Governments’ Power in Society and Citizens’ Freedom

The structure of governance has continued to change as society continues to adapt to varying social, political, and economic vagrancies. Today, we have political systems that are completely different from the ones that were prevalent a century ago. It is imperative to note that today’s forms of governments, power structures, and how individual freedoms are guaranteed still depend heavily on scholarly works of ancient political philosophers. This essay serves to compare and contrast the governments’ extent of power in modern and ancient society while drawing heavily on the works of some of the great philosophers.

Perhaps no philosopher revisited the issue of contemporary politics and governance better than Thomas Hobbes. He wanted to address the issues of how individuals could reside together in harmony and peace while at the same time avoiding the fears and dangers of a civil conflict. To this extent, his fears are still witnessed in many governments around the world today. Due to greed for power, we have seen governments falling into the hands of civil strife and mutinies, especially in Africa. A case in point is the failed Somalia government, where different warring clans can never agree to live in peace as one wants to have power and control over the other (“Moral and Political Philosophy”, 2006).

To understand some of the modern governments’ extent of power, let me briefly analyze the Hobbes arguments. One of the alternatives that Hobbes offered for us to be able to live in harmony was by giving our full obedience to a sovereign who is not accountable to us. The sovereign could be an individual or cluster of individuals empowered to decide for us every political and social issue. Another alternative was to enter into a ‘state of nature.’ In this condition of universal insecurity, all individuals have a cause to live in constant fear of death. Human cooperation is not rewarded in this situation (Moral and Political Philosophy, 2006).

Though Hobbes political philosophy has been challenged due to the perception of viewing individuals as purely self-interested, it goes a long way in helping us compare governments’ extent of power between the modern and ancient times, and also in evaluating the exercises of citizens’ freedom. Hobbes suggested that we give our full obedience to an unaccountable sovereign. Such a structure was used widely in ancient times but it is no longer popular among the masses today. It was widely used in the majority of the African governments before the 1990s and in most cases brought forth dictatorial governments due to excesses of power.

The governments’ extent of power was unlimited as they could not be held accountable for whatever they did. This political philosophy brought about strong presidencies witnessed in Kenya, Zaire, Nigeria, and Libya in the ’90s (Kavka, 1986).

Hobbes political thought could not in any way facilitate citizens’ freedom. While using this system, those in power can never be held accountable for their actions. Most ancient governments operated on these principles. The ancient American and British governments revolved around this political thought of governance, whereby the executive wielded a lot of power, vehemently protected by the laws entrenched in the constitution. In Ancient Britain for example, the law was synonymous with the King, who was perceived to be above the law (Tocqueville & Grant, 2008).

This form of the political system is still present in the contemporary world. The president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez uses it widely to amass for himself great power over his people, thus denying them personal freedom. In Africa, Muammar Gaddafi of Libya is the kingpin of Hobbes political ideologies. But democracy, whereby supreme power is completely held by the masses under a non-partisan electoral system is increasingly taking root (Tocqueville & Grant, 2008).

Citizens in countries prescribing to Hobbes political orientations like Cuba and Venezuela do not fully enjoy their fully recognized liberties and freedoms. This is because the leadership of such countries controls every single aspect of the citizen’s life, from social structure, culture, philosophy, and religion. It is not until recently that Cubans were allowed to use mobile phones. In Libya, the government interferes with the religious convictions of its citizens by blocking them from converting to Christianity.

In his second treatise, John Locke gave an analogy to make us understand the issues of power, laws, public good, and governance. He says that God did not give Adam absolute authority over his world and his children. It follows that the heirs of Adam could not claim that authority and thus no one can claim the right to have authority over the world today. By giving this analogy, Locke aimed at denying Sir Robert Filmer’s assertion of the divine right of sovereignty (“Locke’s second treatise”, 2008).

This right has been used by ancient forms of governments, notably the British Monarch, to apportion power to some few individuals who thought they had the divine right to rule their subjects. The traditional African political systems, including the Buganda kingdom, heavily used this assertion to establish kingdoms and fiefdoms around which citizens could be ruled.

In Locke’s view, political power must always be backed by the community for the public good and must include the right to develop laws for the regulation and protection of property (Lock, 1999). To this extent, the modern American government and many other governments around the world can be said to be practicing Locke’s political view as they have passed comprehensive legislation to protect private property.

To define political power, Locke comes up with the ‘state of nature.’ This is a state of equality, whereby all the individuals are free to do as they please and no one has power over the other. But he cautions that there exist some natural laws in the state of nature, whereby universal natural laws are executed by every individual in the state of nature (“Locke’s second treatise”, 2008). Many political systems and forms of governments, modern or ancient have proved John Locke’s assertion of the state of nature wrong. This is because men have always been greedy for power and would want to control other men when given a chance.

Man has never been free to do as he wishes basically because he is bound by rules and regulations, commonly referred to by Locke as natural laws. We are also bound by our social systems, more so by our religions, philosophy, and culture, to act according to their demands.

According to Locke, people are governed and rendered all equal by natural laws. Though such a political theory could have guaranteed contemporary society’s a lot of liberties and freedoms, it is not always the case as these natural laws are not applied equally to those in authority. In Africa for example, it is very difficult for a president’s son or daughter to be charged in a court of law for corruption even when the law should apply equally to all. To this extent, some individuals wield more power and authority than others, thus canceling out Locke’s assertion that every person holds the executive power of natural law (“Locke’s second treatise”, 2008). It is on this premise that most abuses of law are carried out in modern political institutions by those in power.

In his social contract, Jean-Jacques Rousseau purports that men are everywhere bound in chains yet they are born free. The natural birthright of man to physical freedom continues to be suppressed by the chains of civil society. This, according to Rousseau is principal because the political structures around the world contribute nothing to safeguard and enforce the individual liberty and equality promised to individuals upon their entrance into society (“The social contract”, 2008).

When this is put in the context of what is happening around the world today, nothing could be further from the truth. Individual liberties and freedoms continue to decrease as governments tighten their loops of authority and power around unsuspecting citizens. For example, look at the war in Iraq and the extent to which innocent citizens have suffered at the hands of the power mongers. Instead of the Americans contributing to safeguarding the liberties and equalities of the Iraqis, they have continued to take away their freedom.

According to Rousseau, legitimate political power and authority must be assented to by all the masses. This is usually done by entering into a social contract which forms the basis of mutual preservation. Perhaps we can all agree that Rousseau political thoughts have necessitated the creation of sovereign nations around the world. The majority of the governments today are established when a collective assemblage of individuals who by their consent enter into civil society and establishes what Rousseau called a sovereign. Individuals may hold different perceptions and needs depending on their circumstances. But the general will of all the people is better expressed by the sovereign and should encompass all the collective needs of all individuals to provide for the common good of all (“The social contract, 2008).

Accordingly, the creation of the laws of the state must be informed by the general will. The laws of every nation must be developed impartially and must be used to express and facilitate the general will of the nation’s citizens. For laws to be impartial, they must uphold individual freedoms and the rights of equality among citizens. This is not always the case in modern political systems, whereby some laws are passed with impartial interests while others curtail the freedoms and rights of individuals instead of guaranteeing them (“The social contract”, 2008). A good example is the American anti-terrorism laws, which continue to curtail the freedoms and liberties of innocent Muslims.

This political theory forms the basis of most governments’ structures that we have around and also explains the origins of power. The individuals and institutions running the government must be empowered with some basic powers to ensure that citizens follow the law. According to Rousseau, monarchies, aristocracies, and democracies are various forms of governments that could be formed out of this relationship depending on the characteristics and size of the state.

Monarchies have been formed mostly in ancient times while many modern-day governments prefer to form their governments around democratic principles. Monarchies are preferred basically because of their strength and their agility in times of crisis (“The social contract, 2008). The Buganda Kingdom in Uganda is a surviving example of a monarch. Most ancient states also preferred aristocratic governments or the rule by the few. Presently, Libya’s Colonel Muammar Gaddafi and Cuba’s Fidel Castro and his brother offer some perfect examples of aristocracies.

As Rousseau prophesied, the social contract is often abused by governments in their blatant exercise of the powers that have been conferred to them by the general will of the people. This is characteristic of most African governments, whereby those elected to serve in the respective governments go further to use the powers given to them by the electorate to steal and punish the citizens. What happened in Kenya after the deeply flawed presidential elections of 2007 reveals that governments can use the powers bestowed upon them by the masses to kill and maim the citizens, thus effectively curtailing their freedoms and liberties.

John Stuart Mill, in his works on liberty, proposed that society had mechanisms that enabled it to progress from the lower to higher phases, culminating in the emergence of a representative democratic system. This form of government brought about the development and growth of liberty. Society must set its limits through which it can exercise its power over individuals. This according to Mill is civil liberties. Whereas liberty in the past meant protection from tyrannical rule, its meaning has gradually changed along with the roles of rulers, who now want to be perceived as servants of the citizens rather than their masters.

Though such a change of attitude is good on the part of our rulers, Mill cautions that it can bring forth a tyranny of the majority against the minority. This happened in Kenya recently during the hotly contested presidential election of 2007. The masses ganged together and rose against their leaders when public opinions about the election necessitated a rebellion. The Kenyan society became a tyrant when it sought to inflict its values and wills on others. (“On liberty”, 2008).

Mill came up with three types of liberties. First is the liberty of opinion and thought. Second is the liberty of pursuits and tastes. The third is the liberty to join hands with other like-minded citizens for a common goal that does not hurt anyone (“On liberty”, 2008). All these types of liberties go hand in hand with the various forms of government already established. An aristocratic government like the one in Libya cannot purport to offer liberty number three – freedom of association. Some divergent political views cannot be expressed in countries such as Iran, Libya, and Venezuela without censure from state machinery. This, according to Mill is illegitimate as it is morally wrong. Governments must always strive to facilitate the freedom of opinion.

Not long ago, dissenting political voices could not be tolerated in many Africa and Latin American countries. In Kenya for example, political activists with divergent views were exposed to inhuman torture by government agencies. But according to Mill, dissent is crucial to preserving the truth and it allows the masses to articulate and hold some unpopular voices (“On Liberty, 2008). To achieve social and personal progress, individual liberty must always be expressed. It is good that in many modern states, governments are realizing the importance of Mill’s works on liberty and are allowing their citizens to have more of it, especially when it comes to expressing divergent political views. This has brought forth opposition parties, which have helped control the excesses of power by the government.

Mill was of the idea that society only exists to curtail or reduce excesses of behaviors and attitudes that could be detrimental to others. He rejects the concepts of the social contract. In the pursuit of our freedom and happiness, we must, and are obliged to behave in a definite manner so that we defend society and its members from harm. It is thus the responsibility of the society in which we live to curtail and punish actions and behaviors that can harm others. This is particularly true even in modern societies whereby unbecoming behaviors are punished by society through the laid down procedures.

Robert A. Dahl came up with the term polyarchy to describe some form of government whereby power is vested in three or more people. According to him, for collective decisions to be binding, each person in a political community must be entitled to equal consideration when it comes to his or her interests (Dahl, 1972). This form of political thinking is prevalent in the world today, whereby all the voices of the citizens are listened to without fear or favor. The political perception of Dahl is the brainchild of political settlements that have been witnessed in Zimbabwe and Kenya recently where presidential elections failed to produce clear winners.

In his book, A preface to democratic theory, Dahl reveals some conditions which are necessary for ensuring majority rule. He comes up with voting mechanisms and rationalities and how they can be used to propagate democratic principles. Though not necessarily used in ancient times, the voting system is used by nearly all democratic governments in the world to decide who will be delegated with the power and authority to lead others. To some extent, voting is used in some undemocratic systems also like is the case in Iran. The individual with the highest amount of votes gets to be delegated the power to lead.

Policy on government decisions is constitutionally held by elected officials who are routinely chosen and removed through conducting frequent free and fair elections. This is a fundamental exercise in any democratic institution for government power to be seen as legitimate by the masses (Dahl, 2006). But in several instances, especially in African governments, coercion and vote-rigging are prevalent. The resulting governments lack the will of the people to govern. A case in point is the government of Robert Mugambe of Zimbabwe.

Other characteristics of a polyarchy include the right held by adults to run for public offices and the right to vote when elections are held. These are basic principles held by many modern governments in the world today. Polyarchy stresses freedom of expression, whereby individuals are allowed to criticize any government wrongdoings without fear of any reprisals by those in power (Dahl, 1991). This is a new concept in most African governments but it is increasingly taking root. Previously, you could not scold an African president and expect to go scot-free. But this has now changed as most of the African presidents are now open to positive criticism. In western countries, this has been the norm rather than the exception.

Information should not be monopolized by government agencies and any individual have an inherent right to form or belong to independent associations, including political parties. This forms the basis of any democratic institution. Polyarchy guarantees individual rights, freedoms, and liberties to the extent by which no other form of governance can guarantee (Dahl, 1991). Today, it is practiced in the majority of the countries in the world, including the U.S., Britain, Italy, and Spain. It has taken shape in many African and Asian countries except just a few ones like Zimbabwe and Libya.

In conclusion, this essay has effectively reflected on how governments’ extent of power and the citizens’ freedom continue to be informed by the works of previous political philosophers. Comparisons between modern forms of governments and ancient ones about the practice of power and guaranteeing the freedom of citizens have been extensively covered. The essay has effectively shown how full obedience to the sovereign brings about abuses of power basically because those in power can never be held accountable for their actions. Full obedience has also curtailed the rights and freedoms of citizens, both in ancient and modern governments.

The essay has continued to show how political power must be backed by the community for the public good and how laws must exist to guard against the excesses of power. However, when abused, such laws continue to bind man in chains therefore effectively curtailing his freedom.

It is also worth mentioning that any political power must be assented to by all the masses for it to be seen as legitimate. Often, this is not the case in many governments around the world. Society must always set the limits through which it can exercise its power over individuals. This would guarantee their basic freedoms and liberties. The essay has also effectively tackled majority rule and its justifications for power and individual freedoms in modern society.

Works Cited

Dahl, R.A. A Preface to Democratic Theory. The University of Chicago Press, 2006. ISBN 9780226134338.

Dahl, R.A. Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition. Yale University Press, 1972. ISBN 0300015658.

Dahl, R.A. Democracy and its Critics. Yale University, 1991. ISBN 978-0300049381.

Kavka, G.S. Hobbesian Moral and Political theory. Princeton University Press, 1986.

Locke, John. The second treatise of Civil Government. Constitution Society, 1999. Web.

“Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil government.” Principles of Political Economy. 2008. Spark Notes. Web.

“On liberty: John Stuart Mill.Principles of Political Economy. 2008. Spark Notes. Web.

“Moral and Political Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes.” The internet encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2006. Web.

The social Contract: Jean-Jacques Rousseau.Principles of Political Economy. 2008. Spark Notes. Web.

Tocqueville, A., and Grant, S.D. Democracy in America. Hackett Publishing, 2000. Web.

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