How many sixth-grade civics classes have pushed for the answer to this simple question, “What do you believe?” Debate naturally follows from this simple query, and often it centers on the application of belief, or “What is the right type of government?”
Yet, this question yields only one answer: autocracy.
Let me explain. The question, when argued and continued down their logical paths, lack a sufficient basis to achieve a compromise. The question itself requires one side be “right” and one side “wrong.”
It’s no wonder that the ends of the political spectrum below have yielded dictatorships.
Let’s look at the argument structure of an extreme form of government, using the Socratic method:
Moderate: I think people should be taken care of.
Socrates: And how should they be taken care of?
Liberal: Through government programs, through welfare, and more.
Socrates: What of private industry? Doesn’t that take care of people.
Liberal: Well, sure, but it also requires money. Many people don’t have money. We need to give them the basic ability to take care of themselves.
Socrates: But how? Who will pay the hospital costs or the costs for food?
Socialist: Well, the government will. And, if it needs to, it can take over the institutions that people need to survive — basic goods like food, clothing, shelter and medicine can be taken care of by the government.
Socrates: And what about the people who currently make these things, how will you convince them to provide these things to everyone?
Socialist: We’ll pay for them; the government will pay for them. Through taxing the wealthy.
Socrates: But, if you take away their products to give away and pay them only by taxing them on their wealth, won’t they reach a point when they can’t pay?
Communist: Then we’ll take them by force. We’ll have the people put into collective farming and mining institutions, and we’ll punish the greedy former owners who wouldn’t help.
This is a somewhat extreme example, but it also demonstrates how one thought, when pursued to its conclusion can yield results that deviate far from the intended purpose. It does not matter the side that one takes, left or right, the end result is the same — dictatorship. I chose left, as I lean that way politically, and felt it would remove bias from my analysis.
If the moderate’s primary goal was to take care of people, he certainly lost it by the time he was inclined to punish the greedy former owners of industry and taking over the farms, mines, hospitals, etc. by force. At each point in the questioning, he could have stopped and considered the other side, and reached the conclusion that the criticism had merit and that he can, and should, reach a compromise.
The biggest problem in seeking a logical answer to “what is the right form of government,” or “what is the right way to rule,” is that it gives too much weight to an extreme answer as valid. If we took the above spectrum and applied a simple bell curve, we’d find that the ends have very, very small populations.
There are many well-chronicled catalysts for how modern politics has become more extreme. Journalists are often blamed first for giving voice to the extreme cases, and in seeking to balance extreme viewpoints without acknowledging how far to one side they are.
But, I believe the deeper problem isn’t in presenting extreme problems, but for not dismissing them out of hand for their own illogical nature. For example, if the original stated goal is “to take care of people,” then that goal would become self-defeating when the needs of some are not taken care of while trying to benefit others. In the far right, if the goal is to have private industry take care of everything, then there’s historic evidence that industry will substitute glass for sugar and put sawdust in bread loaves (or, more insidiously, use their wealth to influence and run the government itself).
The well-intentioned sixth-grade civics teacher would benefit from reminding her class that the goal isn’t in finding the “right” form of government. Rather, there is no “right” form of government. The government should be malleable, changeable, able to adapt and fix the problems as they arise. Democracies are best suited for that challenge since debate and compromise are at their core. It is in the act of debate that one can find a maximally beneficial result for everyone.