The Fundamental Unsolved Problem in Political Philosophy

Political philosophy I define as the philosophical study of social governance. Note, I did not say government, as there are political philosophies (anarchism is the obvious example) which urge us to do away with specific institutions devoted exclusively to governance (the state). Many philosophers have seen the chief goal of political philosophy as developing a theory of the ideal society, with or without a state. Plato was the first example. There were many others. Plato’s was a proposal that came down to “a place for everyone and everyone in his place.” Read his Republic. To make a long story short: the “philosopher-king” ruled. Only when kings are philosophers and philosophers are kings will we have the ideal society, wisely ruled over. How could such a state of affairs be arranged? Plato’s Socrates expends great energy trying to lay out how the “philosopher-king” is to be educated for his station in life, and also how his “Guardians” are to perform their roles as a kind of police force that would never grow abusive. Unfortunately, I know of no kings who became philosophers, although a few philosophers would have become kings given the chance. Their rule would have been anything but wise!

I would like to propose a different goal for political philosophy. It is based on something we can observe from history that appears to be true for all large societies: they are afflicted by a minority (probably no more than 4%) who are fascinated with power, and drawn to institutions that wield power. This goal for political philosophy would be to solve its unsolved problem. As a first approximation: how does society contain or constrain power?

This is too simple, of course. Contain and constrain are power words, after all. And who is society? Taking these in reverse order, let’s consider: society is made up of different layers of its citizenry. There is the minority fascinated with power. There is, I submit, another minority that is equally fascinated with liberty and its possibilities. The sort of philosophyt appropriate for them merits close study. Then there is the majority that doesn’t much care, so long as their lives are immersed in familiarity and most of their expectations are met. The masses, this majority is generally called. The word doesn’t have to be derogatory. It just means, the common people as opposed to that small fraction who lead, whether for better or for worse.

The fundamental unsolved problem of political philosophy therefore devolves to: how does the minority that wants to be free (is fascinated with liberty and its possibilities) place checks on those who are drawn to power (don’t want people to be free—freedom, after all, is too chaotic and unpredictable)? Put this way, the problem is a good bit more formidable than How to build the Ideal State, is it not? It may even suggest that there neither is nor can be an “ideal state,” since the deep motivations of one group (those who want liberty) are invariably at odds with, and are bound to come into conflict with, another (those driven to assume power and command).

There seem to be a couple of employable strategies for containing power. One way to contain power would be with a greater power. But this isn’t a strategy at all. It just pushes the problem back a step. For then the question is, How is that greater power to be constrained once it gets out of hand, as it inevitably will?

The other strategy is to obligate power to control itself, through the appeal to a higher set of principles. This was the strategy employed in the English-speaking world. The very existence of the Magna Carta implied that the King, despite his position, couldn’t rightly do as he pleased (and there was much that King John was doing that displeased his noble countrymen). Unfortunately, efforts to check the King’s power didn’t take right away, and it took several more movements, with names like the Diggers and the Levellers (who lived around the time of the English Civil War), to bring the throne to heel. Arguably, England’s Constitutional Monarchy did not succeed at this until well after the American War for Independence (or Revolutionary War, if you prefer) against King George III.

The Declaration of Independence articulated the crimes of the British Monarchy as justifying severing ties with George; within a year, the fledgling U.S. was at war with Great Britain, under the Articles of Confederation which created a weak central government that could not lay taxes or raise its own army. The new leadership class of Americans, those who had led the struggle against the British and formed a new government, saw that government as too weak. They set about to create a stronger one. They feared that under the Articles, the U.S. would slowly pull itself apart. So in the Constitutional Convention of 1787, they closed the doors, set aside their official mandate (to revise the Articles of Confederation), and over the next four months, penned a new document, the Constitution of the United States of America, which they then presented to the 13 States for ratification. Its own rules stated that nine states had to ratify it.

The first major conversation over the nature of power proceeded apace. Those history calls the Antifederalists argued against ratification. The new Constitution, they argued, was full of loopholes through which those who wanted power would eventually climb. The authors of The Federalist Papers defended ratification on the grounds that although any document penned by human hands would be imperfect, the Constitution was likely the best we would be able to do. James Madison presented the challenge in Federalist 52:

“But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the greatest difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”

Madison understood the problem of power.

But as subsequent years showed, this wasn’t enough. The Constitution, as we all know, was ratified in 1791, and the first president under the new regime, George Washington, crushed the Whiskey Rebels (who were protesting an excise tax) and allowed Alexander Hamilton to create the First Bank of the United States over the express objections of Thomas Jefferson (and possibly in violation of Article 1 Section 8 of the Constitution which mandates to Congress responsibility for coining money and regulating its value, without a clause allowing for delegation).

Subsequent decades, one by one, indicated that the Antifederalist view was probably the correct one. Government has grown progressively larger, and has grown vulnerable to control by those holding the purse strings (often corporations). What conclusions can we draw from this now? That the problem of how to contain power is still the major unsolved practical problem in political philosophy, however we cash it out or rationalize it. Contending that we might solve the problem by embracing one ideology or another, perhaps of the “right” or of the “left,” is clearly a dead end, if only because both of these have produced cruel, totalitarian regimes. Ours has arguably slouched towards plutocratic oligarchy, which may turn out to be the most stable form of political economy for a civilization at our present stage of development in the West. Sadly, efforts to “restore the Constitution” led, e.g., by former Texas Senator Ron Paul, haven’t succeeded despite having generated a large following.

Plutocratic oligarchy has many features that bespeak of lack of accountability, irresponsibility, and a failure to attend to long-term planning (where long term here means further than the next annual report or election). Thus how and whether civilization will move forward is equally a problem. In future posts, we will consider the various issues raised here and explore more specifics, as well as a few proposed solutions.

One of the solutions I take the most seriously was originally developed by renegade economist and political philosopher Leopold Kohr (1909 – 1994), author of an important work entitled The Breakdown of Nations (1957). Kohr’s thesis, which I have discussed at length in a separate essay (link to be supplied next week), is that the best way of containing those who want power is to shrink our governments and corporations in size, shrinking their reach and capacity to do harm.

The second best solution, as Kohr would have it, is for smaller and largely self-contained groups to separate themselves from larger and out-of-control ones: secede, in other word. Separations have occurred, and proven successful, in numerous places (e.g., Czechoslovakia into Slovakia and the Czech Republic, or Slovenia and others from the former Yugoslavia). Whether we will see a period of globalization-in-reverse, one might call it, as a solution to the increasing dominance of the globe by a global one percent, remains to be seen, but the prospects for and dynamics of such a process merit being thought about carefully.

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About Steven Yates

I have a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Georgia and teach Critical Thinking (mostly in English) at Universidad Nacionale Andrés Bello in Santiago, Chile. I moved here in 2012 from South Carolina. My most recent book is entitled Four Cardinal Errors: Reasons for the Decline of the American Republic (2011). I am the author of an earlier book, around two dozen articles & reviews, & still more articles on commentary sites on the Web. I live in Santiago with my wife Gisela & two spoiled cats, Bo & Princesa.
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