could be used to help China implement its zero-Covid strategy.

Strong government has both this internal capacity along with the ability to convince external actors to do what it wants.

Power and legitimacy of government are similar, but not identical. A government’s legitimacy can be measured by how much force they must use to ensure compliance. A government with low legitimacy, but a lot of power, can still be effective, but voluntary cooperation is superior to coercion — those who are compelled may work hard, but they are rarely creative or helpful.

One may think of the amount of force required as equivalent to the physical concept of friction; legitimacy reduces friction and multiplies power.

We tend to talk of “government” as if it is singular, but outside of isolated human bands in the distant past, it never is. There are always multiple governments. Ideally the ostensible “top” government is the most powerful, but that isn’t always the case. Voltaire quipped that “The Holy Roman Empire was neither Holy nor Roman, nor an Empire,” and for large chunks of its history, the Emperor was the supposed head, but lower-level governments were more powerful.

In our own world, for much of the past 40, years the Somali government was substantially weaker than various warlords, and many have suggested that various Western governments are controlled not by themselves, but by corporations or outside forces. This “capture of government by other forces” is important, and we’ll discuss it later.

Most of the organizations which actually govern many Westerners’ lives are not officially governmental; if we work for them or go to them, corporations and schools decide the activities of our day-to-day lives, and they decide much of what will be produced, how and who will get it, what prices and wages will be, and so on. To be sure, they do so in the context of policies and laws set down by government, but corporations have proven to be more than willing to break laws if the price of doing so is less than the benefit to them.

In many countries, corporations are law in large areas. Mining firm mercenaries and security forces regularly inflict violence on those who oppose them, often even killing them, for example.

In the past, feudal lords were the primary law enforcement in regions that dwarfed the areas where the law (writ) of the king or emperor held sway, and even today, a ship’s captain in international waters is a law unto himself. For much of European history, free cities made almost all their own laws, and under the Tokugawa Shogunate, the haughty Samurai found commercial law distasteful and let merchants form and enforce their own laws for regulation of contracts and finance.

Government is what government does. If the rules and policies are formed by an organization we don’t call a government, it is still acting as a government.

Governments usually act to maintain and increase their legitimacy, based on their current ideology. As we discussed in the chapter on groups and coalitions, however, this doesn’t mean they’re concerned about their legitimacy with everyone. If a group isn’t part of the ruling coalition, and especially if it is not powerful, government may take actions that group considers illegitimate. This increases friction, but has all the advantages we previously discussed.

Neoliberal governments, for example, are not particularly concerned with popular opinion. As the Princeton oligarchy study showed, such opinions are essentially irrelevant, all that matters is what those with some degree of wealth and power think. New Deal and post-war liberal governments, on the other hand, did care about popular opinion and often acted in reaction to it, having a broader base of support and weaker financial elites.

In the Dark Ages and much of the Middle Ages, legitimacy with the peasantry wasn’t very important, but keeping the feudal nobles happy was necessary, as Kings relied on vassals for much of their military might and income, and those vassals in return had vassals beneath them. The King, in such situations was the first among equals, acting to keep the nobility in power, and himself at the top of the heap. Indeed, in such governments, even merchants were often treated with little respect, and kings and nobles regularly defaulted on debt with little to no consequence. Killing those whom they owed money to, as with the French King’s famous destruction of the Templar Knights, was common.

In our own developed societies, school and universities are the primary ideological education hubs. In some countries, like the US, churches are very important, and their importance in the US has been the prerequisite for the rise of the modern right-wing, which vaulted Trump to power and which recently overthrew the federal US right to an abortion.

As we’ve discussed elsewhere, ideologies change, legitimacy changes, and societies, including their governments, change with them.

In the modern context, it’s good to remember FDR’s quote: “That, in its essence, is fascism — ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power.

It’s not a very good definition of fascism, as this would include monarchies, for example. But it’s an excellent definition of when a state is no longer democratic, whether or not there is voting. By this definition, the US is not a democracy, nor is the UK and nor are a number of other nations who identify as democracies.

But this is why there is fight over ideology and legitimacy. If you redefine what is “the right thing,” then you can change how a society operates — who controls it, and who gets the spoils. If democracy only means, “You get to vote” and doesn’t mean, “the mass of people control what the government does,” then you can try and keep the legitimacy of the word “democracy,” while also keeping the loot and power.

Many, if not most, American universities mandate that arts and social science majors take an introductory economics course in order to graduate. In that course, people are taught (not learn, but are taught), that everyone looks out after their own self-interest, that there are no objective standards for what is good (has utility), and that people acting selfishly (in their own self-interest) leads to the most good.

The great economist Keynes famously quipped that “Capitalism is the astounding belief that the most wickedest of men will do the most wickedest of things for the greatest good of everyone.”

Stated this way, it’s obviously nonsense, but Economics 101 states its axioms (unprovable assertions) as laws, as if they were the equivalent of E=MC Squared.

This is ideological education. Indoctrination. Every society has it. No society I am aware of has existed without it, and I doubt that one ever has or can. Modern capitalism, whose priests are economists, asserts that if you make more money, you get it because you are providing, or did provide, services or goods people want, that what people want always has utility, and that rich people therefore deserve their money and implicitly, deserve even more money than they already have, so that they can produce more utility, which is identified as “good.”

The Divine Right of Kings was fundamentally no different. The Roman cult of the Emperors was similar, and, in the Roman Republic, the gods supported the State as well. All nobles and aristocrats (two different things) have asserted that they are the best people.

So what government is, and who controls it, is always justified by ideology. Ideology isn’t necessarily a dirty word, it’s like sex; it can be lovemaking, it can be just for fun, or it can be rape. It depends on the context.

Change the ideology and the legitimacy and you change what governments can and cannot do. Under feudalism, traditional rights were very important: If your great-great-great grandfather had a right to use the common fields or to 20 percent of the yields of the peasants on the land, so do you. To change those rights is illegitimate.

When absolutist monarchies began to take over Europe, at about the same time capitalism was becoming the dominant economic ideology, is also when we start seeing the enclosure of the commons — lands that peasants had the right to use as a group. It’s when nobles start not being allowed, in many areas, to not have their own troops, or to only have a few. It is when, slowly, nobles start losing the right to be judge, jury, and in some places executioner. The King, through his officials, began taking over those powers.

This change in ideology was driven by changes in technology (firearms and cannons) and by changes in economics. However, these changes were also driven by ideology and legitimacy in ways that are not clear to most people and which are also beyond the scope of this booklet.

It is legitimacy, and ideology, filtered through groups and coalitions, which determine what government can and will do. When governments start doing things that are against the dominant ideology, or physical conditions no longer allow them to keep their ideology, they weaken both themselves and the ideology, and in time, they lose power.

This is what happened in the 1970s, with the oil shocks and stagflation (high inflation and high unemployment at the same time). The promise of the New Deal and post-war liberal orders was increased general prosperity, that all boats would rise together, as John F Kennedy once said. When this was no longer true, and when the government, whether through lack of belief, incompetence, circumstance, or some combination of all three, was unable to meet its ideological promises, it lost legitimacy. The result was the end of the post-war order, symbolized by the election of Ronald Reagan in the US and Margaret Thatcher in the UK.

A government exists, then, to keep the promises of its ideological foundation. Lose the “mandate of heaven” by failing to keep those promises, and you lose power. A government may continue, but that government is based on a different ideology with different requirements for legitimacy.

This isn’t just about individual societies, however, it is about systems of governance which are regional and since the 19th century, global. Government is often imposed from outside a country or society, and it is thus that we will move to foreign affairs in the next chapter.

Next: Foreign Affairs



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  1. bruce wilder

    This chapter could be dubbed, “torn from the headlines,” as some television police drama once dubbed itself.
    describes the desperate straits Italy is traversing, its elites and establishment so committed to the neoliberal ideology of the EU and partisan Parliamentary politics that they cannot see the reality of what they do and what the Eurozone straightjacket prevents them from doing.

    other examples abound.

  2. Willy

    China gets Xi. The USA gets a pathological liar, into bouncing his insane clown posse around in a clown car with square wheels, or a neoliberal hack, or a weakly-nice kinda-senile overwhelmed geriatric…

    For some reason I think of Cheops, the Great Pyramid guy. His ego wanted the most ridiculously biggest tombstone ever. I assume he wanted to go with the Sun God “mandate of heaven” thing hoping his rubes would buy it. But the evidence seems to suggest that his advisors cautioned, and he listened. So he paid his builders while giving them something kinda cool to do while their farms were flooded, instead of just running amok all drunk terrorizing the towns. And so everybody won, more or less. The Egyptian system worked to live another day.

    I had a conservative try to shame me into watching some Prager U videos about capitalism. I found them to be reasonable refreshers for what I’d learned back in the 7th grade. But then I asked about all the problems. Wasn’t dealing with all the problems what leftism was mostly all about? Then I got referred to videos about the horrors of Marxism. Seems it’s all only this thing or that thing with those people.

    I’ve wondered what could’ve been done differently about the stagflation of the 70’s, from a leftist economic perspective. Anything as ‘elegant’ as the solutions which Xi or Cheops get credited for?

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