The philosophical basis of all good government, not just the U.S. Constitution (and not just the Constitutions of the several States), is found in the principles espoused by the Declaration of Independence. Those principles are the answers to the questions of “Why” and “What” as far as government is concerned (Why governments exist, and what their sole proper purposes and functions are) – the U.S. Constitution was an imperfect attempt at answering the “How”. The U.S. Constitution was an attempt at creating a governmental system in harmony with the principles of the Declaration. For a thorough understanding of the principles of good government, which then, in turn, applies to the U.S. Constitution – it is recommended to read the document.
Here are three versions of the document, all worthy of study:
For those who may still be unclear as to the concept of unalienable rights, this article is recommended.
In terms of the absolute principle, or principles that are not subject to arbitrary standards of determination, the Declaration of Independence is comparable to Isaac Newton’s Principia. Through the sea of relatives, the author of the Declaration found a few universals upon which to base a truly free society upon – and they are principles that are “self-evident” (or “sacred and undeniable” in the words of Thomas Jefferson) to those who outwardly observe and inwardly contemplate their attributes. They are True, and perfectio, or complete.
The doctrine of the Declaration of Independence is the standard by which we should judge the quality of a societal structure, as well as by individual actions done within the context of that system itself.
In terms of the U.S. Constitution, or the Constitutions of the several states, keep in mind that Thomas Jefferson even stated in a letter to Henry Lee in 1825, that the Declaration was “intended to be an expression of the American mind.” So, not only is the Declaration a good universal standard, but it was also seen as the standard in the relative view of most of Americans, as perceived by the Congress itself. Yet, even though that is certainly not the case today as far as the relative standards of many Americans, the truth of the absolute principles of Rights and Duties is not affected by how anyone views the topic – just as the the law of gravity, or the laws of motion are not affected by popular opinion. Truth, in the end, is it’s own authority, and is not affected by how anyone feels about it.
In terms of the form of government, it must be remembered that, in the words of Samuel Adams, “it must be confessed, that Imperfection attends all human affairs.” (Letter to Noah Webster, Apr. 30 1784) And, from a perspective of principle, the question of forms automatically becomes secondary. At the end of the day, whether the form of government is monarchical, aristocratic, democratic, or even “anarchistic” – the questions are:
1) What is the appropriate form of government by which fundamental unalienable rights are to be protected?
2) Is the Freedom (or Are the Rights) of the People more or less likely to be protected as a result of the system?
The answers to these questions should include not only analysis as to the present (or, “for ourselves” in the words of the Preamble of the U.S. Constitution), but also with an eye toward the future (or, “for posterity“).
So, the protection of rights can come through any sort of system – even a monarchy. But obviously, the downfall of having a single ruler as the form of government (even assuming this leader not only cares about the people, but understands his proper role in relation to them in a governmental capacity) is that this form will only last as long as that ruler’s dedication, be as good as his personal understanding is correct and is actually applied, and will obviously be limited by the length of his mortal body’s life. And, if extended to his children, or even any sort of heir – the same argument would apply.
That being said – What kind of a social structure will last longer and be more stable – both in harmony with any true principles upon which it was founded, as well as in duration of time?
The real answer to these types of questions require an analysis akin to that attributed to the realm of the economist.There must be rigorous analysis of the incentive structures which are antecedent to, a part of, and also come as a result of the social structure. As one example may show, the analysis of the various governmental positions should include the assumption of self-interest in the persons of power to analyze whether or not the tendency toward tyranny would more likely come due to poor design of the system itself.
There must also be a cost-benefit analysis of the structure, as well as it’s results. We, obviously, desire a situation in which the general benefits outweigh the general costs. (Not to be confused with the idea of some benefiting at the expense of others). The system should be efficient enough to adequately fulfill it’s purpose – without being so efficient that the rights that are supposed to be protected are actually infringed upon with impunity, and at the whims of the passion of any particular faction, without the ability for recourse or without the firm foundation upon which a sound corrective is able to take place, as a feature of the system.
Interestingly enough, and to partially reiterate a crucial point: The Declaration of Independence does not prescribe any particular form, merely the standard by which any form should be judged.
Thus, the founders looked to history and historical commentaries, such as those by Polybius and Machiavelli, to learn as to the best and most lasting forms of government. And in this research they found that in the pure and/or simple forms of government (pure monarchy – rule by one, aristocracy – rule by a few, and democracy – rule by the many) – they always descended into the corrupted versions of these. Thus,
Monarchy inevitably descended into Tyranny.
Aristocracy inevitably descended into Oligarchy.
Democracy inevitably descended into Mobocracy/Ochlocracy (or what Machiavelli termed “licentiousness”.)
And in fact, Machiavelli asserts the fact that these three will turn into a cycle of their pure forms due to the inherent instability (due to incentive structure) that each form has within itself. Tyranny turning into Oligarchy, and Oligarchy leading to a Democracy, whose anarchic features will lead back to the populace uniting behind a tyrant.
“I say, then,” writes Machiavelli, “that all kinds of government are defective; those three which we have qualified as good because they are short-lived, and the three bad ones because of their inherent viciousness. ” Then Machiavelli states the main assertion of this analysis in stating that: “Thus sagacious legislators [meaning those with good judgement and keen discernment], knowing the vices of each of these systems of government by themselves, have chose one that should partake of all of them, judging that to be the most stable and solid.”
Machiavelli then concludes: “In fact, when there is combined under the same constitution a prince, the nobility, and the power of the people, then these three powers will watch and keep each other reciprocally in check.” (Discourses, Chapter Two). In the words of Gary Wills, “the innate biases can become mutually correcting.” (Explaining America, pg. 99) As evidence of this, Machiavelli speaks of the Tribunes in the Roman system which were basically a democratic corrective against what had become a systemic abuse of power by the oligarchical Senate, which rendered the system closer to what is “most essential to liberty“.
In terms of social structures, this history demonstrates the three major tendencies and societal trends. Thus, the goal – in terms of the goals/views of the framers of the various Constitutions of the american nations – was to build these trends, or to build these tendencies into the form of the governments themselves.
This was an ontological approach to the creation of a social structure – or in other words, it was built on what man generally is in this world (of course, assuming the best, yet prepared for the worst), not upon what some philosopher thinks man should or could be. It didn’t view the social structure as a means of forcing, or “encouraging” a particularized moral standard based on the desires of some tyrant, or group of tyrants to, through immoral means, force that so-called “moral” code, outside of the protection of the freedom of the people. Rather, it was built upon the protection freedom, or of unalienable rights, in and of themselves, as well as upon what the trends of societies have typically been in regards to the ability to adequately protect those rights and freedoms. In other words, if a social structure, made up of humans, is to endure – it must be based on human tendency and human nature itself – thus, the universal desire for freedom, as well as the historical trends in regard to that goal must be taken into consideration. It was thought that only then would a social structure last, as well as being able to not only self-correct, but to deal with disputes peacefully – without the need to resort to violent means of political action.
John Adams took this history and these ideas and this is clearly demonstrated in the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, drafted in 1780, of which he was the primary author. This Constitution, with three branches of government – including a more independent judiciary, was the model for the U.S. Constitution which would be drafted seven years later. In the Constitution of Massachusetts, you find that:
The Monarchical principle was built into the Executive Branch, or the Governor.
The Artistocratic principle was built into the Judicial Branch, or the court system (including the supreme judicial court).
The Democratic principle was built into the Legislative Branch, or the bi-cameral General Court.
This is found in the U.S. Constitution with similar features, where you find that:
The Monarchical principle was built into the office of President.
The Aristocratic principle was built into the Courts (including the Supreme Court) and the Senate (as originally elected by the legislatures of the several states – with the basis of this being partially rested upon the fact that this was a federal constitution, consisting of several States, or nations, and not merely organic law for any particular nation. Thus, those particular State governments should have a direct say in many matters pertaining to the legislative power).
The Democratic principle was built into the House of Representatives.
As far as the effects, whether good or bad, by the system – or perhaps, more accurately, those that pretend to operate within it, the question still remains:
Is the Freedom (or Are the Rights) of the People more or less likely to be protected as a result of the system? Or, rather, after 225 years of history – Have the Freedom and Rights of the people been more or less protected as a result of this system?
At this point, the debate – once understood in terms of the doctrine of the Declaration of Independence – should begin.
That assertion, far from being one that is demeaning to the work of the founders, would be in honor of it. There was even a quote (of dubious origin, of which a specific source is unknown to this author at this time) that is often attributed to George Washington (or perhaps Gouverneur Morris) stated that: “Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair.” Yet, of course, for “repair” to be actually productive, and not destructive, we must seek knowledge, and inspiration from the same source – and perhaps one day, a more, or even a completely free society will be a reality, at least, for some.
For those who see this as an impossibility, it should be remembered that there is a clear line of demarcation between difficult and impossible. As J. Stuart Snelson clearly argued, if flying in the sky was universally held to be impossible at the beginning of the last century, there would never have been innovations, such as the airplane. Perhaps there were many who considered the idea of the airplane as “utopian”. Yet, for an idea to be truly “utopian” (utopos, GR for “no where” or “noplace”) – there would necessarily have to be inviolable natural laws which prevent the innovation from being a possibility; A possibility not as some perceive it, but as reality dictates. And just as the innovating of the airplane was not easy – so will the creation of a truly free society, but that is far from concluding it an impossibility.
In conclusion, and in response to those who see a free society as a “utopian” ideal, my question is this, is there even one exception to the assertion that “every person lives in pursuit of happiness“?!
And since every person does, in fact, seek the attainment of this goal – what natural law would have to be violated to attain a societal structure that merely respects that universal desire for freedom that is found as a part of every individual that makes up society? In other words, What law of nature would have to be violated in order to create a system that is simply in harmony with the order of nature and the cosmos itself?
The fact of the matter is this: A truly free society will be difficult to achieve, but it is possible.
But, ultimately, it is entirely up to us.