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Government  and  Society

David Mercer

In ancient Rome, being a senator did not make you powerful, rather, being powerful made you a senator.  If the Senate had not existed at all, the same men would have ruled Rome, and so it is with all governments.  Government reflects the power structure of society; it does not dictate it, nor does it empower those people who would otherwise be powerless.  The purpose of government is not, as some would have you believe, to serve the people.  Governments are established by those already in control to maintain their position and power.  It resists and delays changes to society's underlying power structure, but when it comes into conflict with society, it must inevitably give.  This "give" can be either peaceful, as when the Roman Senate gave way to the triumvirate, or violent, as when the triumvirate yielded to the empire.

I am not meaning to imply that there is anything evil or sinister about governments.  On the contrary, even the harshest of governments can be a good thing.  The feudal system, which resulted from the demise of the Roman Empire, made life miserable for all but those very few at the very top, but such was the necessity of the times.  Under invasion from barbarian hordes, a strong defense then and there was the only alternative to enslavement or death, and the tools of this defense rested in the hands of the very few skilled horsemen.  The feudal system reflected this reality.

Our modern state is vastly different from the medieval fiefdoms.  I am going to explain how we got from there to here, and how our way of life is now threatened by our apathy and complacency.  In the end, we must decide what sort of society we desire and act accordingly, or someone else most assuredly will.

For over a thousand years, from Adrianople to Agincourt, the source of power changed very little.  Little mattered more than the ability to fight.  If you could fight and fight well on horseback, you mattered; if you could raise and lead armies of such men, you mattered more; and, if a career in the infantry as a foot-soldier is what you desired, go back to the fields and plow for those who matter.  The simple fact is that between 378 and 1415, not one major battle in Europe was decided by the foot-soldier.  This decidedly undemocratic reality was made even more elitist by the cost: it cost the equivalent of a quarter million of today's dollars to fully arm a horse and knight.  Ideological judgments aside, this was the reality of the Middle Ages, and you could either choose to live by it, or you could die.

But in 1415, something unusual happened.  On a field near Agincourt in northern France, Henry V's army defeated a vastly superior French army of mounted knights.  The difference: Henry's longbowmen.  This turned war on its head!  Suddenly, commoners were needed to man the new armies, and the knights and nobles were no longer the only show in town.

The change to society was slow, but technology helped to accelerate it.  What the musket lacked in accuracy, it more than made up for with its simplicity and ease of use; and, when attached with a bayonet, it could also serve as a pike or sword.  Commoners could not only serve in armies, they could now raise their own armies to rival any the nobles could put in the field.  Society was changing, and anyone who didn't change with it was likely to find his head separated from his body.

Around seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, another change took place.  National boundaries solidified and war became less commonplace.  In this new society, even if war did break out, it affected the commoner very little.  Wars were army against army, the victors rarely took slaves or burned villages, and it hardly mattered the nationality of the government to which you paid your taxes.  In this tranquility of relative peace, a new elite emerged: of intellectuals and philosophers, writers and lawyers.

While a few centuries earlier, for fear of being called to prove it by an irate swordsman, no-one would have dared claim that the pen is mightier than the sword, this new elite bragged of it.

And they were both right and wrong.  Whereas armies once followed a strong leader, they now moved at the stroke of a pen.  But therein lies the problem: the pen has no inherent power of its own, but it relies on its ability to manipulate swords.  An artful writer can persuade, cajole, or threaten men into action, but, in the end, if the men don't move, the pen is impotent.

Lawyers recognize this and have taken great pains to create a system in which the armies move at the stroke of their pens.  But even in this country, when Supreme Court ruled that the forced migration of the Cherokees from South Carolina was unlawful, President Jackson expressed the reality with the rejoinder, "You have made your law, now let's see you enforce it."    The Indians were subsequently removed to Oklahoma.

The pen is only as strong as the swords behind it.

When we are urged by the lawyers and great penmen of Time-Warner Inc. and CBS to lay down our arms, the pens we pick up in their stead have run out of ink.  Where we give up our swords in favor of pens, we create a power vacuum to be filled by those who haven't: criminals and the police.

We, collectively, have a choice: what kind of society do we want?  Do we wish that We the People retain the power?  Or do we wish to devolve it to an elite cadre?  This question is not a no-brainer.  Fascist nations, like Singapore, where I spent ten years, do very well in today's competitive world.  The loss of personal power is offset by an increase in wealth and security.  But if we choose to retain our power, we must take measures to secure it to ensure that each one of us has a pen backed by a sword.  Nature abhors a vacuum, and where we leave a power vacuum, someone else rushes in to fill it.  We cannot have it both ways.  History does not long entrust the care of freedom to the weak or timid.

Do not go crawling to the government, crying for protection.  Governments have never served the weak.  Governments are established by those in power for those in power.  If government is on your side today, don't count on it being there tomorrow in your hour of need.

We are now at a crossroads.  The power in society is shifting away from the people, and only the inertia of government, resistant to change, is delaying the correction and giving us a false sense of security.  We must now decide: what we want our society to look like.  We must now decide each one of us because the decision will be made.

History marches on.

David Mercer
June 20, 1995

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