the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world















To govern is to control territory and the population and resources on that territory. A government is simply an institution that governs. Thus, the local, state, and federal governments of the United States are all by this definition governments. The “government” of the People’s Republic of China, by contrast, is not the actual government; rather, the actual government is the Chinese Communist Party, the People’s Liberation Army, and the “government” all working as a system, with the Party the most important element.

Given that governing by definition involves control, it may seem inconsistent that the territory of, for example, Los Angeles can be said to be under the “control” of four different governments — the United States, the State of California, the County of Los Angeles, and the City of Los Angeles. In fact, though, the four exhibit a division of labor. Only the United States deals with foreign policy and border control. Only the State of California sets the speed limit and issues driver’s licenses. The federal government, having the most power, also has the most say in the division of labor, but that is a situation that has evolved over time.

A paramount government is one not answerable to any higher government. In this view, the European Union is a paramount government, and its member states are not. An independent government is one with ultimate control over its own affairs, including the ability to end any relationship with other governments to which it might voluntarily be answerable. The member states of the EU are thus, for now, independent; the EU itself is not. And the states of the US are neither paramount nor independent.

Both the US and the EU are examples of federations. A federation is a government formed by the union of other governments. Most states have administrative subdivisions, but those states are not considered federations unless those subdivisions have significant independent power. What qualifies as “significant independent power” is necessarily a heuristic matter. But as the word ‘federation’ is generally understood, the subdivisions of most independent states do not have such power; their power is dependent on the larger state. Counties in the US have that same dependent relationship to the US states; a county is simply an administrative arm of the state.

A state is the social and territorial system defined by a system of government, including all of its population and resources; it is thus also a region defined by a government. A state defined by a paramount government is a paramount state; a state defined by an independent government is an independent state.

A civil law is an enforced policy of a government. No civil law exists unless it is enforced. (In many contexts, of course, civil law is referred to simply as “law”, but there are also logical laws and physical laws that, in context, are likewise referred to simply as “laws”.)

Two other conceptual bodies are referred to as “law” by analogy with civil law, but differ in notable ways. Statutory law is a set of prescriptions by a government, or something claiming to be a government, meant to regulate the behavior of individuals and entities under its jurisdiction or claimed jurisdiction. Statutory law is merely a government declaration unless it is put into force by the government. Unenforced statutory law is therefore no more than a convention. International law is an ill-defined set of agreements (treaties, et cetera) among states or Westphalian entities that establish expectations, mostly for the behavior of states but sometimes for the behavior of individuals. International law is closely analogous to statutory law. Unlike civil laws, international law is frequently not enforced. States will often agree to treaties and then not adhere to them, and other states have no real mechanism but war to make them do so.

Despite the reverence given to it in the United States, the supposed division of governmental functions as “legislative”, “executive”, and “judicial” is not fundamental. The government is a single system which determines the reality within its territory. The legislative function in particular is carried out, and quite obviously so, by all three branches of the US federal government; the distinction between “statutes”, “regulations”, and “rulings” is quite artificial when discussing their effects.

A border, or line of control, is the limit of control by a government. Generally that limit matches with the limit of control by another, neighboring government, but that is not a requirement. In the Arabian peninsula, for example, there are vast desert areas that are unpopulated, devoid of valuable resources (namely oil), and lying in between the controlled territories of the various states. Because the states do not take the trouble to control the desert areas, and have not even agreed on where borders should be, the real borders of the states do not touch, and the lines depicted on maps are not borders at all. That includes most of the straight-line “borders” of Saudi Arabia shown on the map below. In cases where the government controls territory through settlements or networks of settlements, there may be no identifiable line of control beyond simply the edge of settlement.

Each segment of a line of control can be based on a fixed line or not, and based on consensus or not. Fixed lines are those that correspond with immovable physical features, such as rivers, coastlines, or ridges. Consensus borders indicate that the two governments on either side of a line of control agree that their control should end at that line. If consensus, a border can be open or not, and if open, it can be reciprocal or not. An open border is one in which the government in question controls the territory within the line of control, but not movement across the border; a reciprocal open border is one in which both governments permit uncontrolled movement across the border. If the segment is not based on consensus, it can be matched by another line of control or not; in this case, each government’s control ends at the same line, but they do not agree that this line should be the limits of their control. Therefore, the possibilities for line segments of control are:

— fixed, consensus, open, reciprocal
— fixed, consensus, open, not reciprocal
— fixed, consensus, not open
— fixed, not consensus, matched
— fixed, not consensus, not matched
— not fixed, consensus, open, reciprocal
— not fixed, consensus, open, not reciprocal
— not fixed, consensus, not open
— not fixed, not consensus, matched
— not fixed, not consensus, not matched

A shared government is a system of government with identifiable component institutions, at least one of which is, or is a part of, the government in a different state. An example would be the system existing in parts of Iraq during the US occupation; certain territories were under the control of both the US military and the indigenous government in Baghdad, functioning together. Shared governments need not be collaborative; if the component institutions are at cross purposes or even engaged in combat, they still may collectively determine the political reality of a given territory. If two or more institutions constitute the government of a state and none of them is (or is part of) a government elsewhere, then these institutions are simply components of a single government, as described above in the example of the People’s Republic of China.

Just as in general we can distinguish between the empirical and the conventional, in politics, we can distinguish between the empirical and the juridical. ‘Juridical’ is a reference to law. In this case, the law is generally “international law”. Equivalent terms are ‘de facto’ (“in fact”) and ‘de jure’ (“in law”). In essence, juridical is conventional, but the original convention is not among the public at large, but merely among (most of) the world’s states. But then the public at large tends to defer to the authority of the states, so that a convention among states becomes widely accepted among the public.

This contrast between empirical and juridical exists in the use of several different terms: ‘government’, ‘state’, ‘sovereignty’, and ‘border’ all show the contrast; that is, any of them can be used empirically, to describe the world as it is, or juridically, to describe the world as it is imagined to be in the modern international “legal” system. For example, there are empirical borders — the actual line of control separating two controlling governments — and then there are juridical borders — the lines on a map that various governments and the United Nations recognize. There are empirical governments — organizations that actually govern — and there are juridical governments — organizations that are recognized as governments whether they control anything or not (for example, the governments-in-exile during World War II). We must be cautious in our interpretation of these terms when they are used, particularly (but not only) by governments. The definitions given above might not prompt a lot of open disagreement from the world’s governments about what a state is. And yet the world’s governments will ignore that definition when choosing which states to recognize and which not to recognize.

‘Sovereignty’ has the basic meaning of “right to rule”. While the term can be used for actual control or rule, in the present day that is a rarity. Rather, it is used for claims, and those claims in general are not dependent on control. In some cases, owing to historical usage, it is applied to claims within a society, such that the designated “monarch” (whether ruling or not) is said to be sovereign. But most uses of ‘sovereignty’ today refer to a claim over territory within the modern state system. The world is divided into recognized “sovereignties”, and each organization designated as the holder of that sovereignty guards it zealously.

This system is often named in reference to the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, based on the German region (Westfalen) where three treaties were signed (the Peace of Münster, the Treaty of Münster, and the Treaty of Osnabrück), ending several intra-European wars and formalizing the future interaction, including mutual recognition, between the formerly-warring states. As Europe conquered most of the world, its internal system was transformed into a world system. Today this has been further formalized in the United Nations. It is crucial to understand, though, that the Westphalian system, despite its pretension, does not deal with actual governments and states; it deals with recognized governments and states, many of them fictional, in the scope of their territorial control or their very existence. Modern sovereignty is essentially a franchise within the Westphalian system, with each state or supposed state acknowledging the sovereignty, within a designated bounded region, of every other state or supposed state. The Westphalian system is the basis of the country model.

International law frequently makes reference to an agreement signed by most Western Hemisphere states in Uruguay in 1933, known as the Montevideo Convention. The convention declared that there were four requirements to be a state: (a) a permanent population; (b) a defined territory; (c) government; and (d) capacity to enter into relations with the other states. For the most part, these are verifiable (empirical) qualities, and notably, the convention specifically denied that recognition was a part of statehood; in other words, the juridical system we have today, in which “states” only exist when they are recognized, is inconsistent with what is supposed to be an important foundation of the modern state system.

The world is full of examples where the empirical and juridical clash: because states exist but are not recognized; because governments are recognized but do not govern; because juridical borders are recognized but do not exist; because juridical and empirical borders do not coincide.

The head of government is the most powerful official in a system of government. Formal title does not matter, even if that formal title is ‘head of government’. “Head of state” is not a meaningful role. To contrast the president and prime minister of France as head of state and head of government is mistaken; the president is both. Likewise, the head of government in Iran is not the president, but the Supreme Leader (ولى فقيه « Ŭalī Faqīh » / رهبر « Rahbar »). One mark of an institutionalized government is that the head of government is also the person holding whatever is nominally the position that directs the government. The fact that Vladimir Putin has been the head of government in Russia regardless of whether he was nominally president or prime minister indicates that the Russian state is not particularly institutionalized.

The governing class is the subset of the state’s population that participates in making government policy. Each state also contains a subject class, the complementary subset that is subject to the state’s power but not a part of its governing class. Democracy is impossible to define as a binary. Rather, states are more or less democratic as their governing classes are broader or narrower. Similarly, dictatorship and autocracy, both essentially referring to rule by a single person, are never absolute; even Stalin and Hitler did not make every government decision, though they did obviously have extraordinary concentrations of power. In modern terms, we can at least consider a state undemocratic if significant numbers of adults are excluded from decisionmaking (that is, voting).

In any state, there are three basic strategies for governance, three general ways of ensuring compliance: persuasion, co-optation, and coercion. For non-democracies, we can put the strategies in plain language: myth, greed, and force. The government persuades by means of a public justification. For democracies, this public justification can simply be the truth: that democracy is a fair system of making decisions. For minority governments, the public justification must be a myth, meant to convince subjects to comply without a natural reason to do so, while some in the governing class know the truth. What is the cheapest way to ensure compliance for any individual? Persuasion is the cheapest strategy overall, so we can expect it to be attempted first with any person. If a person is persuaded, no further effort is necessary for compliance.

Governing believers and subject believers are the respective members of the governing and subject classes who believe the government’s public justification. They comply because they feel that persons in general, and they themselves in particular, should comply with the government (whether understood as any government, or this government). The meaning of this varies significantly depending on the type of government. For instance, for a minority government, the government’s public justification is a myth; and yet, the governing and subject believers are persuaded anyway. This means that the subject believers have accepted that they owe a duty of compliance to a government which they have no influence in. And it means that the governing believers are taken in by the myth of their own superiority — that there should be a restrictive governing class, to which they themselves belong. For those who are not persuaded, the question becomes what strategy effectively ensures their compliance. (If they are not in compliance, then they are not actually members of the state.)

Governing beneficiaries and subject beneficiaries are the respective members of the governing and subject classes who do not believe the public justification and are instead brought into compliance through the provision of some benefit. Again, the nature of these individuals is much affected by the nature of the government. In a minority government, the governing beneficiaries are the classic régime insiders. They are aware that the public justification is a myth; they have probably played a large role in crafting and selling that myth, for therein lies their own power, and the spoils they are able to take from the system. The subject beneficiaries lack that power and lack faith in the government as well, and have simply been bought off. The most common characterization of governing beneficiaries in a democracy is “cynics”; they do not believe in democracy, but have successfully learned to manipulate it to their own ends.

The governing coerced and subject coerced are the respective members of the governing and subject classes who do not believe the public justification and are brought into compliance through force. As might be expected, the governing coerced are only a factor in democracies, where individuals may not wish to comply with the government, but do have the vote — a small degree of influence, not enough by itself to buy compliance. The subject coerced are the dissenters, regardless of the type of government — not convinced, not feeling personal benefit, not given a role in government. Obviously this last group is much larger in non-democracies, often the largest group in society.

A political party is an institutionalized interest group organized for influencing and especially capturing the government. While conventionally we imagine this through peaceful means, rebel groups act with the same motivations and share other characteristics as well, and generally rebel groups use conventional, peaceful means in addition to arms. If rebel groups do not run candidates for office, that is usually because they are prohibited from doing so, and many violent groups have nominally-independent wings for the purposes of conventional politics — the Irish Republican Army and Sinn Féin, for example. Euskadi ta Askatasuna (ETA) played a cat-and-mouse game with the Spanish government, as the latter closed down one political arm and ETA formed a new one.

The governing party is the interest group that actually controls the government. The identification of the governing party is in part an identification of which interests are actually represented in the control structure of government. Any pair or all three of the government, the governing class, and the governing party may be coextensive in a given situation, but their distinction, and their relative sizes, can help us classify states. In a democracy, the governing class is the electorate, the governing party will exclude much of the electorate while potentially including non-citizens, and will exclude much of the institutionalized government, whose bureaucrats and armed forces should theoretically be loyal to the governing institutions, regardless of the occupants’ party. A government with a narrow governing class may nonetheless establish a mass party for the organization and creation of subject believers and perhaps for the organization of subject beneficiaries as well. If a state is not well-institutionalized, it is often possible to speak of a political party being the government; government and governing party are the same.

The function of a government’s armed forces is the implementation of government policy by force. The armed forces can be and frequently are divided by function, but fundamentally they are one. The typical division into police (use of force internally) and military (use of force externally) is blurred even in relatively-stable states, such as for temporary control of unrest. In unstable states, the division is frequently not observed.

Because government plays such an important role in society and even our perceptions of society, it is important to have a clear understanding of the politicization of concepts and terms. This includes the contrast between the empirical with the conventional. But on the subject of politics, we need to be explicit about a similar (but narrower) contrast: between things as they are, and things as certain people say them to be. The conventional is by definition a matter of some broad agreement. But on the subject of politics, the pronouncement of things to be one way even though they are another may be quite important even though the people saying so are relatively few. And it does not serve the cause of empiricism to equivocate on what those people are doing. Some of them are simply confused or ignorant, but a fair number of them are lying. The idea of deception as a part of politics is broadly familiar; indeed, the advantage that deception can bring makes it almost inevitable. But at issue are social matters more fundamental than the common lies told as part of electoral campaigns. And it is important to distinguish any such claim of governments lying from conspiracism and from blanket anti-government ideology of either the political left or the political right. Governments aren’t inherently bad; some of them, judged either by honesty or by common (but debated) concerns such as freedom and equality, are rather good. The point is to be cautious and skeptical both about claims made by governments, and claims made about governments, whether from political allies or political opponents. But this is just an extension of the general rule to be cautious and skeptical about claims, period.



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