Culture Before Politics

There is no such thing – in politics or in any other aspect of man’s existence – as a “necessary evil.” If evil is that which rejects what is good and beneficial to man’s life in favor of that which is destructive to the same, on what grounds can it be considered “necessary?” Slade Mendenhall explains as much in the first installment of his essay “A Matter of Necessity,” and his arguments need not be revisited.

Thus, the interest here is not whether governments are inherently evil (as they are not), nor whether they are necessary (as they are). It is whether a perfect political system is even possible. Be aware that I am not questioning whether capitalism is possible – it is, though no society has ever possessed the requisite intellectual culture to actualize it. The question is much more fundamental: is capitalism – by nature, the only political system that fully respects and protects the individual rights of those under its jurisdiction – a “perfect” political system?

The question arises from the very accurate observation that even under a capitalist government, there is no guarantee that some future generation of voters will not elect leaders who usurp the capitalist constitution – no matter how objective and unequivocal its wording. Despite the authority of the public vote being confined only to certain limited matters (as capitalism is a republican, not a democratic system), there is no institutional guarantee possible that would prevent a sufficiently corrupted voting public from forfeiting their own rights at the ballot box by selecting leaders who, having infiltrated the government at enough levels, render the constitutional safeguards impotent and proceed to rot the constitution itself from within. All constitutions can be amended or overthrown, regardless of all provisions to the contrary. The history of republican-democratic governments in the West, particularly in the twentieth century, is a solemn reminder of this unassailable truth.

Yet, one must be careful to ascribe the term “imperfect” to a capitalist system of government when the institutions and legal structures themselves are not responsible for the failure. Just as one ought not blame a firearm being used for murder on the nature of the firearm itself, neither should one fault the nature of a capitalist government for its own fall into a mixed economic or socialist form.

Be it remembered that “perfection” should not be used in its Platonic sense – that is, for a thing to be “perfect,” it must have achieved qualities beyond the realm of metaphysical possibility. How can anything be “imperfect” for not having reached a form which cannot exist? For not having accomplished that which is impossible? Similarly, how can a government be considered “imperfect” for possessing a trait inherent to all governments and impossible to overcome?

The ethical status of any political system rests on a number of criteria, the most fundamental of which being how well that government respects individual rights. Following from that, the government must also provide institutional safeguards to prevent violations of individual rights (statutes and a constitution), and it must also efficiently carry out justice when those rights are violated. The first factor – a government’s respect for individual rights – is absolute and has no variants. Either a government respects the whole of man’s individual rights, or it does not. There is no alternative. The other two factors, however, can have different manifestations, provided those manifestations exist in accordance with the first factor. The first is a matter of ethics – the others, a matter of political science in pursuit of those ethics. (E.g., a government ethically should protect individual rights and provide recourse for their infringement, but political science determines whether that function is best fulfilled by choosing a government’s chief executive by popular vote, through an electoral college, or by the legislature.)

The alleged problem is that, though a capitalist system may perfectly respect individual rights and consist of institutions which protect those rights and pursue justice when those rights are violated, the capitalist government can never protect the individual from changes to those institutions such that rights are violated. A capitalist constitution may hinder encroachments against individual rights, but it can never prevent them fully.

In fact, that the permanence of a capitalist government can never be assured demonstrates no flaw in the institutions themselves. Politics is the end of a long philosophic chain of successive premises and conclusions. They are not primaries which, once instituted, necessarily produce a given outcome in society (despite determinist arguments to the contrary). The foundation of all governments lies in the intellectual culture of a society, and consequently, in the ideas of the individual men who contribute to that culture. No government – whatever its form – can long exist as it does if its nature is contrary to the cultural values of the society over which it presides. No matter how well that government embodies a given philosophy, if the philosophic culture of a society alters, the society itself will alter the government – by election or revolution. Politics is the consequence of culture– not its progenitor.

A perfect government, therefore, is not one which cannot be changed – which is impossible, not to mention contrary to the principles of capitalism (if political figures violate individual rights, then a change becomes necessary to remove them from power). Rather, it is one that best embodies capitalist principles and, one might say, that best resists the corrupting elements that seek to abrogate individual rights. The beginning of a capitalist government, however, is not its constitution, but the intellectual climate of its citizenry. The institutions themselves may perfectly embody capitalist principles, but if the culture of a nation opposes them, the institutions themselves will not last.

To be sure, if a political framework lends itself to being corrupted easily, then one can truly call it imperfect, as it fails to offer proper safeguards to individual liberty. But when capitalism fails in spite of those safeguards, the issue lies not capitalist institutions, but in the intellectuals who set the tone of a nation’s culture.

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