The Least-Worst Government?

Winston Churchill famously proclaimed democracy to be the least-worst government.  Alas, quotability is not the same thing as wisdom.  Worst at what, Sir Winston?

Speaking of quotable-yet-loony folks, Aristotle defined Man as “the political animal,” and as such had an answer to our question: The State’s purpose, Aristotle said, is to promote virtue.

Let’s leave the contentious topic of “virtue” aside, and step back to the definition of “Man.”  Man isn’t a political animal.  Man is a purpose-finding animal, an explaining animal.  We simply can’t resist the siren song of teleology.  We all live under some kind of State; therefore, we assume that “The State” must have a purpose.  It’s in our DNA; we can’t do otherwise, but…. we might be wrong.  Perhaps “self-organization into some kind of government” is just one of Humanity’s givens, like “sexual dimorphism*” or “requires oxygen.”  Maybe “government” just IS.

A dangerous thought, that.  If it’s true, it desacralizes the State — the worship of which, I think we all agree, has driven all the major political events in the West since at least 1789.  Historian Herbert Butterfield called the 20th century’s great mass movements “giant organized forms of self-righteousness,” but he could’ve taken that a step further — “popular” government of any sort invariably becomes a giant organized form of self-righteousness.  People being people — that is, teleology-addled monkeys — it can’t be any other way.  The State, since it exists, must exist to do something.  What better something to do than to promote virtue?

So we’re back to Aristotle.  But it looks like Aristotle stole a base.  As a rule, people aren’t virtuous.  Why else would they need the State to promote virtue?  And yet, the State is made up of nothing but people.  Aristotle also said that a cause can’t give something to an effect that it, the cause, doesn’t already have.  So how, then, can the State — which, like Soylent Green, is made of people — itself make people virtuous?

See what I mean about this teleology stuff?  The mind rebels.  The State is a human thing. Humans made it, and every human act, we’re hardwired to believe, has a purpose behind it.  That hardwiring may lead us into incoherence in under three steps, but so far as I know, I’m the only guy in the history of Political Science ever to suggest that government just…kinda… IS.  That it evolved with us, and thus all our airy-fairy noodling about Divine Right and We the People and the Vanguard of the Proletariat and whatnot are just foolish blather about what’s basically still a monkey troop.

[Surely I can’t be the only one to ever have this thought.  Arthur Balfour wrote a long, interesting book about the evolutionary basis of religious belief, and there’s an entire Wiki article about “the evolutionary argument against naturalism,” which argument must encompass stuff like “natural rights,” but I’ve never heard it.  Ernst Mach said something to the effect of, “belief in evolution is itself an evolutionary adaptation,” so the thought must’ve occurred to him that human governments, too, are evolutionary developments… but again, even the hardest-core “Social Darwinist” governments (e.g. Mustache Guy’s) were full of mystical hooey — indeed, fuller than any of the so-called “Christian” governments that opposed him, or all of them together.  See what I mean with this stuff?].

All this would be just philosophy-wank, better suited to a dorm room bull session after a few bong rips, if not for the fact that “desacralizing the State” has to be the #1 project of any viable Dissident movement.  The State, as a human production, has only such “goals” as we give it… and, being made up of nothing but humans, is going to be as good at achieving those goals as we humans generally are at achieving any of our goals….



*My version of WordPress insists on putting a red misspelling squiggle under “dimorphism.”  As it is a basic concept in biology, you’d think WordPress’s spellchecker would have it in the dictionary…. but WordPress is, of course, like all tech companies #Woke and getting #Woker.**
**Or it might just be incompetence: WordPress puts a red misspelling squiggle under “WordPress,” too.
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8 thoughts on “The Least-Worst Government?

  1. Maus

    Nothing like a deep philosophical dive just as the family festivities and associated holiday drinking kick into higher gear. Just some observations: 1. If government formation simply “is,” i.e. a hardwired human attribute, then to conclude that man is a political animal is not so loony. Ari may not have had the benefit of post-Newtonian science; but he is no slacker. 2. I like your bit on teleology and the human drive for explanation. Sounds a bit like Haidt’s elephant and rider theory, where he posits that the rider uses reason to explain why the elephant acted as it did under the sway of the emotions. He’s another loony thinker, but he’s no match for Ari. I’d give long odds that Haidt won’t be read at every university in 2000 years; but even a blind squirrel occasionally finds a nut. 3. The mistake you make with the chicken or egg first fallacy of political institutions versus virtuous humans is the excluded middle of generational knowledge transfers, which are a form of efficient cause. The agent of inculcating virtue in the child is the father and not the government. The government is really fathers collectively restraining vice so as to ensure that individual virtue can flourish. 4. This raises the First Mover problem. Either someone had to be essentially virtuous (Christians would say God) or virtue has to be hardwired in a way that subjects it to dimunition if it is not exercise (why Ari calls it a habit) or is transformed by vice (hence the hardwired natural law precepts urging, but not compelling –got to preserve free will — man to shun vice). Think of it like human muscles, part of the definitional substance of the human animal, which are use it or lose it. 5. I agree completely with your observations on the desacralization of government. Perhaps we’d better hope it is hardwired because, otherwise, we’ll get to learn who was right about the absence of political institutions. Do we get Rousseau’s utopian men of peace living in harmony with nature (sounds good to AOC and her ilk)? Or do we get, as I rather fear is more likely, Hobbes’ war of all against all where life is nasty, brutal and short. Anyway, the only antidote I know is striving for personal growth in virtue and greater restraint in vice, notwithstanding an extra glass or two of holiday cheer. Merry Christmas to you, Sev, and all the fourteen readers. It’s been a great year of thought provoking thoughts and comments for Our Thing here under the chestnut tree.

  2. Pickle Rick

    Here’s my thoughts on the deep philosophical question as framed by Sev.
    One of my main areas of expertise is the Six Nations of the 18th century. They didn’t sacralize the State, because there was no State as such except for the Great League of Peace between themselves as People of the Longhouse. They sacralized each other. That bound them together. The native polities didn’t serve to promote virtue but to ensure the superiority of the real people (the Haudenosenee) by collective action, but without coercion. It worked for 500 years. They were the masters of the eastern woodlands until the League broke under the strain of the American war of independence in the 1780s.

  3. MBlanc46

    A couple of quibbles. Aristotle didn’t define man as a political animal. He characterized man as a political animal, an animal of the polis, the group. It’s the “is” of predication, not the “is” of identity. And his statement is certainly true. All of the African great apes live in what anthropologists call bisexual groups. We’re not loners. You divert away from the “virtue” business, but, in Aristotle’s defense, it should be noted that “virtue (arete*)” does not have the moral connotations of the Latin “virtus” (rather masculine) or the English “virtue” (a bit feminine). It simply meant the excellence of a thing, it’s being the best it can be of the sort of thing that it is. (Sort of like joining the Army.) We no longer tend to think of things in terms of natural kinds, as Aristotle did, so many of his analyses seem a bit foreign, a bit quaint, to our ears. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t insightful when understood in context.

    I also must suggest that your statement that the state “just is” requires a lot of unpacking (trendy academic buzzword). Governance, for example, and the institution of the state aren’t the same thing. All human groups might be said to have had governance (heads require some knocking, occasionally), but the state is a relatively recent phenomenon (emerging with agriculture, or only with the great riverine empires, perhaps). Engels was not wrong to ask about the origin of the family, private property, and the state. It might be better to say, “the state emerges” rather than “the state is”. The obvious next questions are, “When does it emerge?”, “How does it emerge?”, and (oops, getting back to teleology) “Why does it emerge?”. I’m certainly looking for naturalistic accounts here, but, when you’re talking about human beings and their actions, intentions can’t be eliminated.**

    *There are some diacritical marks there that I don’t know how to make with this tablet and wouldn’t bother with in any case.

    **Well, perhaps they can at the quantum mechanical level, but we’re unlikely to be able to reach that.

  4. Publius

    “Government just IS”, is where my mind has been moving the last three years. My running gag when people ask me about my politics is to claim that I’m a monarchist. It’s a joke, because I don’t really believe in any of that divine-right argle-bargle, but it’s not because I don’t hate the idea, either. It’s just an expression of the primate need for hierarchy. And not an especially evolved expression, either, the king is the tribal chief is the paterfamilias. A pride of lions works similarly.

    So my expectation if and when the Boogaloo commences is that some manner of August personage will be atop it when it’s over, and however that is presented to the masses, his word will be law. If he knows what he’s doing, he may engender a Silver Age for our great-grandchildren. If he doesn’t, we get a few more encore boogaloos or maybe some Byzantine coups too keep the flies busy.

    This will be unpleasant, but it will be a case of history reverting to the mean. A Dark Age every now and again is healthy for the cultural blood.

  5. RRW

    Merry Christmas, Severian, to you and yours. Also to the Fearless Fourteen.

    You have expanded since you used to refer to the “five readers”; the ones you have picked up in the past year are always interesting and offer thoughtful views. I rarely do so myself, heh.

    Still wearing the hat . . .

  6. Skedastic Racket

    While I am sitting here waiting for space in the kitchen to open up, I thought I’d take the opportunity to wish you all a very Merry Christmas. Thank you all for the comments and thank you Severian for the posts, and thank you also to the other gentleman who doesn’t post as often anymore, although I’ve forgotten your pseudonym.

  7. TBoone

    Merry Christmas to the mythical 14 and any lurkers or new folks. Big Brain discussion stuff to which I have only small mind thoughts to contribute. A La Senator Blutarsky: Aristotle? Dead!. Churchill? Dead! Wilson? Dead! Balfour? Dead? My point being that the structure ‘horse’ left the barn a long time ago. And ain’t coming back. America, when she was in her prime, was a country that thrived on a can do, ‘pick up baseball’ mindset. The man was important. Structure? Meh… we’d adapt that to conditions. As long as everyone was onboard with the goal, we’d figure out what was important. Spirit of the Law was paramount over Letter. PickUp baseball was complex group dynamics for a simple goal. Have fun playing a game we enjoyed. You wanna argue strikes & balls when your own team guy is pitching? Get outta here! You had to have at least base line competence at given tasks. Yeah, we’ll watch you strike out… but you won’t like what we say… Catch. Throw. Decent effort. And be ‘agreeable’. No whining or bitching. Why aren’t these still printed as ‘work space rules’?
    Because we’ve taken to infantilization and feminization of society. We’ve quit using common sense, decency, fair play and achievement of worthwhile tasks to be relevant. I’ve been noodling over some Golden Nuggets from Zman this year. In my own ‘words’. Morals are feelings. Emotions. That we agree upon. High Emotions because they’re highly important. Seemed preposterous at first. But it’s true. See an attempt at child or woman abuse? The response is not intellectual… We’ve allowed a society of can-do, optimistic ‘doers’ to be controlled by HR cat Ladies. Vibrant misfits who need to be celebrated. And the philosophical underpinnings (or does under_Pinings actually work better?) of the Parens people ((())) oversee and over reach our morals. Extraction. Removal of anything of value, no matter the social costs. Acquisitive dishonorable behavior. No investment in the health of the community or its future. Only to ‘take’. Honor is not honored. It’s easier to live a life without Honor. You’re compelled to uphold no set standard. Only what you can get. Rules are to be built and argued to/for your favor. Not for the good of all involved.
    Hell give me the right talent pool and I’m confident we could produce in a Communist Government controlled environment. Of course, it wouldn’t be TRUE communism, because all know that’s never been tried. It would just be good enough to get us ‘by’ as a people. Sure the occasional over zealous Commisar would be found shot twice in the back of his head at his glorious people’s desk. But, Comrade detective, that is just clear evidence of his deviant wreckist lack of belief in the true & worthy design of the People’s Communist Firearms. He never trusted the System!! All Hail Fearless Leader!! It wuz Moose und Skwerril!!
    The takeaway from the above rambling? Sand And Samizdat. Sand for the gears of the ‘structural’ wrongs we face every day. Slow down, wear down and mock the ‘system’ in whatever form, at whatever level. However small. Bonus points for White Sand. Samizdat? The underground copying/publishing of ‘banned’ thought in the Soviet Union. We have the web & Severian puts it to great use. Thanks Dude!
    Rejoice! It’s just a game. Let’s Play Ball!!

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