Government and Personal Responsibilities

In his Gettysburg address, Abraham Lincoln called for a renewed commitment to “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. He offered this, on Northern ground as the Civil War raged on, as a goal of and justification for the Federal government’s prosecution of that war. Even those who find injustice in Northern actions during the Civil War would hardly disagree with the words: the actions, they must say, belie the words, and show they were no true belief.

“Government of the people”: that a community must have authority of some kind, to resolve disputes justly and oversee projects of general effect, is agreed virtually universally. The most strident monarchist or fascist is content so far: only the anarchist disagrees. The difficulties come in the remaining phrases.

“Government by the people”: it was not a new idea to suggest that community should be able to govern itself. In an American context, however, Lincoln could hardly mean anything by this phrase but the exposition of a more contentious idea: democracy, or the ideal of a people governing their own actions, and on larger matters coming together to debate, or personally select representatives to decide, what must be done.

Of particular note is the generality of Lincoln’s noun, “the people”. The implication is all people. It is hard to argue that the Federal government, in refusing the secession of the Confederate States, had any great moral goals: the practical question was Union or dissolution. To what extent the Constitutional intent of a “more perfect Union” can be set against the Declaration’s principle that “one people” can unilaterally “dissolve the political bands” they find themselves in is beyond my ability to decipher, or the scope of my current argument. That the Southern states largely seceded for fear their practice of slavery was endangered is a statement equally hard to refute: as a result, the actual result of emancipation is often seen as the actual Federal cause.

In his first inaugural address, Lincoln had attempted to set aside slavery as a minor issue, focusing on the Constitutional legalities as he interpreted them: in the second, he very nearly states the received wisdom of today, that it was “about” slavery, leaving only the caveat “somehow”. But in the meantime, he had issued the Emancipation Proclamation – affecting only the South, to be precise – and offered this speech at Gettysburg. Taking Lincoln’s transition as a guide to public opinion suggests that as the war went on, the North came to view it more and more as a crusade for abolition, while the South, with slavery not much in favor in most of the world, had to depend on their legal arguments to justify their actions, as Confederate sympathizers generally do today, and so set aside the question whether their culture as such justified secession and war to preserve.

That culture, at any rate, was set against this statement of Lincoln’s that all people were included in government properly conducted by “the” people. The principle implied is, stated negatively, that democratic or representative government is not preserved where some class or caste of those governed is shut out from participation in the government.

Admitting the principle, some implications follow which many might find curious. Children are generally prevented in all societies from participating in government by reason of immaturity: government, then, ought as much as possible not interfere with children. The ignorant might reasonably not be permitted to have a say in a decision – but if so, ignorance (at least of facts) can be cured in most cases, and the ignorant ought to be instructed. These “ignorant” are likely to be of two sorts – the younger generations, of course, but also the immigrants. Anyone held in violation of community standards ought not be forbidden future participation – unless his crime were such an offense that he would be removed completely, by death or (theoretically, though not exactly practiced in modern times) exile. Imprisonment is not enough: the prison is maintained by the community.

The idea sketched here is that the extent a community is defined not by the number of those who govern but by the number of the governed. With Roman citizenship, and the immigrant or resident alien, finding the privileges attractive, might have purchased such status for a considerable sum. An American, ideally, is a citizen primarily by virtue of being governed by the American government, with only such limitations as are found absolutely necessary for the controlling of human weakness and folly.

“Government for” this sort of people becomes a monumentally demanding task of restraint. There is first of all the assumption that these persons are on the whole capable of self-government: of controlling their own impulses, and constructing their own lives, so that it is demanded of the government not to interfere too much in any particular of life. (It might, inversely, be argued that a community in which the members are evidently not capable of such self-control will not be capable of self-government either, and history only serves to reinforce this idea with the added corollary that such a people will shortly no longer be self-governed.)

Secondly, it must be emphasized that government of this sort is to be conducted for the good of the entire populace. Laws which create castes or classes to be judged differently ought to be shunned. Remedial efforts ought to be absolute, not comparative. Any distinctions in difficulty or degree of duties must be limited in scope and based purely on objective resources or ability. These conditions must, most especially, be observed by the officers of the government – and so also the people must demand of themselves that they judge candidates for these offices strictly by such qualities.

It remains to be said that the government of a community is not the whole of a community. The Marxist dictum, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” is in fact a sound statement of the goals of any community: but it is the fascist, statist, and even socialist mistake to assume that all effort be organized, and all goods be distributed, by the government of that community.

The difficulty is on the one hand one of logistics. Complete control demands complete information, which takes time. Any awarding of goods or services which cannot be done quickly will take additional persons to complete, which will prevent them from contributing what they might otherwise have done to the best of their abilities: the statist falls victim to proof by contradiction. This leaves aside completely the effect of inevitable disasters – natural, if not man-made – on a minutely planned course of action.

It is also a failure to properly account for communities within community. A nation is a large community: a family, the smallest possible. To the extent a smaller community has balanced ability and need, interference of the larger community government is an act of imbalance. The reverse is true, though one small community relative to a larger has less effect: take away a small contribution and it must be made up somewhere or the balance lost.

That balance is today widely felt to have been lost. The government officially established by the American community is not considered exactly trustworthy: individual officials, for the most part, even less so. We have been trained to look for a consensus to govern ourselves, and that much remains, at least: the result is that cases which ought to be for the government are now tried in the court of public opinion (and not infrequently, government, appealed to as force, is brought in where private opinions ought to be allowed to prevail on private matters).

As regards the government, the solution is simple in theory, though hard in fact to accomplish. The officers of the government must in fact govern in the agreed manner, which in America means by law and not by whim. Harder still is the communal duty: the American people must demand their government govern: that the officers act responsibly and that those institutions without consent be publicly validated or disbanded. Government is to act promptly where required: this condition suggests either that a great many laws ought to be repealed, or the processes of prosecuting cases simplified, or more officers employed in the government to be able to act quickly.

The more radical task comes in the re-conception of private spaces. Government is employed to resolve those disputes between people which must be resolved; the people are axiomatically (whether or not they are in fact) responsible to manage their own conduct; but there exists a space where individuals and small communities actually interact on their own.

The main principle stated above was that in the community envisioned communal responsibilities exist simply by belonging to the community. The secondary fact stated was that the communal force called government cannot effect all requirements of the larger community that exist between the family and the government. Persons included in the larger community do not all belong to the same small ones: they may in life move between smaller ones.

The government – the management of the large community – ought not therefore to impose the standards of any small community, but only such standards as are universal to the large one. If any standard supposed to be imposed needs for tranquility to have significant exemptions granted, it ought not be made law. Any government will make the decision not to enforce behavior which some, even a majority, of its officers would consider moral.

It is vital to understand this principle, because an overwhelming inclination today is to remove the private space: to impose the standards of a preferred small community on the large one. This is sometimes done explicitly, by laws demanding or forbidding behaviors positively. At other times this is attempted implicitly, by attempts to de-legitimize existence of persons as members of the larger community: now due not only to the class or caste mentioned previously, but at other times by virtue of their opinions.

There is in America a law by which religious exercise is protected from legal interference. This is sometimes treated today as granting the “significant exemptions” mentioned previously, but this is a misunderstanding of the principle even when it describes the practice. Religion, by definition, claims to have authority beyond the natural world. It is therefore easy to claim that a religious authority transcends the constraints outlined above.

If transcendent, then it claims the right to impose on the larger community the principles of the smaller: which is, if the smaller communities disagree with each other, a crisis. The American First Amendment, then, is not a creation of exception, but a statement of the principle as applied to the area where it was known a great temptation was found: the design was, by stating this application specifically, to protect the government from the smaller communities and the smaller communities from each other. If the government attempts to impose a law which the First Amendment would seem to demand an exception to (in the modern understanding), what ought to be concluded is that the law is a bad law.

And so for other laws and other small communities. What takes shape if this idea is followed out is diametrically opposed to the current tide of laws which extend government further and further through private spaces, but with exemptions within exemptions which render actual estimates of their application guesswork at best. If in fact a larger community extends to govern more and more smaller ones – what is called pluralism – it is more necessary to remove laws than create additional ones, because the remaining consensus covers fewer matters. It is the duty of the people as a whole not to repress in private spaces by government power behaviors unless they are prepared to remove that number of misbehavers from the larger community outright. It is also the duty of those in each smaller community to faithfully adhere to the standards of the whole. Lack of either promptly imperils both.