[Editor’s Note: Bill is taking a break from his diary today so we’ve pulled something from the archives for you. Enjoy]
We have been disappointed with political ideas and theories of government. They are nothing but scams, justifications, and puffery.
One tries to put something over on the common man…the other claims it was for his own good…and the third pretends that he’d be lost without it. Most are not really ‘theories’ at all…but prescriptions, blueprints for creating the kind of government the ‘theorist’ would like to have. Not surprisingly, it is a blueprint that flatters his intellect and engages his imagination.
But it does not answer the critical questions: why do we let other people tell us what to do; are we not all equal? What is the purpose of government? What does it cost, and what benefits does it confer?
You may find these questions have drifted far afield from our usual fare. But they’ve been on our mind. We’re coming up on a major election in the US. Several men have come forward offering to take charge of the US government. Maybe it would be worth wondering what it is that they are taking charge of. And since our daily letter is free, we feel entitled to write whatever we damned well please.
Government is a fact. It exists. It is as common as stomach gas. It is as ubiquitous as lice and as inescapable as vanity. But what is it? Why is it? And what has it become?
We know very little about the actual origins of government. All we know — and this from the archaeological records — is that one group often conquered another. There are skeletons more than 100,000 years old, showing the kind of head wounds that you get from fighting. We presume this meant that ‘government’ changed. Whoever had been in charge was chased out or murdered. Then, someone else was in charge.
Tribal groups, or even family groups for that matter, probably had chiefs. They could have been little more than bullies…or perhaps respected elders. Over the millennia there were probably as many different examples of primitive government as there were tribes.
Some elected their leaders. Some may have chosen them randomly, for all we know. Many probably simply conferred leadership by consensus. Some probably had no identifiable leaders at all. But it seems to be a characteristic of the human race that some people want to be in charge…and many people want someone to be in charge of them.
In adversity, there was probably an advantage to having a leader. Hunts were often collective enterprises. There were also group decisions to be made…about how food was stored up or rationed out, for example, that would affect the survival of the whole group. Under attack from another group, a strong, able leader would make the difference between life and death.
We can guess that people enter into leader/follower roles today because they are programmed for it by evolution. Those who can’t or won’t…perhaps they died out many millennia ago.
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We don’t have to look back to the last glacial period to see what happens in small political units. We can see them today. They are all around us.
Every church has its governing board. Every community has some form of government. Every corporation…group…club…every place where humans get together seems to develop a political/social order. Rules evolve. Leadership arises. Informal groups typically yield to the strong personality. Juries try to control it. Families resist it. Dinner parties try to avoid it.
But that’s just the way it is. Some people seek to dominate. Others like being dominated.
Trouble is, there is usually more than one person or one group that wants to do the dominating. This leads to conflict. Treachery. Murder. Rivalry. And elections. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We’re talking about the origins of government and trying to guess what they were like.
On a small scale, we conclude, they were both extremely variable in form…and extremely limited in scope. That is, how much governing can you get away with in a small group? Not much.
You can boss people around, but they won’t take too much bossing. And there is always a rival who is ready to topple the big boss if he should lose his popular support.
In a tribal setting, we imagine that the strongest, fiercest warrior might have been able to set himself up as the governing authority. But he could be stabbed in the back as he slept…or even shot with an arrow in a hunting accident. Even in the best of circumstances, his reign wouldn’t last much longer than his own strength.
In a small town, government proceeds tolerably well. There is not much distance between governors and the governed. The latter know where the former live…and how they live…and how little difference there is between them. If the governors overreach, they are likely to find themselves beaten in the next election…or in the middle of the street.
But as the scale increases…as the distance between the governed and the governors increases…and as the institutional setting grows and ages…government becomes a bigger deal. More formal. More powerful. It can begin governing more effectively.
The first large-scale, long-term government we know about was in Egypt. After the unification of the upper and lower kingdoms in about 3100 BC, the dynastic period began. It continued for three millennia, not ending until the Romans conquered Egypt in 30 BC. We don’t know exactly how government worked during those many centuries, but we know that a theory of government arose out of them. At the time, it was not considered a theory at all, but a fact. The ruler was divine. A god.
As a theory, it is a good one. It answers the question: why should you take orders from another human being? In Ancient Egypt, the question didn’t arise. Because Pharaoh was not another human being. He was something else. Precisely what he was…or what people thought he was…is not clear. But the archaeological record shows that he was treated as though he was at least a step or two higher up on the ladder than the rest of us. If not a full god, he was at least a demigod…a missing link between man and the heavens.
If that was so — and who are we to doubt it? — the theory holds together perfectly well. The divine authority is transmitted from heaven to man via his intermediary…the pharaoh.
You might think that would be the end of the story. It was not. There were Asiatic settlers moving in the delta area — the Hyksos — who apparently had a different idea. And the Thebans. And the Nubians. And the Assyrians. And the Hittites. And hundreds of years of internal warfare against dozens of different groups…not to mention the struggles within the divine families themselves.
If God had wanted his man on the throne, you’d think he would have done more to help him. Or at least you’d think he would have been a little clearer about who His man was. Why let people guess and rumble, trying to decide who is really God’s choice? But who can figure out the mind of God? Maybe the whole divinity hypothesis was just a lie. Maybe God liked to see His man get a workout. We can’t know.
Pharaohs may have lived like lords. They may have governed like gods. But they died just like everyone else. And after the 31 dynasties, as counted by Menes, the whole system was kaput. Cleopatra Ptolemy got herself rolled up in a carpet so she could spin out at the feet of Julius Caesar. She had a child by him…but then went over to Marc Antony’s side. That proved a mistake. Caesar’s nephew, Octavian, was better organized and a shrewder politician. Antony’s army was beaten at Actium.
But the idea of a divine ruler survived. Antony had already begun to feel the blood of divinity pumping in his veins. And then, after he was out of the way, hardly had the half-god pharaohs gone to their graves in Egypt than the half-mad Caesars in Rome started to sprout wings…
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