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What Is the Purpose of Government?

To Sustain Democratic Self-Government Winning is Not Enough


German Chancellor Angela Merkel was recently re-elected for a fourth term, with the support of a “conservative bloc”. The component parts of that bloc are the Conservative Democratic Union, its Bavarian sister party, the Conservative Social Union, and the Free Democratic Party. This election result ends the Merkel bloc’s coalition with the German Social Democratic Party, known for being the only Party that voted against the Enabling Act empowering Hitler’s dictatorial rule. All these parties now formally reject Marxism. But all except the FDP avow the enigmatic civil union of socialism and capitalism somewhat inscrutably labeled as the “liberal welfare state”. It is telling, therefore, that all proclaim themselves to be rooted in the strength or power of the people, which is to say “democracy”.

Starting in 1949, West Germany was called The Federal Republic of Germany. East Germany went by the name of the German Democratic Republic. In tacit acknowledgment of the fact that the experience of Soviet rule left East Germans with no taste for communism, the reunified country took the name of The Federal Republic. This makes it all the more intriguing that, in Germany today, no significant political party proclaims allegiance to either the republican form, or the Federal character, of The Republic of Germany.

This makes their political obsession with the name of democracy even more interesting. Though the very name “republican” alludes to the belongings of the people, the basic structure and operation of the German government, was never ratified by vote of the people or their elected representatives. In what sense, then, can they count that government among their belongings? Though the German government’s Basic Law deals with human rights, that was not itself authorized in accordance with the primordial political right of the people as a whole, which is the right to a government that formally derives its authoritative powers from the consent of the governed.

By contrast, the preamble to the Constitution of the United States plainly states that the people of the United States “ordain and establish” the Constitution for their self-government. The divisions of power amongst the government’s branches, and between the national and state governments, may thus be said to be properties of their will, reflecting their deliberate sense of the arrangements and activities thenceforth required to implement it in a manner consistent with their constitution, (i.e., the identity that belongs and is therefore proper to them) as one people.

Like Germany, at the time of its founding the United States was accurately described as a Federal Republic. Its Constitution plainly acknowledged that both the lawful authority that ordained (lawfully ordered), and by power established (enforced) it, belonged to the people of the United States. The arrangements for its ratification were such as to produce a result that would only govern (come into force over) the states that unanimously ratified its provisions. In fact, all 13 of the original states did so, and no state was subsequently admitted unless, by vote of the people, it accepted to be governed by them.

People may say that this is a requirement of “democracy”. But on reflection, it actually involves something more complex than the power of the people. Since the US Constitution did not enter into force except over states that agreed to ratify its provisions, majority rule was not, in principle, the basis for the union of the states. Each ratifying act required a vote that could reasonably be construed to represent the will of a simple majority of the citizens of the state in question. But a) a supermajority of ¾ or more of the states was required to bring it into force; and b) even then, it only came into force over those that consented to its provisions. In effect its actual rule would apply only to the states that had unanimously consented to accept it.

The requirement for virtual unanimity in fact means that the adamant opposition of a sufficiently large minority in several states would have been sufficient to defeat ratification. This means, in effect, that a majority is unlikely to prevail unless it avoids the dissent of any combination of minorities distributed in various states in proportions sufficient to bloc approval across enough states to prevent ratification. To win, the simple majority must accommodate minority views; and minorities must recruit their strength broadly enough to safeguard their particular interests.

This is not a situation that allows either side simply to disregard the power of the other. It pushes both toward accommodation, and requires both to articulate their position in a way that offers common ground to at least some of those who are otherwise liable to gravitate toward the opposition. This need to identify common ground is the hallmark of democratic republican government. Its democratic aspect derives from the need to recruit a certain number of people to achieve or thwart majority action. Its republican character derives from the need to pursue that recruitment by clarifying an understanding that highlights what people have in common, not just what divides them from one another.

Realistically, adamantly irreconcilable differences will probably overwhelm this effort. But up to a point, agreement on the way decisions are to be made can help avoid such an outcome. People may acquiesce in an adverse outcome because they see avenues to oppose and reverse them. Yet and still, they will not indefinitely value rules for their own sake, especially not when those rules conflict with the preservation of truly indispensable goods. Here again, however, the tendency is to think of those goods in material terms—as for example, the contempt one reserves for laws that leave people to die of hunger and thirst simply because someone else controls vital resources and cruelly restricts access to them. “

But because we are self-conscious beings, whose survival also depends on a sense of worth that informs and motivates our will, the sense of our own worth also makes a critical contribution to our survival. Whatever acts forcefully to subvert that sense, may pose an existential threat quite as devastating as material deprivation, and sometimes much harder to rectify. People offended in their pride or sense of justice may strongly feel that nothing can repair the injury against them except the utter destruction of its cause, human or otherwise. But the sense of human worth is not easily measured by fixed rules. Rather, it is endlessly affected by longing, fear and resentment. So, the very motives that lead people strongly to seek redress, can make it impossible to find.

There is a remedy for this dilemma. It comes from a conviction of identity, worth and ultimate good that transcends human nature, even as it validates the rules (provisions, measures) that cause us to recognize and cherish our existence as human beings, no matter what our circumstances. But doesn’t such a conviction presume a correspondingly transcendent source, from which the worth and meaning of human existence takes root? Indeed, it does. So, the greatest gift America’s Founders left to their posterity is their acknowledgment, from the beginning, of our nation’s inextinguishable debt to the Creator, God.


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