It is and should be the defining problem of our age, as it has been the problem for nearly all ages past. Ever since human beings solved the problem of “we don’t have enough food to eat” we have been faced with this problem. I would say “we have been working on a solution this problem ever since” but alas, history is littered with examples where not only have people not been working on a solution, they have been actively endeavoring to make the problem worse. Here we are in the 21st century and despite making vast inroads on the problems common to all human existence—disease, famine, poverty, and being at the mercy of nature—we still have yet to solve one basic question: how should we rule one another? It’s the problem of government, and if nothing else, the 20th Century was an abject lesson in what happens when that problem goes unsolved.
What do I mean precisely when I say “the problem of government”? If I were being cheeky this is where I’d say “that we have one” but despite the fervent insistence of a few committed anarchists, it appears that simply not having government is not a very wise idea. Human beings have a natural urge to rule over one another. Even if you could form an anarchist society, one where no one has a legal right to aggress against anyone else, without going through the usual unpleasantry of a breakdown in society or the messiness of revolution, it seems inevitable that humans will eventually band together and then start making rules, forming a government of some sort, whether they call it that or not. Or a governed society will roll into town with some tanks and say “We own you now”. No, despite some mysterious, lasting appeal to the fantasy of rugged individualism, anarchism is no solution. If we set out to deliberately construct a government and purposefully structure it, I think the results would be better than what we would otherwise get from anarchy: a government of whichever thugs happened to be strongest and can force their rule over the rest of us.
So what is the problem of government? Well, it’s the conundrum that we need at least a little government but that governments also have a nasty habit of accruing more and more power unto themselves until they rule not citizens but subjects. Governments have occasionally been known to commit genocide, start highly destructive, usually useless wars (sometimes for the purpose of committing genocide), and when they aren’t taxing a people into poverty for the benefit of a few, politically connected elites, governments are generally wasting our money while accomplishing nothing but telling us how to live our lives and getting in the way. In a nutshell, we have yet to build the least-worst government and we have yet to discover the least-worst means of governing a society so people don’t hurt other people or take their stuff. I think we should get right on that.
People uphold democracy as some kind of cure-all: something that will stop war, end poverty, heal the sick, and bring happiness to all. I think Winston Churchill hit the nail on the head when he said “Democracy is the worst form of government we have! Except for all the others…” and I also think Thomas Jefferson had it absolutely right when he declared “Democracy is simply mob rule where 51% of the people can vote to take away the rights of the other 49.”
Democracy is not a solution to our government ills, because it has no inherent means of restricting the actions of government to make sure the government does not abuse its powers. Indeed, as George Will has pointed out, many people (often on the left) champion both minority rights and democracy, but the two are incompatible: democracy is the opposite of minority rights, because in a democracy the minority always loses! However, the principle of representative government, government of the people-by the people-for the people, government with consent of the governed, is clearly a principle worth holding on to–especially since democracy (unlike pretty much any other form of government) allows for the lawful and peaceful dissolution of the current set of rulers to be replaced by a different set. It’s just best that we don’t seek to implement it through pure, unadulterated democracy.
So how do we build a government that will reflect the needs/desires of the people being governed but will respect the rights of everyone, especially minorities, a government which won’t go mad with power, will preserve law and order, and will protect us from the big, bad, nasty world that’s out there? I don’t know. I think the American Experiment, a Federal Republic based on individual rights, personal liberty, and representative government came pretty close when the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were adopted. It wasn’t perfect by any means. There was the whole slavery thing, the lack of rights for women, Native Americans, pretty much anyone who wasn’t a landed, white man (and preferably not a Catholic), but those were blemishes which could be (and were) corrected. However flawed the implementation may have been, the ideas underlying it were sound. Of course, as Lysander Spooner deftly argued, the Constitution isn’t so great: either it has enabled the terrible government the US currently has, or it did nothing to prevent it. This I cannot refute, I can only argue that the government the US has is not a result of the Constitution, but a result of abandoning the Constitution and that the Constitution offers a remedy to US’ current ailment.
However imperfect the Constitution may be, it makes for a good starting point. If men were angels we would need no government, as James Madison astutely observed more than 200 years ago, and it is precisely because humans are not angels that we both need government and yet cannot trust government. We need to solve this. We need to find a way to keep order, to protect the rights of all, and to defend ourselves from foreign enemies without enabling a government which will imprison us in gulags, enforce its own morality on us, or press us into poverty. Human beings are of course flawed, and the institutions we build suffer for it. I doubt we will ever make a perfect government, but since when has the futility of achieving perfection stopped us from trying?