the origins of government

Would this work as a definition of a government? “An institution designed to outlast individual human beings that operates within a fixed geographical territory; it has permanent fiscal accounts, offices with mutually consistent and complementary roles that are held temporarily by individuals, and real property. It has some authority over all the people and institutions within its territory (where ‘authority’ means the ability to make and enforce rules claimed to be legitimate).”

If this definition works, then Florence had a government in 1300. Dante, for example, held various offices for his city, was paid for his work out of public accounts, made binding decisions while he was a city magistrate, and represented the government abroad. When he was exiled, he left the jurisdiction and employ of Florence; his office and legal power passed to another man.

In Dante’s time, England basically lacked a government. That is not to say that England was disorganized or backward. The English erected great cathedrals, castles, schools, and universities; their leading cities were international entrep?ts; their knights were capable of ransacking France. Nor was England an individualistic and atomized society–on the contrary, people were bound to one another by obligations, often inherited and unshakable.

But there was no English government. A baron was a personal vassal of the king, to whom he owed certain duties and from whom he could expect protection. Each baron had many vassals who owed him duties (as men personally obligated to other men). And each peasant was a vassal of a minor lord, entitled to certain birthrights, such as use of particular fields and woods, but obligated to work the land of his ancestral village and share the crop with his lord. The borders of the realm depended on what fiefs the monarch had inherited; thus the “national” territory might shift with each change of king.

None of the offices of the realm, from monarch to peasant, was governmental in the modern sense. Take Justices of the Peace: they were the closest equivalents of modern police, but they were not paid, trained, or overseen. They were just vassals of the monarch who were morally obligated to preserve the King’s Peace by sword or by persuasion. There was a public treasury, the Exchequer, but it had very minor importance. Even when Queen Elizabeth I ascended the throne in 1558, she was expected to pay for what we would call “government” (e.g., foreign embassies) out of her inherited wealth, rents on the extensive lands that she personally owned, plus some import duties. Her claims to sovereign power were controversial, and in any case, she lacked the personnel, the files, and the budget needed to “govern” in the modern sense.

She did obtain an effective espionage service when Sir Francis Walsingham started paying for secret information out of his own pocket; Elizabeth then authorized him to supplement those payments from her treasury. Even so, the English secret service was really just a group of Sir Francis’ servants and retainers, and he was a personal retainer of the Queen. When Walsingham died, so did the organization.

In men like Walsingham, we see the origins of government. He was a professionally trained expert (a lawyer), not a nobleman with any hereditary powers. He held an appointed office, Mr. Secretary, which he was free to quit. He structured his civil service as a bureaucracy and tried to serve the permanent interests of England as a Protestant state, not merely those of his Queen. However, had Elizabeth married Fran?ois, the Duke of Anjou and Alen?on (as she threatened), then Walsingham would have faced a choice. This Puritan lawyer could have become a personal servant of a Catholic French nobleman, or he could have quit public life.

The medieval case shows that we could have elaborate social structures without governments; that is a relevant conclusion at a time of globalization, when governments are losing authority over fixed territories. It is not clear, however, that we can have elaborate social structures and personal liberties without governments.

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3 Responses to the origins of government

  1. airth10 says:

    Interesting view on government. Thanks for the stimulating thought.

    Perhaps globalization is world government without official offices, yet. Globalization as a government is working in reverse to government of the past. Globalization has in a providential way imposed itself on humankind for reasons of world survival. Later it will concern itself about government offices. But some offices of globalization have already been establish, like the U.N. and WTO. Humans are still feeling there way in creating other offices of globalization.

    Perhaps what I have said about globalization as a government doesn’t make total sense but I think it is something worth exploring and watching if it is coming to pass. I certainly think this is what is transpiring.

  2. Peter Levine says:

    From Elin Whitney-Smith, via email

    The lack or centralized government that typifies the Middle Ages combined with the Catholic Church’s religious monopoly (and its monopoly on learning) created the conditions that ultimately led to the invention of science, the enlightenment, and the invention of capitalism and the amazing wealth of the West.

    Because the Church had a monopoly on religion, a centralized organization and, the right of direct taxation (the tithe), it had an interest in the prosperity of the common people. If a commoner was more successful then the tenth that went to the church was bigger. Therefore the church encouraged technology, learning and entrepreneurship. Monasteries were like agricultural extension services of today. Upper class women as well as men were taught to read and do arithmetic since they were expected to run their estates and supervise the production of goods while men were at war – and men were often at war.

    This all changed with the Reformation and the printing press.

    In the early days of the press (before Luther) the Catholic counties, especially Spain and Portugal had active presses in the common language, and in Latin, Greek, Hebrew and Arabic. With the Reformation the Church lost its monopoly position therefore it began to control information and dictate what could and could not be printed. Printers “voted with their feet” and moved to Protestant countries where the press was not controlled. This meant that the Protestant countries had a glut of printers and printed matter. They became print intensive as the Catholic countries became print poor.

    In Protestant countries the sons of craftspeople were taught to read and to do double entry bookkeeping (education became associated with maleness). They were able, therefore to gain a new way of managing the crafts shop. These are the people who invented capitalism. Women, who, during the Middle Ages, ran the managerial side of the crafts shop (supervising journeymen and apprentices, ordering raw material, and dealing with customers – widows ran the shop and voted in guilds) became associated with the home, the interior and children.

    The push to more centralized government came from the increase in production and commerce which required roads and regulation (currency, exchange, roads and tolls).

    The same thing happened with the industrial revolution. Before the telegraph and railroads people identified themselves with their states or towns not with the nation. Railroads (impossible without the telegraph) knit together a new commercial structure requiring regulation and common standards (e.g. incorporation laws allowing companies to be sued made it possible for them to borrow money, standard weights and measures, and time zones, which are still regulated by the Federal Railroad Administration).

    The push to global government will be similar as commerce needs regulation and standards for the smooth operation of business.

  3. Meelar says:

    On a somewhat more flip note, by your definition, Six Flags operates a government.

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