What Government Is

This is part 1 of an in-progress series Constituency & Contract discussing my theory of society and government.

I am not a trained sociologist. For me, thinking about these issues amounts to little more than a hobby. But it has happened that hobbyists have contributed to a science. Hopefully I’ll be able to do that.

My philosophy is based heavily in the outlook of Max Weber and of John Locke. Locke is with me from grade school, or middle school to be more precise. Weber I came to much later but I’ve found that he explains intuitions I’ve had well. It’s reading his Essays in Sociology which in part inspired me to finally write this down. The core of my ideas come from an extension of Weber’s tripartite theory on legitimacy. I will start, however, by discussing government itself.

Also, during this series, I’ll italicize terms that I’m using in a specific manner. I’ll do my best to define everything concretely so that if you read through the series you will know what I mean by each term. Still, one of the pitfalls of scientific writing in general and sociology in particular is getting tangled up in terms that people use in different ways. I’ll use concepts that have been defined elsewhere, sometimes tweaked and sometimes not. If I’m italicizing it then I’m using it in a way that I’ve defined in the series.

So what is government?

My definition of government is ‘a system by which the constituency organizes itself’ (for the moment, constituents can be defined as ‘those who support or make up the government’; it’s self-referential but it will suffice). The constituency needs two things from this government: (1) a way to resolve disputes between each other and (2) a single face to meet with those who are not in the constituency. It’s from these two foundations that every function of the government — from armies to zoning laws — is ultimately justified. Outside of these two realms the government does not operate. The government takes every pain to protect the members of its constituency because they are one and the same.

By saying this I don’t mean to sound dismissive of the role that governments play in oppressing the people under their control. The point is that we can’t view everyone under a government’s control as being a constituent to that government. A basic mistake is made when people think about the government ruling over its constituents. We all know that if we get together in a group with people, that group is over if everyone chooses to opt out. In the same way the government would cease to exist if all its constituents refused its instruction.

This means that there are those who are under control of a government and who do not have any control over it. This is the subject class. There are many kinds of ‘justified’ subjects of the government: orphaned children, the infirm, the elderly. There are also ‘legal’ subjects who we would generally say today are unjustified in existence: slaves and the indentured. Foreign nationals generally count as subjects because they do not have the full measure of rights that a ‘citizen’ has; ultimately they depend on the goodwill of the hosting people to survive. Yet these don’t form classes of their own. They are status orders, or groups united by a commonality that is given social weight (I will talk more about this in the future). They are not the only orders that can and do make up the subject class in any given polity. In most cases they are not even the majority of the subject class. This is why it seems so often that governments oppress those they are supposed to care for: there exists very often a status order which is not part of the constituency but is taught to believe that it is. Wherever the ‘philosophy of citizenship’ takes hold this particular unnamed order grows greatly, which is the point of citizenship.

Students of classical history will recall that primary reasons for the extension of Roman citizenship by Caracalla was to increase the amount of people he could tax effectively and that were available for his armies. This isn’t to say that there were not benefits to gaining Roman citizenship. I’m only pointing out that very rarely does ‘citizen’ mean anything close to ‘uniquely valued member of society’.

Before I conclude I think it would be helpful to define a few terms that will make things easier going forward.

  • A polity is a political group that’s connected to a location, either physical or not (for example, the American environmentalist movement could be described as a polity, as could redditors). Generally I’ll be using it here to talk about a physically-based polity like a city or a country.
  • The state, for now, is the ‘conglomeration’ of constituents and government. As I said earlier, the constituents make up the government of themselves, so they’re already the same. Why is a special term needed, then? Think about it like the difference between yourself at home (eating, enjoying yourself, dealing with personal issues) and yourself at work (focused on ensuring that you are able to live as yourself-at-home). In this crude comparison the state is your mindset which tells you what sort of job you need and how hard you need to work in order to make your life as obstacle-free as possible. The most important thing is the term state does not include any subject class.
  • State-polity is the union between the two above terms. When other people say ‘state’ or ‘nation’, here I’ll say ‘state-polity’. For a more direct definition, the state-polity is all of those people (constituents and subjects) who are governed (managed or ruled, respectively) by a single state.
  • Nation here is used in the more specific cultural sense, so ‘America’ does not constitute a nation (being so multicultural) while ‘Germany’ might and ‘the German people’ almost certainly does (excluding as it does those who do not think of themselves as culturally German but still live in Germany).
  • Class retains its usual meaning, but as I’ve said I only separate society into two classes: the constituents and the subjects.
  • Citizenship is a weird term to talk about by way of everything I’m laying out here. In technical terms citizenship is a fiction but that’s getting ahead of myself somewhat. The best I can come up with is that citizenship is some promise of consideration given by the state to the citizen. That at least describes what citizenship is supposed to be, but as we’ll see, that notion has little weight when how it is set up is considered.

These differences between state-polity and state and government may appear minor but I think the fact that we’ve thought of these as the same for so long has helped us believe a lot of wrong ideas. What should be clear even so far is that what we think of as ‘the state’ or ‘the government’ naturally does not speak for a significant segment of the population. I don’t believe that I’m the first to think ‘my voice doesn’t count in the government’. According to all our current political theories it absolutely should unless we are living in a sham society. Despite all the protesters and accusations, no one can prove quite that far. I don’t think ‘sham society’ is a good description, myself. What I do think is that our society, and most Western societies that I’ve seen, has specific mechanisms in place to hide these realities of power in ways that didn’t happen in the past. As long as we remain ignorant of how they operate, the difference is always going to trouble us.

Come back soon for Part 2.

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