PhiloMadrid - Pub Philosophy Meetings in Madrid

Thursday, October 18, 2007

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: The Duties of Government + 3 news items

Essay + Manzanares + 2 items from Mayte and Tina

Dear friends,

This Sunday we are discussing the Duties of Government. Since I don't
know what the football situation is, it would be convenient if we
started as soon as possible after six.

In the meantime I want to remind you about the Manzanares day trip this
Saturday and I also have two messages from Tina (flat to rent in USERA)
and Mayte (Holiday house in ALMERÍA).

MANZANARES this Saturday:
This Saturday, the 20th, we are going for a day trip to Manzanares el Real.

The bus service 724 leaves from the bus station in Plaza de Castilla at
9.55am so I suggest we meat at the terminus bar sometime around 9.30am.
My experience with this service has not always been good; too many
people. So it is best to queue early. According to the time table I have
in front of me
there are return services during the day but we might want to catch one
of these services: at 18.05, 19.40, 20.30, 22.10.

We're not quite sure what the programme is , a lot depends on the
weather. However, there will always be the opportunity to do some
shopping for the picnic lunch, maybe a visit to the castle, a stop at
the bar and probably a walk along the river up to the mountains. So
please come prepared.

The flat is in Usera near the underground , totally furnished and 60 m2,
3º floor.
If you are interested please let me know and I'll pass your message to
her; I don't have her contact details yet.

Me gustaría si puedes envíes este link y
se la envíes a tus amigos que pienses puedan estar interesados en pasar
unos días en Andalucia, si ellos lo pegan en su navegador pues acceden y
…… a tus amigos, te dirige al lugar dónde he puesto el anuncio de la
casita de andalucia, ya tiene nombre se llama "La casa del cine"…..

Take care and see you Saturday and Sunday



**********HOLIDAY FLATS**********
Mayte; Almería (Villa de Níjar);

Paloma; Marbella (near Elviria);

+++++++++MEETING DETAILS+++++++++
SUNDAY 6.00pm – 8.30pm at Molly Malone's Pub, probably downstairs----
-Yahoo group >> <
-Old essays:
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-metro: Bilbao : buses: 21, 149, 147

The duties of government

What makes this topic difficult is not the broad spectrum of philosophy
about government, but rather the parameters of the topic. There is a
good chance of missing the wood for the trees here.

A quick and ready definition of government might be: the exercise of
power and authority by individuals. Of course, this is far from an
adequate definition, but it will do for now. We can further divide this
idea of government into the following components: the
appointment/accession to power, the agenda for power and the scope of power.

The accession or appointment of power means how those who hold high
office in government come to be there. In many cases, and in our
societies, these people are elected to power, in other countries some
inherit power while others take power by force. We are not really
interested in this aspect of government. The agenda for power does have
some bearing on our interest, but only to the extent that the agenda for
power can easily conflict with the scope of power. In other words, we
have no problem with the claim that legitimate governments have a
legitimate right to formulate policies that fall within their mandate.
Thus while governments have a mandate to formulate certain tax policies
or to take a strong stance on law and order, they probably do not have a
mandate to impose punitive taxes on a certain group of society nor to
eliminate a certain minority group.

By default we are interested in the scope of power and authority. By
scope I mean, what is the purpose of power? What is it to be used for?
And, how should it be applied to members of the community?

Therefore, whilst the methods of accession or the policy programmes
might be different between one government and another, the scope is, I
suggest, universal. This idea is based on the belief that there are some
fundamental duties of government that apply, a priori, to all
governments. A sort of fundamental basic principles that apply to all
governments irrespective of political colour or creed; a sort of
universal categorical imperatives of duties.

In fact nations and governments do recognise, in a fashion, such
fundamental duties. These are sometimes called constitutions, rule of
law, and human rights and so on.

One precise parameter that can be established for our topic is that this
topic is apolitical. In other words, it is not about political parties
nor political opinion. However, some might object by suggesting that one
cannot separate these aspects from government, but also these aspects
determine each other in such a way that makes it impossible to separate.
Thus, the scope of power is very much tied with who is in power and,
moreover, their political policies determine the scope of power, anyway.

Yes, maybe, but this is because we might take it for granted or assumed
that what governments do, they do it because it is their duty to do so.
They and we can both point at a constitutional clause or enactment as
evidence for this claim. But what we have to ask ourselves is whether
they ought to do certain things in a philosophical sense and not only in
a legal sense. For example, how many question the right or duty of a
government to be proactive in commercial markets? Ought they to
interfere with market prices, maybe through taxation including social
taxation? Ought they to interfere with production assets and capital,
for example, through nationalising or state participation of certain
industries or maybe even subsidies?

As you can see, the scope of power can easily be interpreted as being
independent of political complexion. Does this also mean that the duties
of government are not to be found spelled out in constitutions and bills
of rights?

Of course, constitutions and bills of rights point at legal duties (and
rights) and not necessarily philosophical duties. But as I have tried to
show, it is quite possible to question the government's supposed
entrenched duty to manage the economy. So philosophically we can also
question the implications of constitutional duties.

Constitutions et al are very common and universally accepted as valid
and legitimate instruments to hold governments accountable. But there is
a strong element of preaching to the converted here. Law abiding
governments tend to follow at the very least the letter if not the
spirit of the law. On the other hand constitutions are very easy to
write, very weak at resisting manipulation and of course open to abuse.
To use an analogy from economics, constitutions are very elastic, very
susceptible to current trends and fashions. Hence, while constitutions
are functional and do sometimes work, they are not philosophically

I have no intention to go into the history and development of the social
contract theory here. There is enough material readily available in
libraries and on the internet. You will recall that there are two
possible versions of the social contract. This is a contract between the
people and their ruler where the people and the ruler give up some of
there their rights they have in under the state of nature in exchange
for the protection of the ruler and obedience to the ruler. The other
version is that this is a contract between the members of the community
for the same benefits as the ruler/people contract. The end result of
such a hypothetical or metaphysical contract, is to improve ''one's
lot'' as the Cambridge dictionary of philosophy puts it.

This implicit contract, an explicit one is when the contracting parties
sign a piece of paper and have it witnessed, is supposed to be the
source of government duties. There are many flaws with this argument.

The concept of a contract carries with it the idea of free intention to
be bound by the contract. But this idea alone suggests that at least
psychologically the contracting parties are already a good distance away
from the state of barbaric savagery of brutal nature. Hence, at face
value, the social contract is not so much the quantum leap into
civilization as popular thinking has it, but a gradual progression to
some form of civilization. There is a lot to recommend this idea, but I
have a feeling that it is contaminated with the emotions of a fairy tale
where everyone lives happily ever after.

And as for a contract with the ruler this seems to be even more far
fetched than a community agreement. In reality and in fiction a ruler by
him or herself are unlikely to do much ruling or coercion. Rulers depend
on the loyalty of their supporters and a well prepared army.
Furthermore, this suggests that the ruler had already reached an
agreement with his or her army and supporter. Thus, a social contract
with a ruler is underwritten by a private contract between the ruler and
a chosen few; viz the Nazi rule in Germany, the communists in the
ex-soviet union, the present situation in Zimbabwe, North Korea and so on.

In fact a social contract looks like a child's plea, who has over
disciplinary parents or rough play-ground peers, and with tears in their
eyes begging them, ''please, don't hurt me. Please, don't hurt me.''
Despite my criticism of the social contract theory, it goes a long way
to explain the duties of government.

Consider this idea by Hobbes: "He that is to govern a whole nation must
read in himself, not this, or that particular man; but mankind...." This
is taken from the introduction to the Leviathan.

In my opinion this idea by Hobbes not only sets the scope for the duties
of government but also the sources for those duties. Not only does this
idea reflect my earlier sentiment that the duties of government are
independent of political complexion (soft interpretation), but more
seriously (hard interpretation) these duties cannot possibly be based on
some political manifesto. What I am trying to say is that the duties of
a government are a priori invalid and unacceptable if they originate
from some particular thinker or group of thinkers. Thus, people like
Marx, Adam smith, Milton Friedman, Mao, JS Mill, Hitler or anyone who
claims to be the beneficiaries of divine osmoses can only inform us
about what the duties of government ought to be, but they cannot tell us
what the duties of government are. Governments cannot include into their
programme by force or coercion, but those governments have to adapt to
the free intentions of people in general. There are of course many
practical problems with this, but the principle still holds irrespective
of those problems

Of course, this is like saying pox on all your governments. Maybe, but
there is a more contagious and fatal pox than Marxism or utilitarianism
or whatever.

Although, I have no intention of indulging myself in writing a shopping
list of duties, we now have some markers that might identify such
duties. I think that Hobbes's programme is more practical than say
Kant's programme. Kant wants us to consider the rational agent for his
categorical imperative, whilst Hobbes only wants us to consider mankind
(humankind). Not only is this more practical (I know that being
practical in philosophy is equivalent to blasphemy), we also happen to
know quite a lot about human beings, and as a bonus point it saves us
the hassle of having to answer questions about where green men from Mars
fit in all this.

But before I consider the mankind issue, consider this question: what
incentive does a ruler or a neighbour have to protect or share power
with you?

We now know from such studies as game theory and evolutionary survival
strategies that cooperation is usually the best strategy to live and
survive. Of course, there will always be a few who cheat, but on the
whole cooperation works well. I think this is were we can find the
source of the universally applicable duties of government.

As these theories suggest the most important message a ruler can get
from 'reading mankind' is survival; having found ourselves on this
planet we at least all agree that survival is a full time preoccupation
for all human beings. This is a universal common trait that every human
being has with other human beings. And because it is a universal trait
it also applies to rulers whether they like it or not. And rulers who
believe that they have been put on Earth as representatives of some
deity or as the holders of the secrets of life, as if this made them
immune to the survival game, are just indulging themselves in some
serious wishful nonsense.

An interesting question is that having identified the universal scope of
government duties, what sort of duties are they? Are they positive
duties (see for example Kant on this one), that require governments to
act in order to achieve certain things; or are they negative duties,
meaning not to do certain things?

If we take health care as a universal duty, does a government have a
duty to set up a universally available health care system? On the other
hand, do governments have a negative duty not to interfere with the
market place? For example, is it a duty of a government to use social
taxation to control the consumption of certain goods such as alcohol or
tobacco? They certainly have a positive duty to educate people about the
harms to addiction and maybe even on how to live healthy. But if
something is a legal product should governments interfere with its
market position?

In reality government duties involve both positive and negative duties.
No doubt this is where we find most of the problems with governments and
politics. Everyone thinks they have the answer and none want to
experience the indignity of being proved wrong. Be it as it may, as with
all things in life, actions have reactions, and causes have effects.

So why does it make sense to follow Hobbes's programme and try to
understand humankind? And what incentive does a ruler have to cooperate
with us? The practical philosophical answer to these two questions is
this test: Are a government performing those duties that benefit all the
members of the community? And the incentive to do so is: change.

Change, as we know, is inevitable. Thus, if government changes with the
changing needs of the community and the individuals of that community,
then we can reasonably expect a manageable and rewarding relationship
between power and authority on one side and the governed on the other.
Failure to adapt to the changing needs of a community will inevitably
lead to a meltdown of society and certainly the death of a flawed
government system. All we have to do to confirm the importance of change
is to look at the corpses of once grandiose government systems that
litter history. As Heraclitus told us, everything is in flux.

The beauty of change is that although we can have a hand in it we cannot
just write it; although we can guide change we cannot manipulate it; and
although change can be used to further our needs it cannot be abused to
further our tyranny.

Take care


from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: The Duties of
Government + 3 news items

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