Popular Science Monthly/Volume 46/December 1894/Editor's Table
THE NATURE OF POLITICAL AUTHORITY.
PROF. R. T. ELY, in an article entitled Fundamental Beliefs in ray Social Philosophy, contributed to the October Forum, raises the question, "What is the source and sanction of the authority of the state?" "Is the state," he goes on to ask, "a mere aggregate of individuals accomplishing their purpose simply by brute force? Does might make right? If it does, then is not the question between anarchy and its opponents simply a question of superior force? But if might does not make right, what does make right? Has the state an ethical nature? If the state is itself nonethical, can the power which it exercises have an ethical element? But if it is devoid of an ethical element, can it rest upon anything less than mere brute force?" This is rather a long string of questions, and the professor tells us that he will not attempt to answer them; but he observes that if the state is a divine institution and derives its authority from God, "then we have a ground of opposition to anarchy." Otherwise—he evidently means us to infer—our ground is very weak.
It seems to us that this is a good example of the confusing of a comparatively simple matter by the introduction of what Auguste Comte would have called "metaphysical" considerations. Let us take the several questions as they come. "Is the state a mere aggregate of individuals accomplishing their purpose simply by brute force?" Answer: No, the state is an aggregate of individuals whose views in regard to what is a desirable constitution of society are in the main harmonious, and who have no occasion to use brute force except upon a certain limited number of stupid offenders against laws which, in their general operation, make for the good of the community as a whole. "Does might make right?" Answer: No, might does not make right, but it is an excellent thing for giving effect to what the upholders of social order believe to be right. "If it does, then is not the question between anarchy and its opponents simply a question of superior force?" Answer: No, for if might makes right (which is the hypothesis), then right as well as might is on the side of the state. "But if might does not make right, what does make right?" Answer: The only way to "make right" is to do right actions. Right is something that can never be more than approximately attained; but we hold that social order is right because it secures, or at least makes possible, the happiness of the great majority of human beings, and deprives none of happiness save those whose happiness involves unhappiness to others. "Has the state an ethical nature?" We wonder whether Prof. Ely stopped to consider just what he meant by this question. "The state" has no character apart from the individuals who represent and carry on its action. If it be asked whether these persons, the legislature, the executive, the judiciary, have ethical aims in view, we may answer that in general they have—that is to say, they make, administer, and interpret laws with a general view to the good of the community and to principles of equity between the individual members thereof. So far as this underlying intention is present, the action of the state is ethical; so far as it is absent, is it nonethical. The obligation to be governed by such an intention is one that rests upon each person having public functions to perform individually. He either feels or does not feel individually a sense of duty in connection with his official acts: so far as he does, he helps to make the action of the state ethical; so far as he does not, he deprives it of an ethical character. To lay down the principle that "the state," abstractly considered, "has an ethical nature," is vain for any practical purpose, seeing that the question at once arises, How is that ethical nature to find expression except in the action of individuals, and if these do not carry a sense of duty, or their own "ethical nature," into their public acts, what are you going to do about it?
We suspect, however, that Prof. Ely, in asking this question, really means to ask whether the state has a warrant for undertaking various policies for the simple purpose of "doing good," as the phrase is. If we grant that the state has an ethical nature, he will doubtless infer and ask us to infer that the state should be a knight-errant for the correction of all evils and abuses. From that point of view our answer is: The state is no more and no less ethical than the persons who guide its action, and any ethical nature which it possesses simply represents on a very small scale the ethical nature of the community at large. All this talk about the state and what it could or should do diverts attention from the much more important question of calling into activity the ethical nature of individual citizens. If each citizen can only be persuaded to make himself an ethical element in the fullest sense, the task of government will become much lighter, and many of our social difficulties will completely disappear. On the other hand, if the Government is going to do the ethical business for the people, the outlook is not at all satisfactory: Government will be overburdened, and the ethical nature of the community will not be developed as it otherwise might be; in fact, it will run great risk of suffering partial atrophy.
Finally, we are told that if the state is a divine institution, and its authority comes from God, then we have a good answer to the anarchist; if not, not. The latter is not distinctly stated, but it is distinctly implied. Our answer to this is that "the state" is a divine institution, and derives its authority from God just as much as and no more than the New York Central Railway or any other corporation down to a village baseball club. It may be under righteous or unrighteous control, so may the railway, so may the baseball club. When it enacts dishonest and oppressive tariff laws, it is just as well not to lay too much stress on its divine mandate. On the other hand, when it enacts an honest law for the good of all; when it faithfully carries out its obligations, national or international; when it upholds justice between man and man, we set the seal of our moral approval on its action, but we do not ascribe any special authority to that action on the ground that "the state is a divine institution." We feel instinctively that nothing can be more divine than justice, and when the state succeeds in being just, we simply rejoice that it has been able to approximate to our conception of the divine. The state, in fact, does not, so far as this goes, differ in any respect from the humblest individual citizen who has it in his power to do right or wrong, to place himself in harmony with or in opposition to what he feels to be the will of God.
As to our answer to the anarchist, we need not be so particularly anxious about that. Unless we honestly believe we are in the right in wishing to preserve the existing frame of society, we had better give in to the anarchist and take counsel with him as to how we may remold things "nearer to the heart's desire." If we think we are in the right, we have simply to maintain our position and use what dissuasives we can on the anarchist fraternity. We should certainly be prepared to listen to any arguments they may bring forward that are not of the dynamite order. Society, we may safely admit, is not perfect; and if the anarchist can point out possible improvements, then he is a helper from whom we should not turn away. But metaphysical views of the nature of state can give no help in any practical problem.
Being convinced by the course of recent events that the public needs professional guides in social affairs, the Society for Education Extension, of Hartford, Conn., has projected a School of Sociology, to be opened in the present autumn. Chester D. Hartranft, D. D., is to be its president, and among the lecturers already secured are Professors John Bascom, Austin Abbott, Otis T. Mason, William Libbey. Jr., William M. Sloane, and William O. Atwater, We have long maintained that definite laws underlie the phenomena of human society, or, in other words, that a science of sociology is possible. We should be glad to see a good institution for research and instruction in this field established, and hope that the undertaking of the Hartford society will meet with all deserved success.