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1.2 Do We Need a Government?

PLEASE NOTE: This book is currently in draft form; material is not final.

Learning Objectives

  1. Understand why we might want to have a government.
  2. Understand the role of power in politics, and understand the different faces of power.
  3. Get an overview about how systems of government developed over time.

You might have gone to a leadership camp or seminar some time. (I did.) The organizers trot out a speaker, often a broken down football coach who can speak a little. The old coach will say something very much like “You know what happens when you assume? You make an ass out of you and me.” (My impression at the time was that there really was only one ass in the room.) But there is a bit of point here—we all need to question our assumptions, and try to limit them. Realistically, you can’t get through life without some assumptions. (The mathematician and philosopher Kurt Godel proved that even basic arithmetic is founded on some critical assumptions.) If we take that to its logical conclusion, we don’t know anything. But let’s not go that far. It’s not impossible for us to know something, even if we know that our opinion on that something may change as we get more information.

So, with that in mind, the assumption we’re making in this book is that we need a government. And that’s not an assumption, as we’ll see, that’s been shared by everyone throughout history. Therefore, we should probably occasionally question that assumption. If nothing else, testing your assumptions helps you strengthen the arguments you use to support them.

Why do we have to do things this way? We don’t, necessarily. We could just let everything happen and let everyone choose for themselves. Anarchists have argued for centuries that government makes us worse people; that, left to their own, people will just get along and do what they want. Libertarians, who believe in minimal government, make a very similar argument (perhaps without realizing it).

There are a number of potential problems with the idea that we would be better with no government, however. (And, examined closely, anarchy doesn’t really mean no government; it tends to mean a decentralized sort of government that limits the amount of power anybody has.) The first is what we might call the traffic light problem. In a society of any size, it becomes very difficult to predict what everybody will do, like having a lot of drivers at an intersection. Traffic lights help sort out who goes when, which cuts way down on accidents. You don’t have to know people to know what each one will do—there’s an established order (as long as everyone’s watching the light as they approach the intersection). In economics, traffic lights are a classic example of a public or social good—traffic lights won’t be provided by normal market activity because nobody can make a profit from them. Without some kind of social organization—government—there will be no traffic lights (or four-way stops or roundabouts or any other way making sense out of an intersection). As annoying as they can be when we’re in a hurry, I think we’d actually miss them.

It’s not all pretty lights, however. By living in an organized society, we give up some freedom in exchange for predictability and certainty. If society were the 30 or so people in your class or your section, you’d all get to know each other enough that your behaviors would be predictable and understandable. There wouldn’t be so much need for written rules, because, generally, everyone would have a sense of what the rules are. But as societies grow, eventually you don’t know everyone in the group, and organization becomes more likely as people seek to continue to make life predictable and stable. Human beings don’t like change, and yet nothing is probably more certain in our lives. So government is one way we try to keep change at a minimum.

In a small society, say a band of the size of a class—up to 150 people, according to one studyThe late W.L. Gore, the man who brought us Gore-Tex, based on his own observations, demonstrated that the ideal factory size was about 150 people, because then everybody in the plant would know everybody else and that tended to boost efficiency and productivity, as well as workers’ contentment. Later studies have tended to support Gore’s experience.—you can pretty much know everyone personally, and you can predict their behaviors. Rules get established by custom and tradition, and people will largely get along.

But as societies get bigger, we have a harder time predicting how everyone will behave. Very soon, we don’t know everyone, and your custom and tradition might be slightly different than mine. (If you travel overseas, for example, don’t flash someone a reversed peace sign [palm facing you], because in many parts of the world, that means something else, and it’s not a welcoming gesture.)

Formal politics seems to arise in any society of any size. People begin to make rules, choose leaders, find ways to make decisions, and find ways to exercise power. Because as soon as someone’s a “leader,” or some person or group of people can make decisions, we’re talking about power. Rightly or wrongly, human beings seem to tend to prefer some kind of organization in society. One of the great challenges of being human is that while there’s nothing we avoid so much as change (unless we’re in charge of the change), there’s nothing so inevitable in our lives. Change is stressful; enough serious change can make you susceptible to illness. And so we build custom and tradition in our lives, because predictability can be comforting, and it’s often less work. In economic terms, predictability in social life lowers transaction costs, which are the costs of negotiating and enforcing contracts. Every interaction with other people is not a contract, in a narrow sense, but like walking into a room full of people you don’t know, if you couldn’t predict anybody else’s behavior, life would be a lot of work. Although sometimes we would prefer to do what we want when we want to, life is slightly easier when we know what the rules are, what is expected of us, and that there are formal consequences for our actions. Consequently, living in an organized society means trading some freedom for some level of predictability.

Politics and Power

Custom and tradition thus give rise to rules, and to government. (The fact that some people then try to use all this for their own benefit doesn’t change the fact that most people seem to prefer some kind of government.) This formal politics means that some people in any society will be given some portion of powerThe ability to get people to do things, to set agendas, to participate in decision-making, and the ability to convince, persuade and coerce.. What does that look like? Power takes many shapes:

  • The ability to get somebody to do something they wouldn’t otherwise do. The government, by threats and rewards, gets you to buckle your seatbelt while driving, to file your income tax return on time, and to not throw your garbage in the street. You might do all those things on your own, but we probably know at least a few people who wouldn’t. This is sometimes called coercive power, and government is more likely to have it than anyone else. Aside from self-defense, government tends also to have the sole ability to legally use force.
  • The ability to set agendas. Agenda-setting means the ability to decide what gets talked about and what never comes up. This is a big deal in government. If your issue remains “on the back burner,” as they say in politics, it won’t get attention or resolution. Setting the agenda means that somebody has the power to decide what issues get the state’s attention and which don’t.
  • Access to decision makers. Power can mean that you have somebody’s ear. If Bill Gates calls the president, he gets a call back long before you or I get a call from either one of them. Access means you at least have a chance to be heard, often in person, which means you will have greater influence on agendas and outcomes.
  • The ability to participate in decision making. Here again, power can be the ability to weigh in on what will be done on issues that have made the public agenda. Elected (and some appointed) officials tend to have the most of this, but that’s why we elect, them isn’t it?
  • Power is also the ability to persuade. For example, when the president speaks, it’s news, and if the president speaks well, he or she can rally the nation in one direction or another. An effective president can also push Congress to approve one law or stop another. Part of the skill required to be an effective leader is being able to convince people to do things.

All of this matters to us because whatever our elected officials do will have an impact on us, at home, at school, or at work. Changes in state laws have made it illegal to talk or text on a cell phone while driving, or for young drivers to have too many people in their cars. The federal No Child Left Behind Law pushed states to adopt standardized testing, which, it can be argued, changed the whole direction of education across the country. The people who favored that law had the power to see it enacted into law; the federal government, by tying it to federal funds to education, had the power to make state governments apply it to the schools within their borders. Power is the ability to make things happen and to get things done. Power can be a good thing or a bad thing (if it’s used to oppress or kill people), but it’s always there.

Models of Power

All of the types of power show up in and around government. But who has power? There are different theories, and all of them have some truth.

  • Majoritarian: The majority decides. Elections are typically decided on a majoritarianA theory of power that says majorities rule and therefore have power. basis. Whoever gets the most votes wins, so, at least for that election, a majority decided. That presumes, however, that the winner got 50 percent plus one; if we allow multiple candidates, someone can with with a plurality of votes (the most votes among the candidates, but not a majority of the total vote cast). Majorities also tend to be temporary things, and that doesn’t tell us much about who might be pushing people to become part of one majority or another.
  • Pluralist: Different groups coalesce around different issues at different times, each competing for desired outcomes in decisions made by government. The pluralist model suggests that there are a lot of competing groups, each looking out for their own issues, and, to some extent, helping to keep each other in check. The evidence for pluralismA theory of power that says that groups contend for power, but not all at the same time or over the same things. includes the fact that groups do tend to be focused on particular issues while ignoring others. This means that no group is likely to be all-powerful. For example, a campaign for a school levy may unite disparate groups of people the community, but the same group isn’t likely to spend much time on issues that don’t relate to local schools.
  • Elitist: ElitismA theory of power that says that politics and government are frequently dominated by the wealthy and powerful. says that despite the evidence for a pluralistic division of power, wealthy and powerful elites tend to dominate decision-making, with relatively little meaningful competition among groups. One of the flaws in pluralism might be that even if there are a lot of groups involved in politics, they won’t necessarily keep each other in check. And as some groups have more money, those groups likely will be more powerful. So car dealers were able to block a proposed national “lemon” law in part because consumer advocates were less organized and much less well-funded than were the dealers.

As we’ll see throughout our exploration of politics, there is evidence for majoritarian, elite and pluralist models. Groups do form around certain issues and compete over them. Elites do exist, and tend to exert greater influence on some issues. Elites, however, are not monolithic, and frequently are in conflict with each other.

Legitimacy and Power

Whatever the form of government, it has to be legitimate in the eyes of its people to survive. LegitimacyCitizens’ belief that their government has the right to rule and should be obeyed. is the belief by citizens that their government has the right to rule, that the government’s laws should be obeyed. People feel they have a stake in society, which usually means they’re getting something from it. It also means that governments must be seen to be fair. If a government treats its citizens unequally, people will become happy. Throughout history, protest movements grow out of inequality, particularly inequality of opportunity but also inequality of achievement. The American Civil Rights movement, which pushed for equal political treatment and equal economic opportunity for people of diverse backgrounds, grew out of 100 years of discrimination that followed the end of slavery and the Civil War.

Every state has to establish its legitimacy, and no state that isn’t legitimate in the eyes of its people can be successful for very long, if at all. If the state is seen as legitimate, then people support it, obey its laws, and pay their taxes. At the most basic level, legitimacy has always depended on two things: Keeping people safe, and keeping them fed. If either one of those things fail, a government is likely to fail as people lose faith in it and stop supporting it. Even non-democratic governments face this test.

Most governments therefore try to remain legitimate in the eyes of their citizens. Some governments make appeals to nationalism, a kind of pride in the nation-state. This can be risky; nationalism can lead to anger at foreigners or people who are in some way different. Extreme nationalism pushed people in Nazi Germany to condone the killing of Jews, gypsies and gays. China has pushed nationalism as a substitute for the ideology of communism, but saw anti-Japanese riots break out in 2005 in partial response. China and Japan have a not always happy history, but at the moment they are major trading partners and Japan has been a big investor in China. As the Chinese government’s other legitimization tactic is economic growth, riots against a major trading partner might be counterproductive.

Governments also are expected to create the conditions that provide people with an acceptable standard of living. Stagnant living standards helped topple the Soviet Union; poverty in rural China has led to protests even as living standards rise in other parts of the country.

Governments also obtain legitimacy by allowing people to participate in politics—voting, running for office, and having access to people in government. If nothing else, if people get to vote, they are less likely to take up arms and try to overthrow the government. If you participate in something, you’re more likely to support it. Perhaps you’ve done an exercise like this: You break up into groups, and each group is supposed to complete a quick project—make a flag, come up with a motto, something. Usually it doesn’t go well; the final product won’t get taped to the refrigerator at home. But ask the groups to stand up for their work, and they all cheer heartily. Government is the same way. If you get to participate in any meaningful way, it becomes your government, and a little bit more legitimate.

If governments have legitimacy, they can exercise power. A government with no power is not a government worth discussing. It can’t do anything. People sometimes talk as though they want government to have no power, but that would eventually mean government couldn’t do the things you might want it to do (and, granted, everybody seems to have their own list of what that would be.)

The State

For our purposes, the institution that collectively holds this kind of power is often called “the stateAny hypothetical or real government, controlling a defined territory..” This doesn’t mean the U.S. state that you live in; it means a hypothetical government of a hypothetical nation (like in economics where we talk about “the firm,” meaning any typical business). We mean governments in general, so we mean the state in the way we might say, “the car,” as an idea, as opposed to that specific car over there. So the state is the government and all the people in it, and even though every nation is different, they tend to share some similarities. (We should note that a “nationA group of people united by a common language, culture, ethnicity, and/or religion; not necessarily a state.” is also used in the sense of a group of people who share a common culture, language, religion and/or ethnicity, so that a nation isn’t always a state).

A state is said to be sovereign, which means there is no higher power above it. A sovereignThe notion that a state has defined borders which are respected by its neighbors, and which has ultimate legal authority within its own boundaries. state is independent of other states; has defined borders which its neighbors respect; it has ultimate legal authority within those borders.

That means the state has power. If we talk about the power of the state, we’re talking about what the state can do—what it can compel people to do. So the power of the state enforces speeds limits, decides where houses and businesses can be located, and decides what taxes will be and how that money will be spent. If you attend any kind of public school, drive on a public road, or get time-and-a-half if you work more than 40 hours in a week, that’s all, in part, because of the active power of the state.

And yet people in general, and Americans in particular, have mixed feelings about the power of the state. We tend to like the services government can provide, but we aren’t as certain about the limits on individual behavior that come with an organized state. Like people throughout history, we’re less excited about the taxes we pay than we are about the services we receive. So while we’re grateful for a functioning highway system, we have less consensus over speed limits, and motorcycle helmet and seatbelt laws (all of which have been shown to keep people safer on the road). People in general, and Americans in particular, don’t like other folks telling them what to do. But living in an organized society means you probably don’t have complete freedom to do anything at any time or place.

Key Takeaways

  • Government can provide predictability and stability in daily life.
  • A state has to have power to do anything.
  • Power shows up in several different ways, and is exercised by different individuals and groups at different times and places.

Exercises

  1. Who has power in your life? Who do you have power over?
  2. Is the government where you live legitimate? What does this government do that preserves its legitimacy in the eyes of its citizens?