All Commentary
Wednesday, March 1, 1967

Government by Men

Mr. Newell operates a farm near Marcellus, Michigan.

Since the dawn of history men have willingly allowed themselves to be governed by an imposed au­thority in preference to accepting the responsibility for governing themselves. Consequently, history abounds with men contending for power to rule others, and all marching under banners of gov­ernmental reform and declarations that better governors ultimately produce more desirable social or­ganizations. But, if there is one lesson to be learned from history, it is that, regardless of noble ap­pearances and lofty claims of idealism, human limitations are such that no human being can safely be entrusted with authority to govern the lives and fortunes of others.

The basic philosophy of consti­tutional government above all else expresses public suspicion of the human frailties of those who gov­ern. Constitutional philosophy has learned well from history that hu­man beings invested with any po­litical authority must have such authority precisely defined and constantly limited by counterbal­ancing forces. But, constitutional process erroneously presumes that majority consensus automatically provides an adequate counterbal­ance to restrict the political ambi­tions of potential autocrats and insure the civil liberties of soci­eties so governed. Authoritarian­ism is quick to accept whatever governmental powers a free soci­ety is willing to abandon.

The United States outwardly has remained a stanch advocate of individual political responsibility. However, like so many historical predecessors, the citizenry in­wardly has been overly and in­creasingly generous in bestowing gifts of centralized power and in­vesting ever-strengthening author­ity in public office. The wisdom of such generosity is subject to de­bate in a society that has placed its faith in popular consensus. But, obviously, human freedom suffers when men abandon the personal responsibility of govern­ment and allow themselves to be governed by imposed authority.

It is argued by popular consen­sus that the complexities of mod­ern society have so completely out­grown the individual’s capacity to understand them that strong cen­tralized government by skillful politicians is now needed to ad­minister social justice and deal effectively with human problems. Proceeding logically from this premise, centralized government has experienced little difficulty in effecting periodic increases of al­ready vast authority under pre­tense of necessity to cope with contrived emergencies. But, any systematic destruction of human freedom, no matter how quietly and peacefully it is accomplished, ultimately is no less tyrannical simply because the tyranny devel­oped by degrees within the politi­cal framework of a society that under all circumstances has imag­ined itself to be free.

Gradual Encroachment

Evolutionary constitutional oli­garchies apparently founded on sound principles of freedom are far more insidious than authori­tarian governments that come to power by violence. For unlike vio­lent usurpations, gradual proc­esses of governmental growth al­low the citizenry to retain a false sense of well-being stemming from the belief that they are ac­tively participating in government through public elections and there­by exercising adequate restraint on governmental excesses. Ironi­cally, it is the societies that most ardently extol personal freedom and are the most resilient adver­saries of crude forms of political usurpation that are most easily deluded and subjugated by subtle concentrations of governmental power.

When an autocrat comes to power through usurpation, he establishes a government and arbi­trarily decides how much author­ity he will exercise. However, his governmental policies continue only as long as he retains absolute power of enforcement. Fortunate­ly, political power implemented by force is seldom of long duration, for the tremendous counterbalanc­ing force of human dignity in­sures that those subjugated will eventually depose the tyrant and with him all authority associated with his regime.

No such dramatic course is open to victims of constitutional tyran­ny for constitutional process takes no direct interest in the personali­ties involved in governmental au­thority. Rather, the constitutional system, and its periodic corrup­tion, concentrates vast powers in political office and hopefully chal­lenges the voting public to fill the authoritarian power structure with wisely chosen politicians. One candidate might declare his intention to use the vested author­ity of political office with some­what more discretion than an­other.

This provides the voting public with motivation in the delusion that by supporting such a candi­date they are casting a ballot for human freedom. But whatever the outcome of a given election, the constituted political power in­herent to the contested office is in no way diminished by any tempo­rary lack of use, and in due course, such authority not only is fully utilized but extended by more am­bitious office seekers.

Despotism can never subjugate a people who responsibly under­take to govern themselves; and conversely, nothing can save a society from despotism if, in the name of self-government, the peo­ple willingly impose elective au­thoritarianism on themselves. When one considers the incredible extent to which the powers of elective and appointive public of­fices have grown, and are continu­ing to grow with the full consent of the American people, we are in­deed fortunate that a more calam­itous despotism has not yet en­gulfed the Republic.

A Degenerate Form of Freedom

Everyone is well aware of the size, scope, and increasing author­ity that political government has gained at the expense of individ­ual liberty. Few seem overly con­cerned. Most prefer to trust the adage that better governors ulti­mately produce more desirable so­cieties and logically assume that bigger government simply re­quires a more competent political oligarchy. The electorate has come to feel that individual responsi­bility begins and ends with voting for candidates that seem best qualified to utilize effectively the tremendous power that unwitting­ly has been concentrated in politi­cal office. The concept of personal freedom has degenerated to such a low ebb that liberty is now con­sidered to be synonymous with su­perficial processes that attempt to place better men in an insatiably authoritarian government.

It would be a disheartening commentary on the social and moral progress of any nation to find a governmental structure that confiscated one-third of the na­tional income; that diverted for political purposes one-fifth of the gross national product; and that directly, indirectly, or through conscription, provided employment for one-fourth of the citizenry. But it is doubly disheartening to find that a nation with its tradi­tions firmly rooted in the respon­sibility of personal freedom, has deliberately installed such a gov­ernment. Placing better men in that government might appear to be a worthy objective but free so­cieties are completely dependent upon better government in men.

An Air of Respectability

Political freedom can exist only where men conscientiously accept the responsibility for governing themselves. When consensus no longer expresses a desire to retain the responsibility of solving hu­man problems within the frame­work of free social intercourse, constitutional process simply lends an air of respectability to govern­mental tyranny. Political cam­paigns, by the very nature of the totalitarian offices the aspirants seek to fill, are resolved by transi­tory majorities skillfully gathered by demagogic promises to use the vested powers of political office to favor certain segments of a soci­ety at the expense of others.

If a man rules himself wisely, it is all that can be expected of him, for no man is morally capable of doing more. But if men are not morally qualified to govern others, neither are they morally released from the responsibility of govern­ing themselves. The degeneration of moral government and subse­quent increase of formal political government precisely measures the degree to which the self-reli­ance, self-respect, and human dig­nity of a society has eroded.

Rather than zealously searching for more capable politicians, those who seek liberty must instead un­dertake the prerogatives of self-sufficiency and the moral responsi­bilities of self-government. The functions of formal political gov­ernment will then automatically be restricted and systematically reduced until at last government is confined within the moral capa­bilities of human limitation.