As a rule, politicians govern us and make out that they have our best interests at heart, whilst the public treat them with inherent scepticism and unease. Yet governed by them we undoubtedly are. Here is a selection of quotes recording people's attitudes and differing ideas on the relationship between government and the people.
Nothing appears more surprising to those who consider affairs with a philosophical eye, than the ease with which the many are governed by the few.
- David Hume, First Principles of Government
When you think about it, it is incredible how smoothly most systems of government run. No matter what the performance of the regime, and how much regard it takes for the populus, the number of revolutions is incredibly small - which is what makes them so significant and memorable when they occur. When you step back and reflect, it is perhaps surprising how easily people accept the status quo and allow themselves to be subjected to the whim and fancy of a very few individuals.
Government is an evil; it is only the thoughtlessness and vices of men that make it a necessary evil. When all men are good and wise, government will of itself decay.
- Percy Bysshe Shelley
Shelley offers one explanation for why people do allow themselves to be governed in the way that Hume found surprising. People realise that government is not necessarily a good, but realise that it is necessary. Better a government of sorts than not have one at all. In the ideal world there would be no need for government, but the world is far from ideal, therefore one is necessary.
If men were angels, no government would be necessary.
- James Madison
Madison backs up Shelley's point perfectly, and infact the justification for a government on the practical level - the fact that men are as they are, is a common and recurring theme in all literature. The alternative is the 'state of nature', a horrible condition which Thomas Hobbes describes as 'nasty, brutish and short'. Government starts to look a bit more appealing in that light!
So, what makes a government good?
The best government is that which teaches us to govern ourselves.
Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe
For Goethe a good government is one that effectively is so good that it makes itself redundant - like a good project manager it actually displaces itself once its work is complete. A good government helps us learn to govern ourselves so as the government is not necessary.
And the dangers of a bad government?
An oppressive government is more to be feared than a tiger.
Confucius reminds us how important it is to get the right government for a people, as the few who constitute that body have such a disproportionate affect relative to their numbers on the rest of society.
Given how important government is, perhaps we should have the best, most educated people for the job?
The best minds are not in government. If any were, business would steal them away.
- Ronald Reagan
According to former US President, Ronald Reagan, this is far from the case - the people in government he says are categorically not the best minds. The best minds either are in business, or stay in business, or perhaps remain as academics. The Platonic idea of the Philosopher King is far from the reality of the situation.
What about individual systems of government? What are they like:
Government of the busy by the bossy for the bully
This is how Seldon defines capatalism and its defining traits. Presumably some great politicians would defend political systems, and in particular the democratic form of government which is such a feature of the Western world?
Democracy is the worst form of government except for all
those others that have been tried.
- Winston Churchill
Churchill doesn't really defend the virtues of democracy as a system of government, but rather takes a pragmatic approach - it's not exactly great as a form of government, but it's the best of a bad bunch. If something better comes along, perhaps we will move to that. But are there better systems of government? Is something being developed that will remove the flaws of democracy?
While all other sciences have advanced, that of government is at a standstill - little better understood, little better practiced now than three or four thousand years ago
- John Adams
Well, it doesn't seem like government has advanced much, at least according to Adams. Whilst technology, science and our understanding of the world around us advances greatly, systems of government largely stand still. No better form that representative democracy has been suggested. Perhaps it truly is the best of a bad bunch. And whilst we have government, we are always exposed to the potential problems that come with it. This is summarised admirably in this warning shot from James Madison:
The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse.
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