The problem of popular government

It’s hard to see how anyone could work towards popular government given the present popular ideologies of the right and left: the right right tends to argue that people should minimize their contact with government, and the left only approves of popular government so far as it is leftist, that is, so far as there is government not by the people but by a faction.

The founding and Constitution are (attempts at?) a solution to a problem that neither side of our political ideologies appears to see. How does one get the citizens to value government as a positive good – even one of the greatest goods – (the blindness of the right) while at the same time insisting that their own view of the greatest good is inseparable from factional, and therefore not popular, interests (the blindness of the left)?


  1. E.R. Bourne said,

    July 14, 2011 at 9:54 am

    The problem lies with the nature of modern government. When we speak of government today, we are speaking of a monster which is almost by definition an impersonal, nationalized bureaucracy that does not and cannot represent real communities in any meaningful way. In fact, the modern state seeks to destroy real community, by which I mean a people unified by the pre-political bonds of race, religion, history, language, etc., because these things present a barrier to the state’s acquisition of power.

    This is not to give total legitimacy to the libertarian view ( that people should minimize their contact with government) but only to say that the libertarian view is a parasitic response to the existence of the modern state. If power became so devolved and governments became so decentralized that they could actually become political expressions of an authentic people, as opposed to aggregates of immigrants with irreconcilable religions, histories, and ways of life, then the libertarian view would dissipate and people might come to see the good of government.

    • Jhf884 said,

      July 15, 2011 at 5:36 am

      @E.R. Bourne

      Why do you suppose that “race, religion, history, language” are pre-political? It isn’t obvious that they are in fact prior to politics now, if they ever were. And it isn’t clear in what sense they are prior either.

      Language, for instance, is more fundamental than politics, in that politics uses language, not vice versa. But, even there, language is not a static thing–politics shapes language remarkably. Every modern language is in large part the result of language.

      I won’t give more objections, because I fear that I miss your meaning.


      • Jhf884 said,

        July 15, 2011 at 9:17 am

        I shouldn’t have said “objections” since I’m not really objecting, so much as pointing out something that confused me.

  2. July 14, 2011 at 2:31 pm

    I don’t know if it is possible to do without a government about as large as it is – but the goal should still be popular government. How one does this is an open question – but it’s a question no one is raising, given the way that both the left and the right frame the nature of a possible solution. This is not to deny that one side has elements of the solution, or that one side is closer to the truth, but for a nation that is supposed to be “of, for and by the people” the problem of popular govm’t should have a more central place.

  3. July 14, 2011 at 11:05 pm

    E.R. Bourne writes : “The problem lies with the nature of modern government . . .”

    Which is why the question of popular government on a national scale is not worth asking. In fact government on a national scale is an unnatural creature and like other unnatural creatures cannot be made into what it by nature is not. To all things there is a natural limit.

  4. Jhf884 said,

    July 15, 2011 at 5:25 am

    Am I correct in thinking that you are ignoring other uses of “right” and “left” which don’t align with a rough libertarian/statist dichotomy (e.g. social conservatives who approve of a fairly large nanny state, etc.)?

    Even aside from the equivocation shown by “right wing on social issues” or “fiscally conservative” etc., I’ve never been sure what the terms really mean, and perhaps you can clarify it for me.

    Particularly, what do you mean by “faction” and why do you think it is particularly a problem of the left?

    • July 15, 2011 at 6:50 am

      I don’t know what the parameters of “rough” libertarianism are, but Reagan, Buckley, Thatcher, Limbaugh, etc. have all given primacy of place to the idea that “government is the problem”, and if all these agree on one idea, you’re allowed to say it is an idea of the (American) right, full stop.

      The left (not just in the US) always appeals to “the people” (usually against some monied interest, like a corporation). They have a point – empowerment is good, and government empowers more persons than corporations do (in fact, all governmental power is based on the people whereas corporate power is not). This is not to say that corporations cannot empower, but they are not designed to be under the control of the people. That said, the left sees the people as basically leftist, that is, the tacit belief is that if we did away with corporate power and had complete enfranchisement, the people would choose spontaneously to act like leftists.

      Perhaps “rough” libertarianism amounts to a claim about the basic goodness of deregulation, along with a concomitant belief that corporations should be the dominant structure that is allowed to self-regulate (the right doesn’t think this explicitly, it’s just a side effect of the corporations being the largest players in the world of monied interests) So taken, the divide between the left and right is a dispute over the value and place of corporations in society, and the two sides might make more headway if they agreed to address this problem (there is certainly a critique of corporate power that can be based on the idea of free-enterprise – Adam Smith gave one, for example.)

      • Jhf884 said,

        July 15, 2011 at 9:16 am

        OK, what I meant by a “rough” libertarian/statist dichotomy was the idea that rightwing leftwing is used equivocally, and you were using it (quite correctly) to note a particular division—the division between big govt. liberals and small govt. conservatives. I did this because there are plenty of right wing social conservatives who aren’t particularly small government (not to mention fascists, monarchists, etc.) and there are plenty of left wingers who are basically anarchists, and believe in no govt. I have no problem w/ your usage, I was just pointing that out.

        What I didn’t follow was what you meant by “faction” and why this particularly applied to the left (more than the right).

        As for the conversation about corporations, I’m not sure why corporations present a particularly knew problem. There are analogues to corporations going back hundreds (if not thousands) of years. What’s more, while they don’t represent the “people” generally, they do represent their shareholders, all of whom will ultimately be traceable back to individual humans. It is certainly true that corporations often fail to act in the interests of their shareholders, but I think the conclusion that they are less responsive to their constituents than governments are to theirs is something that needs to be argued. I’m generally pro-freedom of association, and I think that the existence of corporations of some sort or another follows fairly naturally from that. Maybe you just don’t like that corporations (some of them) are limited liability for the shareholders? I’m not sure I followed that.

        Mostly, I thought your post was thought-provoking, and one of the things that it made me realize was that I don’t know what “faction” really means. What do you take the word to mean, and why do you think it is particularly a characteristic of the left?


  5. dmt117 said,

    July 15, 2011 at 8:11 am

    Wasn’t this problem baked into the founding of our nation? Instead of embracing a political system derived from a philosophical account of the good (i.e. the classical approach), we sidestepped the question of the good in favor of a system based on rights; these rights are not proposed as rationally known goods but as facts that must be respected – it is self-evident that we are endowed by our Creator with them.

    Because our political culture sidesteps the question of the good in its very constitution, the relationship of the citizen to that system is problematic. Claiming the rights expressed in the Declaration for himself does not entail the citizen’s acknowledgment that the system is good. The result is the peculiar left-wing phenomenon of loudly insisting on one’s rights, and even inventing new ones, while simultaneously pursuing an all-embracing government that undermines the very notion of right. The American left accepts the self-evident premises of the Declaration but sees the resulting political system as evil, not good, because it results in the oppression of various groups.

    The American right (different from the European right) also accepts the self-evident premises of the Declaration, but sees the resulting system as good, not evil, largely because it grants space for the growth of civil goods like the family, churches and, yes, corporations.

    The problem with our political discourse is that our constituted political culture does not permit discussion of what really separates the right and the left – the question of the goodness of our system. Political discourse is only legitimate if it is cast in terms of rights, e.g. the right to life or the right to choice. Since both sides (correctly) sense that the other side is not publicly expressing what is really motivating them, both sides conclude the other side is acting in bad faith, and we get the degenerate political discourse now swamping us.

  6. Sean Schniederjan said,

    July 15, 2011 at 10:17 am

    “I don’t know if it is possible to do without a government about as large as it is”

    Why do you say that

    • July 16, 2011 at 6:13 am

      The stress there was on “I don’t know if”. On the lowest level, I’m pretty sure there is a majority interest in having it as big as it is now – just because of the massive number of people who are supported by it. If we could do away with the support, would there still be some legitimate desire for a large govm’t? Perhaps, since we need something that can regulate corporations, and since these have a massive amount of power it would stand to reason that the government would need a great deal of power also. There are many objections to this, but it has an initial plausibility. It’s hard to see how the weaker can enforce rules on the stronger. (Again, this might help to raise the question about corporations – which I think is one of the main questions that the left is trying to raise)

      Another reason I wonder if we can do without a govm’t as large as ours is that, given the way we are informed about things, we tend to assume that there should be a central command of the whole nation. All of our news is national, and it’s told in a way that makes the national more significant and important than the local. This is an unavoidable side effect of the news being provided by large news sources, who need something relevant to large audiences. This leads to the idea that there should be a single ruler of the whole audience – if we get news of this one thing, we should have one ruler of this thing. The argument is absurd, but it explains why there is a widespread idea that we cannot do without the leviathan.

  7. July 15, 2011 at 12:54 pm

    “By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”

    NB: Faction is defined by Madison as a group unified in opposition to the public good; while interests and passions can be good or bad, faction is directed towards the bad.

    Rereading Federalist 10 closely with this in mind and paying attention to the frequent mentions of the common/public good is a worthwhile endeavor. Faction thus refers to a majority as well as a minority, and in fact when it applies to a majority representative government faces its ultimate test.

    Here is Madison on interests:

    “There is no maxim, in my opinion, which is more liable to be misapplied, and which, therefore, more needs elucidation, than the current one, that the interest of the majority is the political standard of right and wrong. Taking the word ‘interest’ as synonymous with ‘ultimate happiness,’ in which sense it is qualified with every necessary moral ingredient, the proposition is no doubt true. But taking it in the popular sense as referring to immediate augmentation of property and wealth nothing can be more false. In the latter it would be the interest of the majority in every community to despoil and enslave the minority of individuals.”

    Letter to J. Monroe, 1786, Vol I, pp. 250, 251, Congress edition.

    As cited in an essay entitled “Our Medieval Inheritance of Liberty” by Rev. Moorhouse F.X. Millar, S.J. on page 175 of The State and the Church (1922), edited by John A. Ryan and Millar…this book is worth reading; download from Google Books for free..

    • jhf884 said,

      July 15, 2011 at 3:16 pm


      I’ve read the Federalist, and am familiar with the use of the term there.

      I don’t know what it means, and I’m not sure how useful of a description it is. I think there is “faction” in the sense of pure self-interested gaming of the system on both right and left. I also think people have good intentions in pursuing bad ends. I don’t know that “faction” helps understand either, given that both are universal. Indeed, “faction” (i.e. special interest groups) seems to be THE dominant feature of our political system, at least today if not in fact from the very beginning of the founding.

      What does it mean? What do you take it to mean here? Why particularly do we think the left’s fault is “faction”?

  8. July 15, 2011 at 8:49 pm

    Just throwing that out there. I think even if what James means is faction in the broader sense of a minority that disagrees with the majority…the left often stakes their claim in using the government over and against popular opinion and will….while the right often stakes their claim on government being bad in itself…

  9. Stephen said,

    July 16, 2011 at 10:59 am

    I don’t know that Limbaugh or Reagan actually want the State to be smaller; they just talk(ed) as though they do. Many, if not most, of the right favors war (though, as our current President has shown, so do many on the left), and war requires quite an extensive government.

    Also, though Libertarianism is an umbrella term, and thus has many theories as claimants to its name, I don’t think that all Libertarians would argue that corporations should be the dominant social structure in society; indeed, many libertarians argue that the Church should be. Rather, the argument seems to be that in the manifold theaters of private life in which the State has invited itself, welcome or otherwise, free people could and would run it better, and would do so with less violence and coercion. What that looks like it a matter of dispute.

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