Our society is and has been a malleable creature. It has constantly been evolving and restructuring as we have changed the relationships with our neighbors and our government. As our neighbors came closer and closer, as our cities grew taller and taller, and as our government wanted more and more from us, the format of our political activities attempts to heal whatever ails us. Guided strongly by the philosophers, scholars and politicians that try to critique our successes and failures, we have tried to rebuild our world every time that it fails us. Many believe that our American government is a great culmination of the political successes throughout history. But if you were to ask a panel of our most esteemed philosophers from history – many of whom we have read for this class – would they agree with that? If there were a supreme court of political theory, what would they have to say about the legitimacy of our government?
Let’s name the Dream Team. Like the U.S. Supreme Court, we’ll appoint nine justices: Niccolò Machiavelli, Socrates, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Edmund Burke, Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, and for the ninth we’ll roll all of the authors of the Federalist Papers into one justice. With our judicial board now in place, court is in session. The case: U of M’s Political Science 101 Class v. U.S. Government. The sides have argued, and with the justices left to their own philosophies to render their opinions, they have reached their verdict.
Not off to a great start, Justice Machiavelli votes against the U.S. Government. In his opinion, the leader of a nation must rule in a way where his power is the dictating factor, and much of that power is derived from hereditary rule. With the constant turnover and democratic functions of the U.S. government, the power gained is not true power in his view. Machiavelli also believed that “the ends justify the means,” a philosophy that is highly controversial today and is often brushed aside because of our respect for individual rights. Nevertheless, Machiavelli gives us a thumb down.
Socrates is up next. Justice Socrates, as the “gadfly” of Athens, believed that individuality and opposition were important for a true democracy. He felt that the majority rule of the Athenian senate was wrong, and his life became an attempt to thwart their opinions, including his own trial and death. Here in America, though often many feel their voices aren’t heard by those in power, minority opinions are valued and given consideration in political and societal functions. This is seen in our civil protections from majority, and from the activism of minority in government. Thus, Socrates approves of us.
Unsurprisingly, Hobbes is a solid dissenting opinion. His vision of a social contract is that of a sovereign who holds the responsibility of all those in the society. But since our society does not believe that our sovereign can gain our consent to govern through fear and overall power, we have little to agree on.
Next, Justice Locke sees enough of his own philosophy in the U.S. political system to give it his endorsement. He likes the fact that the democratic functions of America replicate the consent to govern that protects from a state of war. The U.S. protects private property, which Locke also likes. And on top of all of that, Americans believe in the right to revolution. It was the founding act of our country, and as Americans we still hold strong to our right to stand up and assemble in protest.
In a similar fashion to Locke, Rousseau believes that a true legitimate government is the consent to a governing body that acts for the best possible result for all. He can see that the U.S. is a large body under a strong constitution and that it attempts to act with the general will in mind, and can give it his support.
Edmund Burke is a difficult case to determine. Historically, though he is famous for opposing the French Revolution, Burke was actually in favor of the American Revolution. That being said, Burke might not be a fan of the vast reforms, social revolutions, and battles for civil rights and liberties America has experienced since the time of the Revolution. If Burke were to pass his opinion right now, because America still has the same governing body and for the most part our authority has remained at the top of our legislative and executive branches, Burke would reluctantly approve of our political state.
The authors of the Federalist Papers are obvious proponents. They may have had their quarrels with the Anti-federalists about the protection of individual rights, the U.S. Constitution remains as the strongest beacon of our protections from oppressive government. The document that they fought to ratify continues to battle the effects of factions and creates the relationship between the federal and local levels of government to this day. Thus, Madison, Hamilton, and Jay are supporters of the U.S. Government under that document.
Another strong supporter of our current system is Justice Kant. America is famous for its support of free speech and free thought, and Kant is in favor of the ability of each American citizen to reason for himself or herself the correct path within society. Although pragmatically this is not always the case, Justice Kant can see that the U.S. society is one in which the ability to reason for oneself is hardly restricted at all.
Finally, we come to Justice Mill. Like Kant, freedom of expression is important to Mill’s vision of society. Mill feels that no one opinion can be quieted by the majority and that the “tyranny of the majority” cannot usurp the right an individual has over himself. The U.S. is a strong protector of individual rights, and Mill would most likely agree with the protection of minority opinions that are so important to the functions of our politics and society.
The Verdict is in! After much heated debate, the Supreme Court of Political Theory has come to a decision of 7 to 2 in favor of the U.S. political system. While this may not be the actual case in terms of the philosophies of our justices, this hypothetical situation shows us something very important. Our society is a collection of ideas. It is a living, breathing organism that learns and adapts as philosophies and ethical standards change throughout the world and within our own history. We have encountered countless critiques and modifications of our views, and we never cease to evolve.
Plato’s The Trial and Death of Socrates, From Modern Political Thought: Machiavelli (Pg. 10 – 52), Hobbes (Pgs. 118 – 245), Locke (Pgs. 285 – 353), Rousseau (Pgs. 371 – 449), Burke (Pgs. 502 – 521), Kant (Pgs. 522 – 525), Hamilton and Madison (Pgs. 543 – 557), and Mill (592 – 677)
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