Power and Government

militarized police

This one’s a bit of a ramble.

When people talk about the government having the power to do something there are two things they could mean.  The first, which can also be worded as “the right” (governments do not have rights–people have rights–governments have power and authority) to do something, is that they have the legitimate authority to do it.  The second, is the have the main strength, the “force majeure” to impose their will on the populace.  Unfortunately, entirely too many people confuse the latter for the former.

A quote attributed to George Washington (probably erroneously) is “Government is not reason.  It is not eloquence — It is force.  Like fire it is a dangerous servant and a terrible master.” Whether Washington ever said that, or anything like it, it remains true.  Indeed, “the license to initiate force to achieve certain ends” is a pretty good definition of government.  What makes government different from other forms of organization is that it has some presumed legitimacy in using and initiating coercive force to accomplish at least some ends.  Government can use the threat of force to take money to pay for things like police, defense (and, yes, roads) and have that considered legitimate.  Private individuals or groups cannot.  To accomplish that, government has power in the second sense above–the main strength to impose upon others and force them to behave in certain ways (pay taxes, obey traffic laws, fight in wars, whatever).

This power, this ability to use force, can indeed be necessary.  In the case of invasion, one cannot take the time to discuss everything in committee, to hope to gather up sufficient volunteers to form a force sufficient to stave off the invasion, to hope that others will voluntarily pony up enough resources to arm and equip that force, train it (and that everybody will voluntarily go along with the training and not say “this is BS” and walk out), supply it, and get it to where it needs–all quickly enough to minimize the damage done by the invaders.  Well, one could but the results are unlikely to be anything we would want.  So, someone needs to be able to say “you must provide arms and equipment for a body of fighting men, ready to act at once to resist invasion” and when things happen they need to say “you, you, and you, go here.  Fight there” and so on.  And that someone needs to be able to enforce that promptly, and without debate.  This is an extreme example of the principle but it illustrates the point.  A nation needs the force of the second sense in my opening paragraph.

That government has the power to do something–in that it’s able to marshal sufficient force to impose that something on the populace–however, does not mean that it has the legitimate authority to do so–the “power” in the first sense of my opening paragraph.  It needs that as well.  The areas in which that first sense power can legitimately be exercised, and the limits to which it can be exercised, must also be circumscribed.  It is this limitation, this structure, that differentiates a legitimate government from tyrannical strong-man rule (whether by an individual, a committee, or even a majority of the people).

It was this that the Founders of the United States tried to establish first with the Articles of Confederation and when experience showed that those articles did not grant enough power to central authority to handle even the issues they had at the time, with the Constitution and its first ten amendments, “The Bill of Rights”.  These spelled out certain, specific powers granted to government and further certain things that were placed beyond government’s purview.  The “power” of government in the first sense.

Since then, however, the Government of the United States has grown far beyond those circumscribed limits.  That process began at the very beginning of the nation but was slow for a while.  It gained momentum in the Civil War and its aftermath.  Picked up real speed with FDR and his “New Deal” and made the jump to lightspeed in the 60’s.

Government kept accumulating powers to itself to dictate this, restrict that, control that other thing.  All without bothering to limit itself to those legitimate powers delegated in the Constitution, nor bothering to avoid aspects expressly forbidden.

But, the government had the power (second sense) to do this.  Congress would pass the law.  The President would sign it (or simply not veto it) or Congress would override the veto.  Law enforcement would enforce it.  Worse even, administrative agencies were granted power to create “regulations” which had the force of law, without bothering with the entire legislative process.  And the courts would permit it.

It wasn’t all one way, of course.  The courts would sometimes strike down a provision of law or an entire law.  Sometimes.  And sometimes the courts would find entire new “rights” to use as justification for overturning legitimate functions of government.

Still, the limits on the power (first sense) of government have come to be largely ignored in pursuit of power (second sense) of government.

And we, the people, have largely been forced to stand by and let it happen because the government has had the power (second sense) to enforce those laws.  Voters, entirely too many voters, would let their legislator’s behave this way–largely because they benefit from some aspect and don’t really see the extent of the harm, or they’ve been deceived into believing that the government legitimately has the power (first sense) to do what it’s doing and so…why fight it.  Those few who have are simply called “crazy” and, indeed, many are.  Robert Heinlein said “tilting at windmills hurts you more than the windmill.” Even if the “windmill” really is a giant, few “sane” people will rush headlong into when the only result is to be knocked onto ones backside, bruised and perhaps bloody (or worse, dead).

The problem is, this can only go so far.  Many will be driven to attempt to use existing political mechanisms to try to push things back.  To be honest, I am somewhat skeptical of how likely that is to be for reasons I’m not prepared to go into here.  In addition, there will be other, less acceptable responses. As the power (second sense) outstrips the legitimate power (first sense), more and more people become disturbed by the dichotomy we can expect to see more and more “crazies”. It would not be that there are more crazies, but that the situation has changed so slightly less “crazy” people are driven to act.  Their actions will be horrible, unjustifiable really (through poor target discrimination if for nothing else).  And please note that I am neither endorsing nor encouraging such action.  The prospect, to be honest, terrifies me.  But those “crazies” will serve as a warning of things to come, a “canary in a coal mine” if you will.  And it will come from not just one side.  Resistance, legitimate or otherwise, to the increasing power (second sense) of government will be seen as an attack by those who like the government gaining more power (second sense)–at least when it’s using that power for ends of which they approve.

The problem is, people who like the increasing use of government power (second sense) in causes they favor often don’t recognize that the same increase in power (second sense) will also be used in causes they don’t favor.  And they presume that the problem is the specific causes government power (second sense) is being used for rather than the government exceeding its legitimate power (first sense).  Instead of reducing government to it’s legitimate power (first sense) they try and use its power (second sense) to shut out people who want to use government for things of which they disapprove (while keeping their own use of power (second sense) intact).  That way lies tyranny.

So hang on to your hats, folks.  It’s going to be a bumpy ride.


8 thoughts on “Power and Government”

  1. Power only happens with the consent of those being governed, and even tyranny needs the cooperation of a supermajority to actually work.
    There’s a lot of truth to the “Mandate of Heaven” idea- people will back a cruel winner, and will despise a kind loser. The reason the NKVD could arrest with impunity was that they were seen by most Russians as performing a necessary service, to make Mother Russia strong as per the leadership of Stalin. When the Hitlerites invaded, they fought. When the Hitlerites were defeated, they meekly submitted again to Stalin’s lash.

    But, should a leader be seen as weak, as a loser, he may be despised and deposed. This is more of a problem with autocracies and uniparty states which lack the checks and balances and power separation of Constitutional Republics. Ceausescu and Quadiffi comes to mind- one day the absolute rule of a nation, the next day dead in a ditch (sic semper tyrannus).

    In the end, political power is like money, in that it is really a shared fiction. Every dictator is just some person who depends on other people to do what he says.


    1. [waggles hand] There’s consent and there’s consent. Most people just want to live their lives as best they can. They don’t want to go tilting at windmills where they have no chance of success (“Tilting at windmills hurts you more than the windmill”–Lazarus Long). Thus, “Force Majeure” can be more than adequate to get that kind of success. People “consent” because they’re afraid–fear for what will happen to them, their families, their community compel their obedience. Add in a large dose of believing that they can’t really affect change, not by themselves (and that they would be by themselves) and you have most people in most of history.

      People under oppression often simply accept it as a law of nature. It just is and there’s nothing they can do about it (or at least so they believe). And so, it continues. It’s when a change comes about–things improving perhaps even more so than things deteriorating–that people start thinking that things can change and that maybe they can do. This is why with surprising frequency revolutions happen after conditions start to improve in a country.


      1. Just a thought (admittedly haven’t had enough coffee).

        “Things are improving” could also mean “The Dictator/King looks weak” in some cases.


      2. Often times, oppression & tyranny is what they have been used to culturally.
        The Russians, Chinese, and others pretty much always been under an authoritarian government of some sort. Hitler promised a return to the days of a strong Germany, as it was under the rule of Fredrick and Bismark.

        Another factor is whether or not the tyrant is native, or imposed by foreign arms. People will tolerate a native tyranny, but will fight like hell against a foreigner- or will bide and wait to throw them out. The Afganis have pretty much resisted and fought against every attempt to subdue them by force- going all the way back to Alexander and beyond. The Poles have kept their culture despite centuries of bloody attempts to destroy it.

        But a native wannabe tyrant still has to have a that supermajority to become a tyrant. The traditional means is to identify and separate an unpopular minority as a target of your oppression, then become more inclusive as you go along. The American Left is trying for this, but they’ve fallen into the classic revolutionary trap of having the purges and show trials before they’ve seized real power. And real power has nothing to do with offices held, but the loyalty of a bunch of guys with guns.

        Culture packs a lot of inertia, and government culture likewise. Long established governments may fade and crumble, but they tend to not just fall unless there’s a huge opposing force. Long running total wars with lots of casualties and privation are the usual means. Afterwards, the nation either joins the Junta of the Month club, or briefly flirts with something different before returning to something akin to the previous model (usually under a dictator).


    2. Power only happens with the consent of those being governed
      Sorry, but baloney. Millennia of human habitation on this earth says otherwise.
      You could phrase it “power only happens with the consent of enough strong people.” But that is definitely different.

      If you wanted to say “Legitimate power only arises from the consent of the governed,” I would challenge that one, as well, as being based on a rather narrow view of the universe (one totally confined to the Age of Reason, and its later strains of thought).


  2. A nation needs the force of the second sense in my opening paragraph.
    Only because of human nature. This is why the prog vision is so attractive to some – it assumes that, somehow, some way, you can reach a point where that force is no longer needed. Mind you, that the only way to even seem to achieve it is through… implementation of said force(2), never has an impact on their thought.

    The problem is, people who like the increasing use of government power (second sense) in causes they favor often don’t recognize that the same increase in power (second sense) will also be used in causes they don’t favor.
    Well, not necessarily. What many assume is that, eventually, they will be the ones to win out and accumulate ALL the power, so there won’t ever be an opportunity for the others to use it in those causes they don’t favor. This happens because they hold religiously to their beliefs, and their god must always, ultimately triumph. (Or else why worship xer?)


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