A space for conversations in a time of global disruption
What would you give to live in peace with your neighbours? What would you expect them to give? And who exactly would you be willing to give it to? These are the questions, it seems to me, which are at the core of any organised society - how they're answered is what makes the difference between a collection of individuals living together, and a community with an identity in its own right.
At the heart of a community is a set of obligations which its members accept, and a set of rights which derive from the group. Chief among those obligations, I would say, is surrendering the right to impose your will on those weaker than yourself; chief among the rights is protection by the group from those who are stronger than you. Those rights create more complex obligations; implicit within them are an obligation for every member of the group to act against violators, and an obligation to act in cooperation with the other members. Along with those obligations is created a need for an exercise of judgement, and a need for leadership of some kind - which give rise to further, more specific obligations.
But how does it begin? My view is that it starts with a wholly voluntary surrender, by the strong, of some right to dominate (I say 'does' and 'is' because I see it as something which happens repeatedly, in different forms, at different stages of a society's development, each time initiating a new phase of growth when the previous phase is exhausted).
There is a fundamental difference between the dominant individual in a group saying "I'll kill anyone who does x, y or z" and saying "I won't kill anyone unless they do x, y or z". The first is an arbitrary assertion of a natural right, which engenders an atmosphere of uncertainty and fear; the second is a surrender of arbitrariness, which creates space for trust - which in turn creates a motive for the weaker members of the group to support that individual against a challenger. In that process, I think, lie the beginnings of an implicit covenant.
I'm not very familiar with orthodox Social Contract theories, but my impression is that they tend to be based on a notional original state in which people who are fundamentally equal agree to a set of mutual obligations and rights. A regular criticism of such theories, I believe, is that they are impossible to reconcile with our understanding of humanity's historical roots, which suggest an instinctive social hierarchy essentially based on who would win in a fight (Dominance Hierarchy).
In the kind of social contract I envisage, the primacy of might is central; the contract is not (in its underlying form) a mutual agreement between all the different members, but a collection of agreements between the individual members and their leaders. And the underlying dynamics of those agreements, I believe, are the opposite of what is commonly supposed; in the orthodox view the leader grants rights in return for the support of his followers; in my view the followers give support in response to the leader's unconditional commitment to certain rights.
It's a subtle difference and, for the most part of course, it's academic; but it will be important, I think, if the future I envisaged in Imago Society is to come about. In that post I imagined a series of constitutional crises, arising from a conflict between fundamental principles and the laws promulgated by Parliament (my focus is on Britain, though I imagine similar processes might happen elsewhere), which result in the courts recognising another source of authority. For that to happen they will need to be satisfied both that the new source of authority is rooted in a coherent set of principles, and that transferring (or extending) its own allegiance will be compatible with the principles that the court itself is built on. A crucial factor in that, I believe, will be the concept of consent - where its roots are, how it's demonstrated, and what it depends on - both within the existing system and within the new one.
Those constitutional crises will have to be triggered by disputes between individuals and the government, and those disputes will have to be on issues which fall into the gaps (or overlaps) between law and politics. In other words they will have to be issues which the government can claim are matters of law, but which the courts can reasonably regard as lying within the sphere of politics. Until recently I've assumed that such disputes would have to focus on the exact terms of the implicit contract between government and people; that they would involve direct challenges to the right of Parliament to make certain laws. But I think a more promising angle, in the initial stages at least, might be to focus on the way in which government derives its power, and the way in which we give consent.
The 'official story', I think, is that it is the electoral process which empowers government, by demonstrating the electorate's consent for the winners to take control of the infrastructure of the state. But to my mind this is only a small part of it. What really empowers government is its control over the substantive contribution that individuals make to society as a whole; in other words the government's power stems from its ability to disburse the money we pay in taxes. Obvious enough in itself, but it raises an interesting question: since power derives from the tax base, should the payment of taxes be regarded purely as fulfillment of a legal requirement or should it be seen, in part, as a political act?
At the most fundamental level, I see taxes as the modern equivalent of the physical commitment which our ancestors would have made when choosing sides between two potential leaders. So (on the basis that staying neutral wasn't generally an option) I'd say that the obligation to pay them should be regarded essentially as a legal requirement; but that the actual payment of them should be regarded as political. In other words we should not have a right to withhold them (though I'll have more to say on that in another post), but we should have considerable freedom to decide exactly who we pay them to.
When we vote, we authorise someone to speak for us; when we pay taxes, we empower someone to act for us. These are two distinct aspects of our relationship with the community, and very often our instincts diverge - we think one way, but act in another. A healthy system needs to reflect that fact; it must allow us to choose one way with our vote, and another way with our taxes. And it should allow us, also, to show where our priorities lie in regard to the different levels of government.
The custom of funnelling resources to the centre, to be disbursed back to local agents of the state, is one which I think only exists because the system lacks a properly impartial overseer. There are circumstances - when a society faces some external threat, for example - where it is essential that power be exercised centrally. That necessity is fairly easy to understand, and therefore people cede that power relatively willingly, agreeing to subordinate themselves to a particular individual, or group, for the good of the whole. In a small community that can be done relatively safely, because it's generally easy for people to see when the necessity has passed and reclaim that delegated power.
In larger communities, however, that isn't the case, because the things which justify the transient, or partial, centralisation of power are too remote for people to observe directly. The result is that we have to delegate power blindly, and trust that our leaders will not take more than is justified or for longer than is justified. When the choice is theirs, it's not surprising that they choose to keep control in their own hands .... but it certainly isn't necessary and I think it can be highly damaging. It strips away a whole range of highly important interactions which would otherwise take place within local communities. It is, above all, the decision making processes which constitute the glue which holds a community together - if they are removed it risks becoming no more than a collection of individuals.
When we vote, we authorise someone to speak for us; when we pay taxes, we empower someone to act for us. What is missing is a formal process for entrusting someone with overseeing how power is exercised, and how it is shared between different levels of society. It is an essentially passive function which needs a different perspective to the other two, and - just as they must be kept separate from each other - it must be kept separate from them.
The core idea in this post is that each of us should be largely free to channel our contribution to society through a person of our own choice (and, I will add, to redirect it at relatively short notice). That would make the Executive accountable separately from Parliament, as I proposed in Parcivilised Government, but it's a change which I imagine would be strenuously resisted by the established order. And since the principle behind it is much less clear cut than the other changes I've proposed, making the case for it will be that much harder. But, if the scenario I envisaged at the end of The Root of Much Evil comes about, then there may be a way to introduce it, in embryo at least - along with the constitutional oversight which the system currently lacks. I'm going to leave that for my next post.
Add a Comment