Sunday, June 14, 2020

The Three Grand Requisites

Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England has a brief discussion of the nature of law; the theory of law that is used is a simplified natural law theory, although one that shares a number of features with more positivistic theories. In any case, he has an interesting discussion about law that take it to be closely tied to power, wisdom, and goodness. The account starts at the top, with God ordering the human world according to law. How do we fall under this law?

(1) We are dependent beings, and our dependency means our life is structured by rules determined by that on which we depend. However, our dependency is one of being created, which means it is in this sense a total dependency; we have free will, but this, too, is dependent on divine creation. Thus we fall under law because we fall within the scope of God's infinite power.

(2) God does not merely have infinite power; He is infinitely wise, as well. Considering only divine power, God could will any laws at all; but God's power over us is ordained or ordered power, governed by infinite wisdom. Thus, says Blackstone, "he has laid down only such laws as were founded in those relations of juftice, that existed in the nature of things antecedent to any positive precept"; our minds have been made to be able to recognize these "eternal immutable laws of good and evil", at least to the extent that is necessary for human life.

(3) However, while reason can discover these immutable principles, this cannot be adequate of itself, because doing so requires some difficult thinking, far too much to cover all of our practical life. Thus God's infinite goodness comes into the picture. God has made us so that we have a natural impulse to do the right thing; in particular, our self-love or drive for happiness, carries us in the direction of what is right, because our happiness and justice are interwoven. Thus "pursue your own happiness" is in itself a kind of natural summary of what we must do to live well: "This is the foundation of what we call ethics, or natural law."*

Power, wisdom, and goodness are not found only in natural law, of course; we have no reason to obey laws except so far as they can be traced to these three, even if they are positive laws:

For when society is once formed, government results of course, as necessary to preserve and to keep that society in order. Unless some superior were constituted, whose commands and decisions all the members are bound to obey, they would still remain as in a state of nature, without any judge upon earth to define their several rights, and redress their several wrongs. But, as all the members of society are naturally equal, it may be asked, in whose hands are the reins of government to be entrusted? To this the general answer is easy; but the application of it to particular cases has occasioned one half of those mischiefs which are apt to proceed from misguided political zeal. In general, all mankind will agree that government should be reposed in such persons, in whom those qualities are most likely to be found, the perfection of which are among the attributes of him who is emphatically stiled the supreme being; the three grand requisites, I mean, of wisdom, of goodness, and of power: wisdom, to discern the real interest of the community; goodness, to endeavour always to pursue that real interest; and strength, or power, to carry this knowledge and intention into action. These are the natural foundations of sovereignty, and these are the requisites that ought to be found in every well constituted frame of government.

We find a similar view -- that power, wisdom, and goodness are required for authority of government -- in Josiah Tucker's later anti-Lockean work, A Treatise Concerning Civil Government, Part II, Chapter III:

[T]here must be Power, Wisdom, and Goodness, subsisting in one Degree or other, in every Government worthy to be so called, let the exterior Form of it be whatever it may.

For Example, without Power the very Idea of Government is annihilated; and there are no Traces of it left.

Without Wisdom to conduct this Power towards some certain End, or Object, the Thing itself would not be Power, in a moral Sense, but blind Impulse, or mechanic Force.

And without Goodness to influence and incline the Operations both of Wisdom and Power towards some benevolent Uses, conducive to public Happiness, the Efforts of Wisdom would in effect be Knavery, Trick, and Cunning; and the Display of Power mere Tyranny and Oppression. There must therefore be a Coalition, or Co-operation of all three, in order to form a Government fit to rule over such a Creature as Man.

Tucker then uses this as a framework for assessing different forms of government. Absolute monarchy, requiring less coordination, most clearly exhibits power, but monarchs are also often deficient in wisdom and goodness. Hereditary aristocracy suffers from the same problems, and lacks the chief advantage of monarchy, "that Glare of Glory, which surrounds a Throne"; it is weak because of its division. It fares better than absolute monarchy with regard to wisdom; actual aristocrats tend to be actively involved in various aspects of the business and practical life of the realm, and so a large aristocracy is guaranteed to bring into their policies an extent and depth of experience far beyond what any absolute monarch could.** Further, aristocracy tends to do better than absolute monarchy in goodness; they tend to commit fewer abuses, except where they are driven by jealous protection of their privileges. Democracy -- real democracy, where everything is directly or indirectly put to the votes of the people themselves -- suffers even more completely the disadvantages that arise from division, and thus is a weak government indeed; and democracies do very poorly with regard to wisdom, since they are liable to mob injustices, and with regard to goodness, since their benevolence is unstable at best.

On the basis of this, Tucker makes the standard argument for the excellence of the British Constitution (as it stood in the eighteenth century): as a mixed government combining elements of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy in checks and balances with each other, it can minimize the dangers of each, even if it occasionally loses out on their strengths, and he argues that it does it better than "the Gothic Constitution", i.e., what we would call feudalism or manorialism, and better than the classicizing republics that the modern period introduces into Europe and America. He does, however, point out a number of ways in which he thinks it is defective and could be improved (he thinks in particular that it is thrown off balance by the possession of overseas colonies and that its democratic aspect has a number of problems and is in the way of becoming even more disordered under the influence of Locke's political philosophy).***


* This is, of course, the idea behind the notion of the "pursuit of happiness" as a foundational right in the Declaration of Independence, although the idea is not exclusive to Blackstone and there is a scholarly dispute about whether Blackstone is the primary influence -- Jefferson had a somewhat mixed view of Blackstone, but did know him, and Blackstone's popularity as a compendium of law made him a natural source of vocabulary when you wanted to be widely understood. In any case, we could just as easily talk about the right to life, liberty, and virtue.

** We tend, on the basis of fiction, to think of aristocrats as lolling about doing nothing except attending parties and social events, but this is never true in practice except where the aristocracy has been deliberately neutered -- historically, aristocrats are busy managing estates, working as landlords, and organizing military units, until a centralizing power tries to limit their influence by pulling them to court, where one gets something like the decadence recognized in fiction.

*** I'll use this occasion for some rambling. I find Tucker particularly interesting because his conclusions, at least, are fairly similar to my own. Speaking abstractly and only of ideal government, I think parliamentary monarchy is probably the best form of government that we have discovered and that Britain (almost entirely accidentally) managed to stumble on the form of parliamentary monarchy that most closely approximated the ideal somewhere between the accession of Queen Anne and early Victoria, and that it failed to hold onto it in part because it was not merely a United Kingdom but an Empire. Imperial distortions of the power balance led to the overgrowth of the effective power of the Commons at the expense of Crown and Peerage until they reached their almost vestigial forms today, uselessly flapping around like tiny wings on the body of a turkey bred to be so large that it can barely waddle around.

Of course, 'ideal government' is ideal, not actual, and not always practical; the single most important desideratum for government is not that it approximate the ideal but that it grow organically in a way appropriate to the customs and lives of its actual people. I have a much higher respect for the American Republic than Tucker, and think it, despite its many flaws, still one of the best forms of actual government that has ever been developed; and, regardless, Americans have republican habits and would not know what to do with a Crown and Parliament, much as the British have political habits that (despite the wishful thinking of British republicans) would not stead them well at all in a republic.

I often think of quangos: the British have entities that they call "quasi-autonomous non-governmental organizations". Americans have something like them, too; we call them "independent government agencies". I think these completely opposed uses of the term 'government' capture more than a merely accidental difference between British and American English; they capture completely opposed habits of thinking about governance. There's a reason why American monarchists and British republicans seem increasingly kooky the more you talk to them; they are enamored of a scheme, and may even have excellent arguments for it, but their patterns of thought and political habits are all wrong for the scheme they are concocting. Every time I have talked with British republicans, it eventually becomes manifest that they have no idea how power works in a republic; they lack the weird instinctive mixture of paranoia of power, cunning hyperlegalism, casual magnanimity, and jealous protectiveness of what's yours (in an expansive sense of 'yours') that is found in a people born and bred to long-lived republican ideals. Any republic actually implemented by British republicans would become a third-world dictatorship within a matter of decades; they don't even know what to be suspicious of, and while some might turn out to be quick studies, most people can't shift that drastically. Americans have always been weak on understanding our own behavior, but we are nonetheless, even in these decadent times, excelled by no one when it comes to acting like we live in a republic, even (perhaps especially) when we aren't thinking about it; and we would continue doing so even if we became a monarchy, to chaos and confusion everywhere. But Americans are not particularly tempted to unsuitable monarchical schemes (our temptation when it comes to unsuitable and artificial kookery lies toward democratic utopianism), whereas I think the British are much more tempted by the thought that they could just become a republic tomorrow if they wanted. It's a dangerous error.

Which is not, of course, to say that these things are set in stone. Our republic-mindedness has been weakened by bread and circuses, or in modern terms, healthcare and Hollywood; that is to say, we have let ourselves give in to the temptation to allow consolidations of power we should not have allowed, on the excuse of a better life and more choices, and created dependencies that slowly eat away at our native suspicion of government in any form. And half the world is slowly being Americanized, willy-nilly, regardless of their own political customs. But a good fit between scheme of government and political habits of mind is far more important than the precise structure of the former.

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