“Everything lives or dies by politics because of its capacity when benign to allow all around it to flourish and when malign to make all around it wither.”– Charles Krauthammer
“I’m very doubtful whether history shows us one example of a man who, having stepped outside traditional morality and obtained power, has used that power benevolently.”– CS Lewis
The form of government and the governing principles on which it is organized and managed are of incalculable importance. We in America have been so blessed by the bounty flowing from the operation of the principles which formed our government, and its relationship to the individual and society, that we often fail to appreciate how rare genuinely good government is, how hard it is to replicate, and how easy it is to lose.
To properly appreciate the value of the American form of government, one must have some understanding of how other countries have fared under other forms, both historically and currently. The rarity of good government is revealed by the history of other governments, both ancient and modern, and of how poorly most people have fared under them.
America’s founders made a careful study of the development of English government and law, and of classical Greek & Roman republican government structures, with the idea of using their experience as a guide in designing the form of American government, and as an aid in understanding the principles on which they wished to base it, and the pitfalls to guard against.
The right to pursue happiness in the Declaration of Independence meant more than the right to pursue happiness in the sense we commonly think of it today. Our founders were well versed in classical Greek & Roman philosophy. The most prominent of those philosophies equated happiness with virtue, in that happiness flowed from a life lived virtuously.
All America’s founders (and all coherent political philosophers) recognized that a pre-condition of a successful democracy was a critical mass of citizens who honor civic virtue and a sense of individual responsibility.
The only modern countries with a consistent history of good government lasting more than 100 years are, with the exception of Switzerland and arguably several Scandinavian countries, England and former colonies of England. This fact alone is evidence that good government requires something special.
What is good government? Government is formed by politics and Aristotle said that the purpose of politics is to produce virtue in the citizens. The classical Greeks named the foundational virtues as wisdom, justice, courage and moderation. Nobody has improved on Aristotle’s definition yet so we can define good government as government that tends to produce good citizens – those who try to practice wisdom, justice, courage and moderation and their branching virtues.
For examples of the nightmarish conditions bad government can produce consider Nazi Germany, The Soviet Union under Stalin, Communist China under Mao, Cambodia under Pol Pot, or North Korea. In any such country the very worst people get ahead. Mediocrities and misfits are elevated to positions of importance because of their loyalty to the Party and their sycophancy to their superiors. Even minor officials can have the power of life and death over people under them and become petty but merciless tyrants. The very structure of the system makes this inevitable. Everyone is encouraged in a totalitarian system to spy on everyone else, so trust becomes a scarce commodity. People are rewarded for betraying their friends, neighbors and even family. What totalitarian system has failed to encourage children to spy on and report on their parents? This sort of government results in dystopianism with a vengeance. The Teaching Company has produced a wonderful lecture series, Utopia and Terror in the 20th Century, by Professor Liulevicius, that brilliantly examines these issues.
Protection of private property rights is a requirement for good government. To understand how important they are consider what happens under Communist regimes where socialism is practiced in its most extreme form. When the government controls all property and all employment it has power of life and death over all citizens since those in disfavor have no means of making a living. Absence of private property means government has absolute control and starvation becomes one of its most effective means of social control. Many millions died of starvation under both Stalin and Mao as a result of deliberate government policy. Starvation as a means of social control is currently practiced in North Korea.
Most governments are far better than those mentioned above and the lessons to be learned from their mistakes are not so glaringly obvious, but they may be more important for our own instruction, as we are far more likely to repeat their mistakes than the worst of those of the totalitarians.
The point of understanding the principles that have guided American government is to recognize both their value and the most serious threats to them, and to recognize where those threatening trends are likely to lead in time to reverse them before they overwhelm us.
The type and character of government and the characteristics and character of its citizens matter profoundly. The character and customs of its citizens shape the guiding principles of their government and vice versa. Each powerfully influences the character of the other.
America has always had great leadership at the most critical times: George Washington during the Revolutionary war, leading The Constitutional Convention, and as first president; Madison and Hamilton as architects and promoters of the Constitution, Hamilton as architect of our financial system, and Jefferson, the Declaration of Independence and the Louisiana Purchase; Abraham Lincoln during The Civil War; Roosevelt and Truman during World War II; Truman and Eisenhower during the initial stages of the Cold War and Reagan and George H W Bush setting the skids under the Soviet Union and managing its collapse.