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Nick Van Baak

On the Weakness of Government The design and purpose of government is a topic charged with bombast and skepticism, and countless great philosophers have left as their contribution to the debate a stance radically different than all the ones before them. The conflict over government can be experienced every time we head to the voting booth, or when inhabitants of dictatorial third-world countries do not. It is generally accepted that the specifics of government can and should vary from country to country, but certain basic structures and paradigms are, as the theory goes, always desirable in government. When considering the governments of ancient Rome and the United States, we begin to see certain idioms inherent in the interaction between ruler and ruled. To be durable and successful, a government ought to be strong enough to withstand the effects of a fallible human nature, but flexible enough to adapt to challenges and outside stimuli. The might of Rome stemmed as much in its early years from her people’s patriotic zeal is it did from her government. The Republic’s military was a collection of volunteers, dropping their plowing and metalsmithing and woodcarving to go defend the Fatherland. In time, however, the enthusiastic farmers found themselves at a disadvantage against the Sabines and the Aequians, two rival clans. One of Rome’s consuls (one of two elected officials who made legal decisions) was trapped without a way to contact the city, rendering the Roman government unable to make decisions – without two consuls, they could only argue. However, they had an option available to them, and, as Livy writes, “it was determined that a dictator should be appointed to

retrieve their shattered fortunes, [and] Lucius Quintius Cincinnatus was appointed by universal consent.” (From Ab Urbe Condita). Cincinattus, who the senators found working on his farm, rose to the highest position of power in the Roman Republic and thoroughly trounced the enemy, handed power back to the Senate, and retired again to his farm. Adaptability saved the Roman Republic. However, it was adaptability that ended the Republic once and for all and established the Roman Empire. Julius Caesar, now famous for becoming the first Roman Emperor, exploited the same loophole that once saved Rome and turned it to his personal profit. Both dictators, Caesar and Cincinattus, gained absolute power, and only one relinquished it. Rome failed the second standard of government, the ability to guard against a fallible human nature. Granted, they lasted five hundred years before someone noticed the self-destruct switch, but the five hundred years after the switch was pulled were a chaotic mess of coup, corruption, capricious leadership, and plain old insanity. This is in no way restricted to ancient Rome – politicians working from greed have caused more damage than misguided nationalism (this is more obvious than you might think – the misguidance of nationalism is usually caused by greedy politicians). No government has successfully averted the structural flaw caused by the introduction of the human element. However, one of the best attempts at holding back the tide can be found in the United States Constitution. The Founding Fathers, having just seceded from an absolute monarch, designed their new government to provide maximum security from tyranny. Their system called for three branches of government that would vie with each other over every decision, intentionally making the government inefficient in order to prevent the loss of freedom. This ostensibly solves the issue of

governmental employees out for personal gain. The United States government is made adaptable through amendments to the constitution. In theory, the system is perfect. But a perfect system would yield a Utopia, and the United States is far from such. So where lies the determining factor? In America, as in all governments, the ability to withstand corruption and the ability to adapt to new situations are contradictory. Any system set up to prevent corruption, checks and balances for example, must be able to withstand the machinations of ambition or greed. And if that system needs to be changeable to be durable, then it is vulnerable. The reverse is also true – any system that is based on adaptability will not be strong enough to withstand corruption. But to resist that corruption is to loose adaptability. So in America, while the Legislative and Executive branches certainly haven’t gained any power over each other, the ability to change has been lost in the endless partisan bickering. Every governmental system can be reduced to a balance: adaptability versus resistance. To achieve one is to lose the other, and either can only result in destruction. Imagine a combination lock on Pandora’s Box, and every day someone tries a different combination. It may take five hundred years, but eventually someone will guess the ‘winning’ number. Eventually, there comes a Caesar to take advantage of that one loophole, and the Republic falls. And that is why Utopia is impossible.