Gettysburg Too

David Cowles

Nov 3, 2022

“To determine if a particular government is operating for the people, we need a checklist. What are the identifying marks of such a government?”

We began our consideration of Lincoln’s 1863 Gettysburg Address (link to that blog here) with his three criteria for legitimate government, i.e., that it must be government…

 

“…of the people, by the people and for the people...”


As I understand government of the people, it refers to what is sometimes called the consent of the governed. A government can govern legitimately only if ‘a critical mass’ of stakeholders acknowledges that legitimacy. 


I understand government by the people to refer to the folks who perform the legislative, executive, and judicial functions of government - the ones who pull the levers. 


Do the people enact their laws directly, or does society outsource its law-making function to a representative body (e.g., Congress)? If the latter, are those representatives chosen by a fair and democratic process? Do they themselves constitute a broad cross-section of society?


The powers of the Executive and Judicial branches of government derive from the consent of the governed and the will of the legislature.  Consistent with requisite education and experience, executive and judicial employees should also be drawn from a reasonable cross-section of the population.


Finally, government for the people refers to policies that work to the advantage of society broadly without unduly burdening any one segment. 


To determine if a particular government is operating for the people, we need a checklist. What are the identifying marks of such a government? 


  • The State protects its population from invasion, from crime, and from every other unreasonable and avoidable threat to life.


  • Human rights and civil liberties are codified and extended to all citizens equally; these rights include freedom of expression, freedom of association, and the freedom to engage in industry, commerce or professional life in ‘pursuit of happiness’.  


  • All citizens are entitled to participate fully and without prejudice in the economic and political life of society.


  • So far as practicable, all citizens are guaranteed access to a ‘minimally acceptable standard of living’ which includes access to quality education and healthcare as well as food and shelter.  


  • Policy decisions are made and executed at the most decentralized level possible: by the individual, the family, the neighborhood, the association, the community, and by the State only as a last resort. “He governs best who governs least.”


  • Individuals are permitted, without unnecessary interference, to work and sell their labor and/or their work product to the highest bidders, to invent, to market, to invest, to employ and to enjoy the fruits of their labor.


So how do things stand today, 160 years after Gettysburg? Here’s a midterm report card: 


  • Most, but not all, Americans consent to be governed. 


  • For the most part, Americans do not govern themselves directly. Instead, we elect legislators and chief executives. The election franchise is broad, if not quite universal, and historically at least, elections have run smoothly. 


  • However, our elected officials do not represent a broad cross-section of society. We have created a Governing Class from which our rulers are chosen. Like the guardians in Plato’s Republic and the politburo in Communist states, we curate our governors to govern us. By education, training, and experience, we have created a new aristocracy of the powerful. 


  • We entrust the levers of government to the Civil Service, aka the deep state. Demographically, our civil servants do represent a reasonable cross-section of the population; on the other hand, they also form a Bureaucratic Class which of course is its own ‘special interest’. 


  • So much for the process and structure of government; what of its policies? Of course, this will always be a work in progress but, good news, our values (above) are informing our deliberations on some important policy matters:


  • How do we protect our borders and minimize crime without compromising human and civil rights?

  • How do we balance the right of new human life to be born and nurtured with our commitment to the welfare and personal freedom of pregnant women?

  • How do we fund constructive government programs without depriving anyone unduly of the fruits of their labor?

  • Finally, how do we make it as easy as possible for folks to participate in our political process without compromising election integrity? 


 

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