Regulation and its cognates as political problems

Recent court decisions have brought the Second Amendment back into discussion. One of the most interesting words in the amendment is also one of the most interesting words in the constitution itself, and even one of the most interesting notions in government: regulation, or to be well-regulated.

To govern involves, uncontroversially, the order of some multitude of persons. There are two limiting extremes about how this order comes about. At one extreme, we might argue that to govern means that an exterior group of experts or absolute rulers lead a multitude of persons who are essentially ignorant sheep who, if left to their own, would simply collapse into chaos and ruin. At  another extreme, we might argue that any extrinsic principle or rule is essentially an evil, and that the good order of a multitude comes about to the extent that we leave the multitude to itself. On the first extreme, the multitude is seen as determined toward chaos and ruin, and in need of being saved; on the other extreme, the multitude is seen as determined towards order, and so in need of being left alone. Again, on the first, the multitude has no interior principle in themselves that would lead to good order, in the second the multitude has an entirely sufficient interior principle of order leading to good order.

I call both opinions extremes because, if either is taken as a general theory, government would collapse into contradiction. It doesn’t take much reflection on either extreme to recognize that governing will have to involve some sort of middle course. The great benefit of the extremes, however, is that if one of them were true, then  government would be breathtakingly easy: at the first extreme, the right answer to any problem of the multitude is the empowerment of some extrinsic authority; at the second extreme it is the enfeebling or elimination of some extrinsic authority. Both provide us with an ability to solve any political problem without knowing anything about the problem itself. This complete ease of understanding and ready-made answers allows the extremes to be ideologies. On the one hand, political ideology is opposed to political practice, since the extremes are impossible; on the other hand political ideology illuminates and empowers political practice, since it is so intelligible and so communicable to many.

No word captures this tension between ideology and practice better than regulation and its various cognates (regular, regulated, etc). At present, the term leans towards belonging to the first extreme, that is, political “regulation” is seen as something imposed on a multitude who have no principle of order in themselves. Thus, the need for “regulation” is seen (by those of both ideologies) as an implicit belief that the thing one is regulating, of itself, tends to chaos. Interestingly, we don’t always use the cognates of “regulate” in this way: the regularity of the digestive tract is simply its health, that is, its acting correctly from an interior principle. A well-regulated digestive tract is not one that is ruled from the outside, but simply one that is healthy. Even when we take, say, Metamucil, the “regularity” we seek is something that primarily arises from within. Similarly, the regulations of a game aren’t extrinsic to the game, but more simply descriptions of the game as such. It’s not that a ball outside the foul line is really a hit, but we impose “regulations” to deny this- the regulation is simply an articulation of what in fact counts as a hit. We don’t have regulations in football or baseball because the sports are intrinsically disordered, but precisely because they have an order in themselves which is recognized in the regulation.  Nevertheless, regulation always involves a certain qualified chaos on the side of the thing that is regulated: we take Metamucil so far as our bowels have some chaos to them; and regulations do limit behavior in one way or another, even if the game isn’t sheer chaos. Thus regulation and its cognates, understood as we use them in common speech, are particularly good at illuminating the central idea of political practice. It’s a pity that “regulation” is taken as belonging to ideology, since when we take a closer look at the word we see that it is ideally suited, even in its preset use, to describe political practice as opposed to ideology: for regularity seems to recognize a real interior principle of things even while it recognizes that this principle is not always entirely capable of producing regularity.


  1. thenyssan said,

    July 1, 2010 at 7:56 am

    How would you (or, Would you) distinguish lex from regula? Is there an meaningful distinction in STA there?

  2. July 2, 2010 at 9:15 am

    The words often overlap: I know of at least one place where STA uses the two interchangeably in an explicit way. A third term to add into the mix is “measure”, which is used interchangeably with “regula” a good number of times.

    Rule and measure first mean some extrinsic standard, and in this sense they are interchangeable with law, an extrinsic principle of action. But rules and measures can also be intrinsic and perfect of themselves. Eternity measures God but it is not a law placed extrinsic to God himself; and a “perfect 10” measures all others beneath it, but is the measure (and rule) itself.

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