Friday, January 2, 2009

Is Just Government Possible?

During the Bush administration, we heard a lot of opposition to the efforts of the neo-conservatives and their "Project for a New American Century" with its chilling, bold desire to construct an American empire. I have presented reasons in the past to believe that the United States is a global empire. Irrespective of where you stand on the issue of whether the US technically is or is not an empire, the US government and every other government on earth is blatantly Machiavellian in their justifications for their actions.

In case you're wondering who Machiavelli is, he wrote an important book in the late 15th century titled The Prince which is basically a handbook on how to retain power, even at the cost of violence and other immoral acts, while yet retaining the external semblance of moral authority. In short, it is a guide on how to retain power at almost any cost.

One problem with modern politics is that it has, in many ways, become frankly Machiavellian. For example, have you noticed that the cable news networks spend very little time discussing the positions of candidates during elections? Instead, they focus a great deal of their energy on discussing meta-political issues - the candidates' style, manner of speaking, political triangulations and so on. Now, the netowkrs themselves are not to blame for this, apparently this is what people want to hear and see. But this is even more disturbing because it indicates that the public has become frankly Machiavellian in its outlook. How so? Well, if the point of having an election is to decide who is best suited to run the country, how do their respective political triangulations matter? All that really matters in an election is whether John, Joe or Suzie will govern most justly or whether this, that or the other way of organizing the state is more just.

As another example f you read a Supreme Court opinion, the Court will frequently refer to "the interests of the state" in concluding that things should be this or that way. But why should things conform to the interests of the state, anyway? So what if something is in the interests of the state, how is that a reason that things should be that way?

In short, as long as the US public and people throughout the world continue to hold the widespread view that the state may legitimately appropriate to itself any means whatever to accomplish its ends, just government is impossible. If you want to know how George Bush launched an unnecessary war based on nothing more than rumors, lies and innuendos, perhaps you need to look in the mirror. As long as you and I believe that the state has the legitimate power to appropriate to itself any means necessary to accomplish its ends, the state will remain the foremost human force for destruction in the world.

Of course, the statist believes that we can pass a convention on human rights or draft some other written document to limit the behavior of the state. The lesson of history is that words are cheap - it is money and the threat of violence which speak. The state cannot be limited by words which it is itself responsible to enforce. A constitution is powerless to limit a government, this is the lesson of US history.

Since the only real threats to state power are popular revolt, foreign overthrow or emigration, these are the only real limits to state power, even today. The real limit of state power is popular patience - how much the public will endure. How much taxation the public will endure, how much regulation, how much abuse, how much invasion of privacy and violation of other basic rights the public will endure. These are the true limits of state power.

But when the public begins to tolerate the state using the ends to justify the means, the state acquires more power than it already has. Extraordinary rendition, Guantanamo Bay, extortionary taxation, astronomical inflation and public debt all become just "necessary evils" which the state must use. Of course, it is only ever using these tools in its interests, which begs the question of why the state's interests should be served.

If there is such a thing as just government (which I don't believe there is) it certainly cannot exist in the context of a public opinion which is generally Machiavellian in its view of state power. The state does not have the right to appropriate to itself "any means necessary" to further its interests. The fact that something is in the interests of the state is irrelevant to any question of justice. And the ad hoc solutions of writing down supposed declarative limits to state power has been shown again and again throughout history to be nothing more than a farce. The only real (internal) limit to state power is fear of popular revolt and as long as the public is not outraged at the frankly Machiavellian behavior of our government and all governments throughout the world, we are guaranteed to have unjust government.

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