Even though I have already published my first article in this series, I thought I owed my readers an introduction to political philosophy in order to get them well and interested. It is an important and weighty subject, after all, and it is important that we are all clear on what exactly we are talking about if we want to effectively discuss politics, especially in the current times.
Vital in discussing political philosophy, is considering what it comes from, what its purposes are and basically just how to see the subject. When we do this, and practice political philosophy in its entirety, there is one more important thing we should do. And I implore you to actually do so, otherwise the whole practice of this article and to a certain degree, political philosophy in its totality, will be pointless. What we must do, is check our prejudices and existing ideologies at the introduction of a book/article. We must be willing to accept that policies we disagree with might in fact be great policies. And we must challenge an idea/policy on its merits, rather than on an existing ideological basis, like we do in all of philosophy.
Purposes of political philosophy
Politics is a largely intellectual exercise. This should ring true to anyone who follows politics even moderately, though I will be the first to admit that some politicians do not reflect this. It is however, nonetheless true. And it always has, to some degree, been an intellectual endeavor. Even the tribe elders, governors and kings of the very first human tribes and city states had to maneuver in between different groups with different interests, allies and enemies. They had to decide when wars would and wouldn’t be advantageous, which policies they should carry out and which would be either too costly, too burdensome or maybe too “laissez-faire”. In many ways, then, the questions that plague our politics today are the same ones that used to plague our ancestors.
So, then, what is the whole purpose of political philosophy? Well, as the title of this article shows, it is to approach the ideal state. Of course, very few thinkers would claim to have found the ideal state, but it is certain that the contributors of political philosophy have contributed significantly to the way our governments are now shaped. A lot of the greatest thinkers in history are actually most known for their political philosophy. think about: Plato, Hobbes, JS Mill and Rawls.
The task for political philosophy, then, is not an easy one. Much like the ancient question of ethics; “how to live the good life?”, which combines being successful with being a good person, political philosophy combines a number of factors that may be, but are not necessarily, opposed to each other. Think, for instance about: “being a moral state”, versus “being a working state”, which clash in plenty of cases where the goodness of a state can be expanded to those outside the state without expanding the state itself; more on that in another political philosophy themed article. Or “being a peaceful state”, and “being a safe state”. etc. To practice politics and to practice political philosophy, is to constantly navigate these unruly waters in search of being the best state possible.
Why should we engage in political philosophy?
As mentioned above, politics and therefore political philosophy is a long and rich tradition, one in which our ancestors down the ages have all contributed. We have the opportunity here, to stand on the shoulders of giants, and attempt to see further than they could. If this isn’t reason enough to start practicing political philosophy, then consider the fact that anything around you is the result of political philosophies in some way. For instance, at the time of typing this sentence, I am drinking an energy drink. Energy drinks are subject to certain legislations that regulate the contents of my energy drink. Most notably, the amount of caffeine deemed acceptable. There are two political questions in these two sentences alone, the answer to which will depend on your personal political beliefs:
- Should the government (or in my case, the European Union) be allowed to regulate the manufacturing of products?
- How much caffeine should be allowed in an energy drink?
The same two questions apply to the can my energy drink comes in, which also warrants questions about production, admission, the salaries of the workers who actually produce them, safety regulations for those workers and hygiene regulations for the product itself. These kinds of questions, though less “sexy” than questions about whether or not we should go to war, if and how to practice income redistribution etc., are among the most important questions politics can deal with. Any laws and regulations that originate from the answers to these questions will dictate the average health of the population. Politics, then, is quite literally, influencing everything. And if we conclude that is the case, wouldn’t you -my readers- who search for knowledge and insight, owe it to yourselves to explore this vast and historical body of thought?
There are, however, even more reasons to be interested in political philosophy, especially political philosophy as it applies to domestic politics. Politics, quite literally again, determines who lives, who dies and who will be let die. Think about it; politics determines who gets let into the country. It determines which people from which countries to consider real refugees, who are entitled to asylum. It determines which people are threat and which people to take out, if need be with a drone strike of surgical precision. And the practice of politics also decides who we help be successful; who gets to pay less taxes, who gets subsidies etc. Especially when we consider domestic policy from a political philosophy-perspective, we are dealing with what is effectively an extension of a moral system we support into an arena where we can more easily judge its broad application, with increased cost/benefit analyses and dependence on limited resources. It is, in this light, the most strenuous test of moral thought.
But, considering that we don’t typically have the ability to influence politics in any significant sense, why bother? While it is true that, barring active political participation in the form of being a representative, we can’t individually influence politics, political philosophy has a lot more uses. In the end, the power of ideas has brought more states to their knees than any armies or revolutions have. The ideas of JS Mill, for instance, who espoused the idea of a republic. How many republics do we know? the US, France, for starters as prominent republics. But when you research it, you will quickly find a list of more than a hundred countries who are or have been a republic. And if you look at Marxist ideas, we can see that in many countries the world over, some kinds of collectivization have taken effect, never mind the immense influence of communism in areas like South-east Asia and South-America. So while we may not influence politics directly, and we shouldn’t expect our theories to be taken up word for word, if they are good and appealing ideas, future governments might borrow from them. We might yet be able to leave our mark on politics through broader political theorising.
Without further ado, it’s now time to get into a slight introduction of the substance.
Forms of government
When engaging in political philosophy, it is typically a first step to analyse the different kinds of government we have to deal with. These can be parsed in roughly 5 type groups of government, according to the way to power:
- Kingdom/empire/dictatorship: This group is exemplified by sole rulers. In these forms of government, there is one sovereign ruler, who has absolute power over everything there is to be had power over. They may decide how much of a certain product may be produced, who joins the army, how high to set the tax burden etc. Because of its obvious tendency to be oppressive towards its citizens, these types of government are typically frowned upon. However, given a capable and benevolent ruler, the state in question might be considered a lot more effective. Throughout history, however, it seems rulers who are both capable and benevolent are hard to come by.
- Aristocracy/Oligarchy/Plutocracy: This group is exemplified by a select group of combined rulers. They are non-electable and decided upon in various ways. In the case of an Oligarchy, it are typically owners of big businesses or even not persons that rule, but the business interests themselves. In the case of an aristocracy, it is typically a set of noblemen. In the case of Plutocracy, it’s wealthy people. Historically, this has been experienced as exploitative, oppressive and unjust. However, having a specialised set of differing opinions can be very useful when it comes to the economy. Should these select groups of people be benevolent as well, we may yet have a bright future in one of these elite-societies.
- Constitutional Monarchy, Republic, Representative democracy: This group is exemplified by the democratic process. In constitutional monarchies as well as republics, there is one head of state. In constitutional monarchies, this is a king or empire, and in Republic this is a prince or a party leader. In both these forms of government, there is a supreme leader but they are made, in varying degrees, to be held accountable by a larger body of elected officials. A representative democracy, and often constitutional monarchies and republics as well, typically but certainly not exclusively, have a two-chamber system. These are typically divided along the lines of “the right of initiative” and “the duty to control”. The right to initiative means the right to develop bills, which are then checked (duty to control) in another chamber for feasibility and compliance to a constitution before being signed into law. These forms of governing are what most first world countries are used to right now, and are experienced as less or non-oppressive, especially because they put the power in the hands of the people. However, more cynical people would say that it gives the illusion of non-oppression through the means of democracy. Meritocracy: A special extra mention, the meritocracy is a system of government in which everyone get assigned the function they are best equipped and/or have shown to be able to perform. This is what many people think is the most fair and simply the best system. After all, if we let people do those things in which they excel, then eventually everybody will profit from that in terms of having their own perfect positions and making exactly what they deserve, and we’ll have a higher degree in specialization. However, critics will soon be ready to ask the question: “what is merit, then?”. The point being that merit is hard to decide, and even harder to utilize within this kind of a framework.
- Bureaucracy: A bureaucracy, is a type of government that hasn’t yet been tried in full, but is to be found partially within most states and governing apparatuses. It is most aptly called the governing of institutions and/or rules. Most of us will have painful memories of having to call our equivalent of the IRS, visit a town hall or the DMV. These are bureaucratic institutions. They practice power (decide whether or not you get your driver’s license) according to the laws that apply and in the name of the sitting government. In a full bureaucracy, every last thing even the day to day governing of a country would be done by one of these bureaucratic institutions. The idea behind this mode of government is that it would make every process of power more efficient and would promote equality, because nothing but the laws guide action. Typical objections, though, are plentiful. Bureaucratic institutions, for instance, tend to be big and therefore slow apparatuses, who check their own work and are therefore not amenable to objections. It is also, most of you will agree, a very dystopian idea to be governed by a large organisation filled with anonymous people.
- Anarchy: This is the outlier in the list, that nonetheless deserved to be mentioned. To live in a governmental state of anarchy, means that there either is no government or that the government is in essence lame. Some people would prefer this to what they would call the tyranny of government, and it would mean that everybody is as free as they could be. However, critics argue that a state of anarchy is tyranny by its own right; Lawlessness would mean that no one is free from violence, for instance.
In practice, most of these forms of government will be used in conjunction with each other. Often because it is simply impossible to do so otherwise. Take for instance a kingdom. A kingdom is all well and good, but a king must derive his power from some kind enforcing body, who works according to the king’s rules and laws; a bureaucracy. Often times, these bureaucracies will have a number of people who have historically performed well within that bureaucracy to make decisions about how their subordinates should work. So, they’d have an internal aristocracy.
As you might expect from an introductory article like this, these aren’t all the forms of government that are available within political philosophy. In fact, these are the 5 kinds of systems. Think of them as extremes, in between which lies a spectrum of different kinds of governing.
Ideologies are typically what cause the most conflict between people who follow politics. They are difference between the right and the left. And I will expand on ideologies further in different articles, so I will keep it short for this one, since I believe I have already taken up enough of your reading time.
Political ideologies can be categorized according to three different criteria. These are: social policy, economic policy and authority. Where you land on the scales that originate from these respective criteria, determine where you fall on the political spectrum, or at least which kinds of affinities you have regarding the way you are governed.
To take an example, let’s discuss abortion. Abortion is often called a civil liberty. As such, it is a part of social policy. The social policy scale ranges from progressive to the left, to conservative on the right. So, if you are pro-choice in the abortion debate, you move left on the scale of social policy, as opposed to when you are against abortion, all things being equal of course.
To discuss economic policy, let’s take healthcare. Health care, though also a big aspect of social policy, is also an immense part of economic policy, because it tends to be one of the most expensive parts of any country’s budget. In most cases when it comes to economic policy, the scale ranges from total collectivisation on the left, to total laissez-faire capitalism on the right. So, to be placed on the absolute left-wing fringes, you would have to say: “all the healthcare available in the country should be provided by via the government. If it is not via the government, it shouldn’t be available”. To be places on the right-wing fringes, you would have to say: “I don’t care that people will die because they can’t pay care. When companies get a profit out of medical care, everybody wins”. Of course, only a few people actually say these things, because only a few people are actually on the fringes (despite sometimes being characterised that way).
The last criterium remains, then. And that is authority. Authority is typically a more or less issue, which then of course ranges simply from liberty to authoritarianism. This criterium doesn’t determine whether you are left- or right-wing. It just determines what kind of government or candidate you prefer and therefore are likely to support. It is therefore most often (to avoid any mistakes) shown vertically. Up being authoritarianism, and down being liberty. This should speak for itself, but the more authoritative you want your government to be, the higher up you are in this scale.
Both the political left and the political right like to boast about being the only side that is truly pro-liberty. This is however simply not true. If we look at communist regimes, they are typically the utmost left you can get, and they are as authoritarian as you can get. However, the same is true for the right, with its religiously conservative and fascist regimes. The sad truth is that, as the French say; “Les extrèmes, ce touche”; the extremes touch. Which ideology you adhere to, is simply matter of how much of what, are you willing to live with?
Political philosophy, in short, is important. It concerns us all at almost every turn and twist of our lives and I believe that we all owe it to ourselves and our country to educate ourselves on politics as much as possible. It is hard, of course, precisely because so many people have so much riding on politics. This incentivises misinformation and propaganda. There are, however, plenty of ways to properly learn about politics. To do this, we should start at the basics like we’ve done here. There are a lot of other things that we have left to cover, and we will in due time. These, however, have been a few basic, important knowledge issues that we should get out of the way. Until next time.