The Purpose of Government

There are a variety of reasons for which government exists put forward. Where these reasons differ also results in differences in how we view such government might be best constituted. In a recent discussion sparked by the carnival of citizens. I’d like to bring some of that discussion “back to the front”. In that discussion, Richard Chappell noted:

This is really the fundamental question of political philosophy: when is the State legitimate? I think it has to meet certain standards (in particular: responsiveness to reasons). But I guess that’s a topic for another post — one I’ll hopefully write soon.

Note that I’m not claiming that civic respect or receptivity is a merely moral good (a virtue like generosity). Rather, I’m suggesting it is a fundamental political value, i.e. a precondition for a well-functioning democratic society. As such, it is binding on citizens qua citizens, no matter their personal moral views.

This is a good question, a fundamental one if one questions political theory. My first response was that a government is Legitimate, when it’s people treat it as such. That is, when they respect its authority. Authority as noted by Jouvenel in Sovereignty: An Inquiry into the Political Good, is that thing which possessed by one means that the second will obey the others requests willingly without coercion. If a state has authority then it is legitimate. If it is what is termed “authoritarian” in modern parlance, that is the state which ironically lacks authority so it must use force.

Mr Chappell continues:

But beyond the moral virtue of humility, and the epistemic virtue of fallibilism, open-mindedness is crucial for the political virtue of civic respect. The core of my argument is simple enough:

1. (Legitimate) Politics is the collective endeavour of co-existence, i.e. deciding together how we are to live together.

2. Receptivity and civic respect are preconditions for this collective activity.

3. Thus, dogmatism is inherently illegitimate in the political sphere.

My answer, thus far, is that while I haven’t come to any personal conclusions about poltical theory and the reason for government. It is likely that personal happiness, wherein happiness is found via virtue is the reason for government.

In a book, which I’ve been reading recently but not quite finished and highly recommend, by John Zizioulas, is Communion and Otherness. Int his book there is noted some things which I’d like to apply to this discussion. [Note: This book has gone missing for 3 days with my lost bag noted in the previous essay, but now recovered and the new reading will be described … soon.] Let me try a short list of points to ponder regarding goverment similar to those offered by Mr Chappell.

  1. Political unions are formed to help us to cultivate human flourishing and happiness. If one follows some of the early Greek thought and notes that government is constituted to cultivate virtue in men, where does this fall down? I’m not finding the flaws which others note.
  2. Instead of Mr Chappell’s requirements of “open-mindedness”, I’d counter with Mr Zizioulas noting that diaphora and diaresis are respectively good and bad and quite possibly a problem with which (secular?!) institutions are not equiped to counter for ontological reasons.
  3. Much of what Mr Chappell was writing about and I was counting is his notion that dogmatism is inherently wrong or from a civic standpoint, immoral. My problem with that is that while that may be true … dogmatism is inherently or fundamentally a human notion. It is easy to form a good government if you restrict yourselves to people who instinctivelly avoid diaresis, i.e., a government of the Angelic is not hard to do. Any sort of government will be just fine, as all the people are basically good.
  4. The exercise of government however is a harder problem, because one must form a state with people who are not particularly virtuous. Which is why, the notion that government’s main goal is to foster the virtues is tempting.

Well, enough for tonight. I’ve a very early start in the morning.

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