The nature of political power

The nature of political power: A working theory of the State must, in fact, be conceived in administrative terms. Its will is the decision arrived at by a small number of men to whom is confided the legal power of making decisions. How that power is organized is rather a matter of form than of substance. It may, of course, be organized in such a way that it cannot, as in Czarist Russia, attain the end which theory postulates for it.

Power, that is to say, is always a trust, and it is always held upon conditions. The will of the State is subject to the scrutiny of all who come within the ambit of its decisions. Because it moulds the substance of their lives, they have the right to pass judgment upon the quality of its effort. They have, indeed, the duty so to pass judgment for it is the plain lesson of the historic record that the wants of men will only secure recognition to the point that they are forcibly articulate. The State is not ourselves save where we identify ourselves with what it does

It becomes ourselves as it seeks to give expression to our wants and desires. It exerts power over us that it may establish uniformities of behaviour which make possible the enrichment of our personality. It is the body of men whose acts are directed to that end. Broadly, that is to say, when we know the sources from which governmental acts derive we know the sources of the State’s will.

But as those sources are not in themselves either good or bad, so the will of the State is in its nature morally neutral. It secures recognition from its members from a wide variety of causes. Some obey from conviction that the particular act is right. To others, the act arouses so feeble an emotion that indifference does not create the sense either of support or opposition. Others, as with the Education Act of 1902, actively oppose because they believe that the given act represents an abuse of power. What we are always given is a series of actions about which we have to make up our minds. The wills of those persons  who form a government coalesce to make a decision and that in its turn becomes the will of the State as it is translated into terms of daily administration.

A view such as this has at least the supreme merit of realism. It admits that acts emanate from persons, and it insists that those persons are subject to the scrutiny of their fellow citizens. It does not postulate the tightness of their acts. It does not even postulate that the duty of inquiry and acceptance will be undertaken by the mass of men. It argues only that the acts of a government are built upon their obligation to labour that the citizens of the State may have full opportunity to realise the best in themselves. That is what gives a moral support to government policy. But it is an hypothesis that can be proved true only by historic experience. The power of government is the right of government in the degree to which it is exercised for the end of social life. There is a note of interrogation at the end of every governmental pronouncement. It is for the citizen to decide in what manner the question shall be answered.

The great advantage of this attitude lies in the importance it attaches to individual personality. For since the State is seeking to realise the fruits of social experience, it must clearly act upon the largest interpretation of experience that is open to it. It can neglect no source that, even potentially, has hints and ideas to contribute. That is the real case for democratic government.

Once every adult member of the community finds unbarred the access to self-expression, there is at least the avenue open to its attainment. That implies two things. It means that the quality of any State will depend upon the degree to which men consciously seek to give the State the import of the meaning they find in their lives. It means, secondly, that the first effort of the State must be to place its members in that situation where the analysis of their experience is creatively possible. Men whose whole lives, for instance, are passed in the daily struggle for bread will not, on any large scale know how to explain why that bread is for them ground from a bitter corn. Every State lives upon the character of its citizens and it can use that character only as it is informed by articulate knowledge.

The State is thus a fellowship of men aiming at the enrichment of the common life. It is an association like others, churches, trade unions, and the rest. It differs from them in that membership is compulsory upon all that live within. its territorial ambit, and that it can, in the last resort enforce? its obligations upon its subjects. But its moral character is no different from that of any other association. It exacts loyalty upon the same grim condition that a man exacts loyalty from his friends. It is judged by what it offers to its members in terms of the things, they deem to be good. Its roots are laid in their minds and hearts.

In the long run, it will win support, not by the theoretic programme it announces, but by the perception of ordinary citizens that allegiance to its will is a necessary condition of their own well being. It must offer them assurances that it seeks to protect that well being. It has no moral claim upon their loyalty save in so far as they are offered proof of its realization.

There is even a sense in which the judgment of State effort ought to be more radical in its nature than the judgment upon other associations. The width of the functions that it exercises, the extent of the power it brings to their control, the difference it can make in the happiness of men-all of these give to its acts a penumbra of significance more vital than that of any other body. If do not obey the injunctions of the Church I can always leave it.

I may suffer social ostracism from those whose friendship I cherish. I may be threatened with anathemas at which i tremble. But so far, at least, as earthly and perceptible consequences are com cerned, I shall be protected in my normal source of conduct by all the resources of law and order. So, too, with any other fellowship to which I choose to belong. It cannot compel me to accept its jurisdiction.

I can even, at certain points, invoke the resources of society against its interference with my actions. With the State, the case is different. I can dissent from its conclusions only at the cost of penalty. I cannot, in any fundamental way, withdraw from its jurisdiction. I cannot, as the world is now organized, appeal from the tribunals it has created. It is the ultimate source of decision within the normal environment about which my life is lived. Clearly, that attaches to its will an importance for me greater than that which belongs elsewhere.

It may choose to tax me out of existence. It may refuse to allow me to practice my religion. It may compel me to sacrifice my life in a war that I believe to be morally wrong. It may refuse me those means of intellectual training without which, in the modern world, I can hardly hope to realise myself. In such a background, the price of power ought obviously to be a special vigilance about its exercise.

It is also, surely, obvious that such a vigilance is to-day worthless unless it is organized. If the m0dern State Were no larger than ancient Athens, the individual citizen might hope to make his voice penetrate to the seat of power. He cannot do so with ourselves.  He may, in concert with others, exercise a pressure to which, in the end, adjustment will be offered. But it is still more urgent that the forms of the State assume such a shape that the power of government can, at every point, be made responsible.

Here the experience of history must in large part be the guide of our methods. Certain ways of governmental life are excluded from the area of acceptance because they have proved incompatible with responsibility. That was the case, for example, with States in which the franchise was bestowed upon a limited class alone. It is the nature of men to identify, over a short period, their private good with the welfare of others.

Unless their conception of the commonweal is subject to external check, its misuse is probable. Power, in other words, is in its nature dangerous to those who exert it and whatever may be the reasons for its extent, they are reasons also for the creation of°safeguards against its misuse.

There is in such a doctrine as this at least a hint of anarchy. It is, in the first place, an individualistic doctrine. It makes the reasonable satisfaction of my impulses the test of institutional adequacy. It insists that if the State exists to protect the interests of other persons, it exists also to protect my, interests and if it fails to do so, it assumes on my part a moral duty to inquire into the grounds of failure.

Further, it urges that the results of my inquiry oblige me to take action. Contingently, that is, analysis of the State may ethically compel me to seek its overthrow. If i hold that its power is being in fact exercised, not for the ends implied in its nature, but for the ends incompatible therewith, the civic outcome of such perception is the duty of resistance. For i am a member of the State in order that, in common with my fellows, I may be myself at my best. I ought not to resist if I am convinced that the State is seeking, as best it may, to play its part  and for most that perception will doubtless result from what inquiry they undertake. I ought not, further, to resist unless I have reasonable ground for the belief that the changes I advocate are likely to result in the end I have in view.

I must, moreover, be certain that the methods  propose to realise my end will not, in their realization, change its essential character men have often enough sought power for good and ended by exercising it for its own sake. But my citizenship is, within the ambit of these precautions, either a moral adventure or it is nothing. It gives me my perceptions of right and wrong. I most truly serve its purpose when I act by the moral certainties it conveys.

This view may be stated in another way. I have, as a citizen, a claim upon society to realise my best self in common with others. That claim involves that I be secured those things without which I cannot, in Green’s phrase, realise myself as a moral being. I have, that is, rights which are inherent in me as a member of society and I judge the State, as the fundamental instrument of society, by the manner in which it seeks to secure for me the substance of those rights. They are, of, course, counterbalanced by the duties I owe in return.

I am given rights that I may enrich the common life. But if those rights fail of realization, I am entitled to examine the State upon the hypothesis that its will is directed to ends other than the common good. I regard its power as force exercised in order to secure those rights. Its moral character is known to me by the rights that it maintains. If I see it make possible a full and rich existence for others, I am justified in seeking to know whether that rich and full existence is open to myself.

I have, in a word, rights against the State because I am a citizen. I am entitled at any given moment to the fullest potentialities it can offer my moral self, the most satisfactory harmony of impulses I can attain. As I have no meaning, save as a slave, without those rights, so the State which fails to secure them for me is devoid of meaning for myself.

Rights, in this sense, are the groundwork of the State. They are the quality which gives to the exercise of its power a moral penumbra. And they are natural rights in the sense that they are essential to the good Life. As the remain unfulfilled,so am i socially not less than personally, deprived of the change to serve the fellowship of men.

A state which neglects them fails to build its foundations in the hearts of its citizens. It becomes known to them liy the maintains  and, over any long period. it wins their by the effort it makes to give those rights unpleasing stance. They are objective as well as natural, in the sense that scientific investigation may be able to demonstrate their necessity for right hying, and the view a social action as reasonably seek to secure their attainment.

It follows from the conception here outlined that this view of rights is a functional one. We do not possess them as avenues of personal enjoyment. We do not realise them because we are only and merely ends in and for ourselves. We possess them because each part of us is suffused with social implications. Whatever we do affects the life about us.

Our joys and sorrows are in a real sense historic events which, minute as they may be in the record of the political fabric, are collectively urgent in the test of its future. By a functional theory of rights is meant that we are given powers that we may so act as to add to the richness of our ,social heritage. We have rights, not that we may receive, but that we may do.

Granted that we shall contribute unequally to the store of social well-being, it is yet imperative that the means of contribution shall be there. Some, doubtless, whatever the barriers in their path, will hew their way to achievement. Others, whatever the powers that are offered them, Will remain historically unrecognizable from the mass of their fellow men.

But any society is ultimately tested by the manner in which it offers avenues of creative service to any who are willing to utilize them. That, broadly speaking, I was the test which France failed to meet in 1789 and Russia in 1917. The rights they recognized were unrelated to the lives of most of their citizens. When the State was challenged, it could not rely upon them to defend a fabric unconnected with the organization of their interests.

This theory of rights sets the perspective of the powers attributed to the State. It claims to be a sovereign organization it has, that is to say, the right ultimately to demarcate the boundaries of its action. The test of such a claim is, in the view here set out, a purely pragmatic one. We have to decide what powers the State should enjoy, and how it should organize those powers, if it is to serve the end implied in its philosophy.

The test of any social organization is not an absolute logic to Which is accorded a prion rightness, but the experience by its members of the logic it maintains. It will, in that aspect, be important to remember that every claim has an historic environment which, more than any other consideration, will explain its substance. It will be important, also, to remember that if the State is in fact that small body of men to whom the actual operation of its will is confided, the analysis of such an ultimate power as sovereignty implies is a far more serious task than when, for reasons here rejected, we assume it to be, in some mystic fashion, the best part of ourselves.

That organization of society is best which is most likely to produce a race of erect minded men. There may be involved in such an effort a single ultimate centre of control. It may be also that the ethical limitation upon the use of power involves an administrative limitation also. That view, certainly, must be maintained by anyone who regards power as in its nature a trust subject to continuous scrutiny because it is subject to continuous abuse.

If the State is known by the rights that it maintains, clearly it needs the power to maintain those rights. But there is always present the danger that a power which exists to secure good may, from its very strength, be used to frustrate it. Certainly the assurance of good intent is no longer adequate. Those who sit in the seat of government must be judged by their elevation of humble and ordinary men.

One other remark must be made. A thesis such as this depends upon the assumption that the average man is, in fact, a political animal. It involves the argument that he can be made to show interest in affairs of State and that such  interest may be made to coincide with understanding adequate to the democratic conduct of affairs. It ought, at the outset of any political discussion, to be admitted that these are large assumptions. Any view of modern society reveals how large is the number of men from whom a sense of the State is absent.

They remain obstinately enfolded in a narrow sphere of private interest. They make no effort not merely to grasp the general stream of social tendency, but even the way in which that stream flows through the particular position they occupy. They view the political conflict as a drama in which they have no part. They show no interest in its actors or its scenes. They ask only that their private fairs remain unfettered by public interruption.

Such  a situation might mean one of two things. It might mean that we can discover a body of persons to whom the guardianship of the State might, as a matter of nature, be entrusted. The relationship between master and slave, which Aristotle commended, might, in that view, he the ideal solution of this difficulty. But in fact we cannot discover  natural  masters and  natural  slaves save by the method of trial and error  and that involves a democratic system of government.

It is, in the second place, clear that the private affairs of men have in fact a consistent public connotation they can be kept unfettered only by attention to politics and not by indifference to them. More urgent, perhaps, is the question of understanding. The complexity of the modern State does not yield its secrets without long study. But if we regard citizen ship as a discipline in which men can be trained, at least its large outlines are intelligible to all who are interested in life itself.

Our error in the past has been to oppose an abstract man to an abstract community, to the common injury of both. The truth is that our immersion in political affairs extends, whether we recognize it or no, to the intimate substance of our lives. The only privacy man can hope to enjoy is that of judgment and even judgment entails consequences of social import.

Men, in fact, are, in their every context, making political decisions and the real question for them is simply to what authority the decision is referable. The complexity, doubtless, means that their judgment can be asked for only on the larger issues and, very certainly, that those issues, to be decided, must be consistently reduced to the simplest terms.

A democracy, in other words, must, if it is to work, be an aristocracy by delegation. But the fact of delegation is vital. Men grow to their full stature only in the environment of responsibility. Their character, as Goethe said, is formed upon the billows of the world. To realize life, they must control life to control it, they must make articulate to their fellow-citizens what intuition they have of the experience they have enjoyed. It is the largest task before civilization to train men to the coherent statement of what their experience implies.