Problems of Political Thought

Problems of Political Thought. If an analysis be made of the questions with which political thought has been concerned, it is found that emphasis was placed at various periods upon widely different types of problems. In the medieval period controversy centered in the contest for supremacy between spiritual and temporal authorities; in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the dominant interest was in the contest between monarchic and democratic theories of political organization; at present the extent of state activities has come into prominence and the connection between political and economic interests is especially close.

Problems of Political Thought:-

Political conditions have changed so greatly from age to age that the same problem has also had quite different meanings at different periods. Thus eighteenth century liberal thinkers favored individualism because they wished to limit the activities of governments controlled by irresponsible monarchs.

To-day the same type of thinker is likely to hold a moderate socialistic point of view and to favor the extension of governmental regulation and control. When political power was transferred from king to people, much of the reason for fearing it disappeared; and government came to be looked upon as a servant whose actions promoted general welfare and should be extended, rather than as a tyrant whose power should be curbed.

Moreover, few thinkers have attempted to build up a consistent and comprehensive theory of the state. Men have usually been interested in some particular phase of political existence that seemed important to their time. It is therefore difficult to make a complete and logical outline of the problems that political theory has attempted to solve. Some of the most important, and some that have appeared most frequently, may however be pointed out.

Considerable attention has been given to the origin, of the state. In the uncritical past, when historical knowledge was slight, numerous attempts were made to account for the beginnings of political institutions. Among the most widely held theories were the divine theory, which considered the state to be established by the authority of God; the force theory, which found the origin of the state in the compulsory subjection of the weak to the strong; and the social-contract theory, which viewed the state as the deliberate creation of individuals by means of voluntary agreement or consent.

Only recently have the expansion of historical knowledge, the rise of a critical historical attitude, and the acceptance of the principles of evolution made possible a satisfactory theory of state origin. Even yet our knowledge of the early period of political life is incomplete, and many important points are in dispute. In general, however, the modern evolutionary theory views the state neither as divinely created nor as the deliberate work of man through either conquest or agreement. It sees the state coming into existence gradually as the natural result of the needs of men for order and protection.

Closely allied with the question of origin has been the question of obligation to state authority. With the exception of isolated anarchists, most writers have agreed that some form of governmental power is necessary. They have been unable to agree, however, on the nature of this authority. This has raised the question of legitimacy which is at the heart of all political thought. In its clearest terms the question was put by Rousseau when he asked, Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains. What can render it legitimate?

To this query, various answers have been given. Some theorists have rested man’s obligation to the state on divine ordination, Burke proclaiming that God,

Having disposed and marshaled us by a divine tactic, not according to our will, but to His… had… vitally subjected us to act the part which belongs to the place assigned us.

Some, including Aristotle, have considered the state to be the necessary result of the innate political character of men. The Utilitarians have justified it because of its obvious usefulness, holding that obedience to the state secures the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Others, such as Locke and Rousseau, have based its authority on the consent involved in the original compact by which the body politic was created. Theorists like Treitschke have rested its authority frankly on force, thus explaining and at the same time justifying its existence. To them might makes right. And still others have found in the state the crystallization of man’s real will.

Only through living within the state’s compass and under its direction is the highest form of human development possible. From this point of view the state represents the more universal and permanent aspect of the individual’s own will, so that in obeying the state he is obeying his own best self.

Since the Middle Ages, political theory has also been concerned with the idea of sovereignty. The earliest political philosophers wrote of the sovereignty of the law, but the rise of national monarchies caused the state to be personified in the ruler and its essential relationship to be conceived of as that between sovereign and subject.

Attacks on royal power led to the theory of popular sovereignty, attributing ultimate political power to the entire body of citizens, and associating the concept of sovereignty with the state as a legal person rather than with the ruler as an individual.

The vague and non-legal nature of popular sovereignty led, during the nineteenth century, to elaborate attempts to locate sovereignty in various organs of government, on the basis of the separation of powers established by a written constitution.

Endless difficulties, especially in federally organized states, were encountered in this attempt. Besides, the concept of the absolute, supreme, and indivisible sovereignty of the state met difficulties, both in the existence of organizations within the state which seemed to have a juristic life and authority of their own, and in the relations among states, where the theory of the equality and independence of sovereign states conflicted with actual inequalities and with various degrees of dependence.

Similarly, the concept of law has undergone various transformations. Originating as custom, supported by immemorial tradition and the prevailing belief in divine sanction, law was later considered as existing in nature, to be discovered and applied by human reason. When national monarchies were established, the will of the sovereign became a source of law.

Finally, modern democracies have attained to the idea that law, as the will of the state, should be formulated and administered by popular governmental organs, and should be modified as occasion demands new rules to meet new social needs.

The form of government and the location of authority within the state have been other sources of controversy in political theory. Whether political power should be centered in a single head, or limited to an aristocratic few, or widely distributed among the democratic masses has furnished much ground for discussion.

Also, wide differences of opinion have arisen over the proper scope of state activities. At one extreme is found an individualism that would limit the state to the narrowest exercise of authority and leave to its individual citizens the widest possible sphere of free action. At the other extreme is a paternalistic socialism. that would extend state action to the widest limits and submerge the individual in the political mass. Between these extremes all shades of opinion may be found.

Certain activities are recognized by all as essential to state existence, but over a wide range of optional functions a great controversy is being waged. In the United States this controversy has centered in the efforts of recent administrations to control our free-enterprise system without destroying it. This has brought the charge of socialism and the assertion that more controls will result in the destruction not only of free enterprise but of all freedoms.

Finally, a considerable section of political thought has been devoted to relations among states. At first states held the belief that they owed no obligations to any except peoples of their own race and religion. Strangers were enemies and had no rights, hence the existence of principles to regulate the relations among states was not admitted. Then after the establishment of the Roman Empire, the ideal of world unity and of supreme authority vested in emperor or pope prevented for centuries the rise of a sound theory of international relations.

However, commercial activities, diplomatic intercourse, and the waging of war gradually developed their own customs and principles. General doctrines were laid down concerning the independence and equality of states, the rights of neutrals, and the methods of carrying on hostilities by land and sea.

Peace under generally accepted rules rather than unregulated war came to be considered the normal relation among states. The nature of treaties, of confederations, and of international law gave rise to much political speculation; and ideals of world empire or world federation and of universal peace attracted the best thinkers of all ages.

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