'Of the people...' A look at the contrasting perspectives of government

'Of the people...' A look at the contrasting perspectives of government

Christopher Bryan

Sunday, October 25, 2020

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The concept of government has been debated since the 16th century by philosophers such as Thomas Hobbs, John Locke, Charles Montesquieu, Jean-Jacques Rosseau, and others. In general, governments exist for the main purposes of, amongst other things, providing and maintaining law and order and liberty for its people to exist happily in their communities while doing business, raising their families, and to co-exist with each other, peacefully. In examining these basic functions of government, the history and evolution of government resonate with the philosophical thoughts of these and other scholars.

Thomas Hobbs (1588-1679), in his published book The Leviathan, referred to government as a monster and powerful sea whale imposing order on the people. But in his deeper thoughts he summarised what human existence would be without a government. He called this period the State of Nature, wherein all people would be in equilibrium; that is, there are no laws, government, nor authority to obey. Everyone was free to do as they wanted to do to survive. If such a condition were to exist, he believed that everyone would suffer fear and violent death. Life, he argued, would be solitary, poor, brutish, nasty, and short. The only way out he proposed was for people to come together and decide to form a government or sovereign, and give up some rights to be so governed. Once you give up those rights, you must conform as the government dictates.

Locke (1632-1704) was born shortly before the English civil war and wrote about government in his “two treatises of government”. He agreed with Hobbs about what would happen if there were no government and the hypothetically labelled this agreement as a Social Contract. He, however, disagrees with Hobbs that this contract would be by the people themselves; the sovereign, that is who is chosen to govern them, must agree, he pointed out. He also proposed that some natural rights such as life, liberty, and property are inalienable rights. He also argued that the sovereign authority does not have absolute power, but should act to enforce the rights of the people. However, he posited that if the sovereign failed to secure and uphold the people's human rights they must replace him with a new government. The two treatises were eventually used by Thomas Jefferson in the United States Declaration of Independence. Jefferson speaks out for freedom of speech; however, he believed that property is the most important right. The government, he said, should mainly serve to promote the public good; that is, the protection of people's property and facilitate commerce. Locke also developed a definition of property as the product of a person's labour that would be foundational for both Adam Smith's capitalism and Karl Marx socialism.

Montesquieu (1689-1755) was born in France, which was ruled at the time by King Louis XIV, who was the King of France from 1643 until 1715 and was the definition of an absolute monarch. His famous phrase, “I am the State,” is an illustration of the power he wielded as detailed in the published work The Spirit of the Laws in 1748. Unlike Hobbs and Locke, he believed that without a government people would be so fearful. He believed that, because of needs, men formed themselves into the society which caused war and violence. The state of war amongst individuals and nations led to human laws and government, he argued. The main purpose of government he proposed is to maintain law and order, political liberty, and property of the individual. He did not support the absolute monarchy of his country, but favoured the English system. He believed that the best form of government is one in which the legislature, executive, and judiciary are separated and kept as checks and balance of each other. The USA, he said, adopted this as a foundation of their democracy.

Rosseau (1712-1778) was born in Switzerland. In his essay, he wrote that man was naturally good and was corrupted by society. He argued that without a government man would be free, equal, peaceful, and happier. However, when they began to own property, they would become unequal and commit crimes, murders, etc; therefore, war would eventually result. He believed that the rich took the land from the people and tricked them to accept them as their rulers. So, the submission or agreement with their rulers, he argued, was not a willing agreement as Hobbs submitted, but a fraud against the people. In his published work, The Social Contract, he wrote that men were born free and everywhere he is he is in chains. But man, he said, should never be forced to give up their natural rights. He believed in direct democracy in which the people agree who is to rule and make the laws of the land. Everyone, he said, should be made to obey the laws so long as they are a resident of the State. A civil State, he proposed, was where security, liberty, and property are protected. His general position has later become “We the people”, which is the beginning of the United States Constitution. Note: The Social Contract was speaking hypothetically.

The government, therefore, is instituted to support the people and their most basic needs in pursuit of their liberty and happiness and to facilitate the development of activities to better their constituents. Governments are also to provide and facilitate security and safety — law and order — which ensures that everyone can co-exist, and where there are conflicts, which are expected, and which set us apart, mechanisms are in place to assist in mitigating those issues amicably.

Society will not develop and survive without the constituted government that exercises its authority fairly and lawfully over the people and the State. At the same time, governments must be open to divergent views, as the self-interest nature of human in owning as many properties will induce greed and ignite conflict. But how society is being governed must be determined if the will of the people is being met and satisfied. Therefore, governments must not fail to govern to the will of the people. If otherwise, and the government has caused the people to be dissatisfied, the process of removal must be in harness with the rule of law.

Governments, though, must strike a formula for balancing liberty and equality to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to all the available public resources and, at the same time, empower the people to acquire their private property. The problem in doing this is that the liberty of anyone should not be restricted to owning private property. Therefore, governments must institute and ensure the balancing act works for all. Probably, this is why Thomas Hobbs pointed out that human beings are naturally self-centred and need an iron fist of a strong leader to govern. The purpose of government, therefore, is profoundly founded and must be lawfully established and maintained for the good of all the people.

Christopher Bryan has read for master's degrees in government and national security and strategic studies. Send comments to the JamaicaObserver or christopher.bryan1000@gmail.com.


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