Affairs Of State

My Idle Theory of politics is that, in busy societies, most people are simply too busy to interest themselves in affairs of state. They will be for the most part happy to delegate the authority to make decisions in these matters to capable persons, while they get on with their own business.

And by affairs of state, I mean matters which concern the whole of society, such as the enactment of laws which govern everyone, the construction of roads or bridges which everyone may use, and the raising of armies into which everyone may be conscripted.

And in the busiest of societies, matters of state may be left in the hands of a single individual: a king. This king will deal with all the affairs of state, and make all the decisions.

But as a society becomes more idle, more people will interest themselves in affairs of state, and wish their opinions to be taken into account. And this people will initially be a relatively small aristocracy, who surround the king, and advise him and debate with him. And gradually monarchical rule will give way to aristocratic rule.

And as the same society becomes yet more idle, yet more people will interest themselves in affairs of state, and these also will be also be included in the debates about affairs of state. And they will need chambers in which to debate, and votes to be tallied. And at this point we have arrived at democracy.

If throughout most of human history, societies have been governed by kings, it was because they were busy societies. And in a country such as England, for much of the past thousand years it would seem to have been governed by an aristocracy, with the king of England as primus inter pares. It was really only a few centuries ago that England became a parliamentary democracy, in which power was invested entirely in its parliament rather than in its king, who remained king in name only.

And that means that in countries like England, there has been less than 400 years of parliamentary democracy, after several thousand years of rule by kings and aristocrats. And it’s an astoundingly short period of time. We have very little experience of this democracy. And nor do our elected representatives, many of whom seem to regard themselves as kings or aristocrats once elected (e.g. Immanuel Macron, who likened himself to Jupiter).

Is this very surprising? What is likely to happen when an absolute monarchy is toppled, and new elected leaders take the monarch’s place? They will rule like the monarchs they replaced. And so when Kaiser Wiilhelm II of Germany was overthrown, he was soon replaced by Adolf Hitler. And when Nicholas II of Russia was overthrown, he was soon replaced by Lenin and Stalin. One dictator was simply replaced by another in societies in which people expected to be told what they should do, because they had no experience of anything else.

However the same thing didn’t happen in America after the American colonists overthrew King George III of England circa 1776. A new tyrant like Hitler or Stalin did not arise immediately to step into the shoes of the king. But by 1776, the king of England had already become a token king. The real power in England (or Britain as it had by then become) was invested in its parliament. And so the American colonists naturally created for themselves a parliamentary democracy like that of Britain. There were precious few working representative governments at that time, the Roman republic having long since passed away. And also the American colonists were for the most part Englishmen. And so it was only natural for them to recreate British parliamentary democracy in America, complete with most of its law. But in doing so they arguably improved upon that democracy by drawing up a written Constitution and a Bill of Rights.

So the newly formed USA did not collapse into tyranny. Instead it developed and improved upon an existing model of representative government. And it also acted to encourage the introduction of similar parliamentary democracies elsewhere, some of which may have included further improvements.

We should perhaps think of these representative democracies as a new kind of technology, not essentially different from other technologies. It’s only about 100 years since the first powered aircraft took to the air, but in that time there have been innumerable improvements in them. And there really ought to be the same sort of improvements being made in representative governments, always with a view to giving more people a say in their own government. But after the innovation of parliamentary government in England, and its further refinement in America a century or two later, there seems to have been precious little further development, except that now almost all nations have similar representative governments.

What kind of innovations am I thinking about? I’m wondering whether, in our increasingly wired world of high speed communication, whether we actually still need to have debating chambers like parliaments where representatives of the people gather to discuss affairs of state? We already have online debates and discussions, with online voting. And no doubt this technology will continue to improve, most likely by leaps an bounds.

And yesterday I was pointing out that most MPs in Britain have no idea what most of the constituents they represent think about anything. What’s to stop them recording their opinions in a database that anyone can consult, so that MPs can have a very good idea of what their constituents think about almost everything?

In a couple of weeks time, the American people are voting in the US midterm elections of senators and congressmen.  They only get this opportunity once every 4 years. And there are all the signs that American representative government has become unrepresentative of the Americans it is supposed to represent. For the people are hardly ever consulted. The same is true in Britain. And in much of Europe as well. We are reaching a point of crisis.

It’s unlikely that any legislature will ever vote to reduce its own powers, and disperse power more evenly – just as it is seldom likely that kings will give up their thrones. But what seems more likely to happen is that the locus of debate about affairs of state will shift out of parliaments and congresses into the wider population outside those places. We’ll become a wired democracy in which everything is being discussed everywhere, all the time, with parliaments and congresses and senates being places where relatively little debate takes place. And perhaps this is happening already, and has been happening since the technological innovation of the internet allowed ordinary people to be seen and heard all around the world. And many people (e.g. smokers) wish to have a voice in their own government, which they currently sadly lack.

If nothing else, our current crisis of democracy is almost certainly going to result in further political innovation, if there is not going to be a collapse back into tyranny, as so easily happens.

About Frank Davis

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8 Responses to Affairs Of State

  1. Tom Rogers says:

    Democracy replaced liberty. They are antithetical.

    The relatively free copyholder was replaced by the shackled industrial wage slave.

    Feudal aid was replaced by noisy factories, dangerous mines, office cubicles, income taxes and regulatory interventions.

    Tenure was replaced by the ballot box.

    Common law was replaced by political law-making.

    Gun ownership (the principal signature of a free person) was replaced by gun control.

    Personal freedom to smoke and take drugs and suffer the consequences, was replaced by drug control and nannying.

    A responsible civic body made up of while male property owners who acted as custodians of the country’s past and future was replaced by mass enfranchisement – a method for controlling the new mass of industrial workers. Then we had votes for wimmin’.

    Democracy, especially when it is based on a degraded civic body, is just a method of control. True democracy, in an English context, would be tenure and gun ownership for all white men. If I own my own land and I have a gun and I am master of my own realm – my own mini-patriarchy, if you like – then I have no interest in voting or in what some distant Westminster politician does. I’m happy to pay him off a few quid every year so he can use the brothels in Soho on the condition he keeps his nose out of my affairs.

    Voting on a mass basis is nonsensical and makes fools of ordinary people, who cannot possibly offer any informed opinion on the technical and arcane. What do I know about the intricacies of NHS procurement? How can I possibly have a comprehensive understanding of EU law and regulations? It’s just a trap to make you look a fool. The only legitimate path is complete state dismantlement and a small civic body based on society’s Best Men, who are charged with guarding our liberties and sovereignty, and who take up their political duties reluctantly and out of a sense of duty.

    Voting and attending Parliament should be duties and burdens restricted to an aristocracy and the Best Men, on the proviso that their decisions, as such, are restricted to essential matters of national importance such as declaring war and ensuring properly-controlled borders. Healthcare, upskirting, drug and tobacco control, schooling, and the like, are not matters of national importance. Those are matters of private importance, to be decided by individuals and families, or sometimes communities, and to be regulated by normal market forces and such common-sensical general laws as may exist and can be enforced by the courts.

    Give me a distant despot who leaves me alone over a million ignorant mini-despots all pushing for interferences.

  2. Frank Davis says:

    Interesting comment.

    You seem to reject the last 350 years of English history in its entirety., given that feudalism in England ended in 1660.

    And I imagine that gun ownership of muskets prior to 1660 was highly restricted, given that they were a novelty that only began to be introduced in the previous century. If you owned any weapon in feudal times, it was probably a sword or a pike or a bow.

    Also I don’t believe that English common law went out of the window in 1660. I think it continued to evolve and develop over the next few centuries, until it came into collision with Roman or Napoleonic law in the EU.

    Nor do I think that voters are asked to vote on “the intricacies of NHS procurement”. They are asked to vote for representatives who are more likely to know the intricacies of such things.

    And if attending parliament is to be restricted to “the Best Men”, how do we tell the best men from the worst men? It’s one of the problems of any political system, including monarchies and aristocracies, that bad apples creep in, and those who are beilieved to be the best turn out to be the worst.

    I agree of course about the million ignorant mini-despots, and the totally unnecessary and intrusive laws they make. But I doubt that a return to feudalism is the answer to them.

    • Tom Rogers says:

      I’m not proposing a return to feudalism, but if I were, that would not mean I am ignoring the last few hundred years of history (that’s a non sequitur).

      I don’t therefore link gun ownership, as such, to feudalism as a state of affairs. I don’t need to. I can simply state that gun ownership is a signature of freedom: which it surely is. (You may cite the situation in the United States, a democratic tyranny in which most Americans can still own a gun, but the Second Amendment has been heavily abrogated and eroded).

      I didn’t say that common law went out the window, but it has declined as an institution of law; in some parts of the law it has declined into inoperability. I would say it first came into conflict not with the EU, but with Parliament itself. I would roll back all political law-making completely and leave the development of the law almost-entirely to the courts, based on common law principles. Statutory interventions should be rare and carefully considered.

      Regarding the intricacies of decisions, that wasn’t a point about voting, that was a point about democracy. People are not informed and can’t be. Most topics are above their capacity. That is not to say most people are stupid, which is a different thing, and I don’t believe they are. It is to say that complex decisions are best left to multiple, inter-locking organic systems that can deal with complexity, such as markets, and not to the state, politicians and bureaucrats. Democracy is a sham, and politics is abusive. Ordinary people who appear on discussion programmes like Question Time almost-invariably look foolish because they are offering opinions about complex and intricate matters within a framework of simplistic discourse. Almost-everything is discussed in highly rhetorical terms that don’t reflect the complexity and nuance of the real world.

      The Best Man are the ones who understand duty and who see political service as a burden to be endured, not some sort of perk. I would restore the legislative rights of the native British hereditary aristocracy, as a start. I would also introduce a meritocratic element into it. I am not opposed to a dynamic society, but I believe there has to be a bedrock of tradition.

      As I stated in my original comment, the solution to the millions of mini-despots is to disempower them by dismantling the state (and local government too). The state machinery is their muscular representation. Get rid of it, except for the bare minimum of national territorial defence and certain essential services as Parliament decides.

      • Frank Davis says:

        This seems a far more realistic comment than the previous one, which struck me as being a complete rejection of pretty much everything about our present society.

        I would roll back all political law-making completely and leave the development of the law almost-entirely to the courts, based on common law principles.

        That’s an interesting idea. I bet we wouldn’t have a smoking ban if the courts had been making the law.

        The Best Man are the ones who understand duty and who see political service as a burden to be endured, not some sort of perk.

        Since a great many of our politicians seem to be in politics for what they can get out of it, I agree with much of that. There’s still the problem of where to find those good men, and how to get rid of them when they turn out not to be. How else is that to be done except democratically, by voting them out of office?

        And I agree that the only way to get rid of all these mini-despots is to dismantle the state. But I don’t think that can be dome completely. Because there are important tasks that only the state can undertake. I just think that the state’s role should be minimized rather than maximized, as at present.

        I also agree with gun ownership, for the reasons you give. I think that, if needs be, the people need to be able to overthrow the government. Which is of course why the government doesn’t want anyone to own guns. I used not to think this way until a few years ago.

        But while I find much to agree with, I don’t see that democracy is necessarily a sham. Our current condition is a sham, because a lot of people are simply not being represented. But I do not see it as irreparable.

        I was watching Donald Trump out campaigning in Texas yesterday. He was telling people to get out and vote.Would you have preferred if he’d been telling them that democracy was a sham, and they shouldn’t bother?

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