Lessons from history on the nature of government...
Certainly, either the Egyptians had some doubts themselves, or they were among the most impious people who ever lived. Pharaoh was supposed to be a god. He was supposed to be in charge of everything, even the annual flooding of the Nile, the weather...life, death, you name it. But that didn't stop him from getting the old heave-ho from time to time. Rival groups didn't wait for God to decide who would sit on the throne. Men fought it out.
We don't have any way of knowing about the pharaohs' divine bona fides. We just note that as a theory of government, it does the job. Government claims the right to tell you what to do. Using the blunt instrument of 'government' some people are able to categorize, regulate, tax, inspect, dragoon, conscript, enslave, bully, incarcerate, murder and push around other people. Why do the other people stand for it? That's the general subject of these little reflections.
There must be at least 10,000 commandments that Americans are expected to obey. The IRS code probably has that many alone. We cannot build a house or cash a check without fulfilling hundreds of (often invisible) requirements. We pass through an airport and we submit to indignities, usually without question. We know the TSA agent is a moron. But "dress'd in a little brief authority," as Shakespeare put it, "most ignorant of what he's most assur'd, glassy essence, like an angry ape, plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven, as make the angels weep."
Whence cometh that authority is our question.
If it comes from God, who are we to question it? We accept God's authority, at least when He's looking. And if Pharaoh were divine, we would have certainly buckled to his power too. How could we do anything else?
And yet, many people did not. For the two thousand years of the 30 dynasties, men killed each other to determine who would hold the pharaonic power. The last of them was clearly an interloper. The Ptolemies weren't even Egyptian. They were Greeks, who conquered Egypt with Alexander. Then, finally, Julius Caesar and his nephew Octavian put an end to the divine tradition in Egypt forever. God either abandoned His man on the Nile, or he is playing tricks with us.
Caesar took the role of emperor of the whole Roman world. He did not seem to be too concerned about the theory of it. People bowed to him and paid tribute. That was how an empire worked. And he never had too much time to think about it anyway. He was cut down on the Ides of March at the age of 55 in 44 BC.
But the appeal of divinity did not die with the Ptolemies. Four score years after Cleopatra's death the emperor Caligula declared that he was a god. This didn't seem to take him very far. Romans came to the conclusion that he was not divine at all, but insane. He was murdered soon after by his own guards.
Rome struggled on for another 4 centuries. If there was a theory to dignify one man's bending to another we aren't aware of it. It was considered normal and natural. Those who got control of the government of Rome were able to exercise the rights of governors. They were victors on the field of battle...and in the halls and assemblies of Roman government.
What did they do with this power? "Ad victorem spolias." Simple enough. You defeat someone. You take his stuff. His land. His wife. His children. At least there was no humbug about it. And the rules were simple. Government operated its naked form. As Mao described it two millennia later, political power came "from the barrel of a gun," not from the Rights of Man or the Social Contract.
In the exploits of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane, too, we find a very pure form of government at work...and a very clear theory about it. Genghis announced his theory of government as follows:
"Man's greatest good fortune is to chase and defeat his enemy, seize his total possessions, leave his married women weeping and wailing, ride his gelding, use his women as a nightshirt and support, gazing upon and kissing their rosy breasts, sucking their lips which are as sweet as the berries of their breasts."
Tamerlane was no less direct. He saw government as a legitimate enterprise. He raised troops with the intention of conquering other peoples and replacing their governments with his own. His warriors were paid in booty — jewels, coins, horses, women, and furs. He was paid in loot, tribute and taxes.
This is not to say that there was anything wrong with running a government in such a way. We are not giving advice or making suggestions. We are just trying to understand the essence of what government is.
In the case of Egypt, people listened and obeyed — at least, as much as they did — because Pharaoh was, in theory, a god. In the case of Rome — with the exception of Caligula's claims — and the Mongol empires, the theory was similarly simple, though different. Tamerlane made no claim to divinity. He merely made it clear what he would do to you if you resisted him. Towns that submitted were generally governed passably, according to the standards of the day...and taxed, but not razed to the ground. Those that contested his authority were destroyed, often with all the inhabitants killed.
In Rome and out on the steppes, those who controlled the 'government' were in the favored position. They could reach out and impose their will on those who were not favored. Which is exactly what they did. As long as they were able, the insiders took from the outsiders. In both cases, the outsiders were literally outside the ruling group and its homeland.
This is perhaps a good point to introduce our new theory about what government really is. It is a phenomenon, not a system. It is best understood as a fight between the outsiders and the insiders. The insiders always control the government...and use it to conquer and control the outsiders. Why do they want to do so? The usual reasons. Wealth. Power. Status.
Everybody — or everyone who isn't either feebleminded or a saint — wants wealth, power and status. And the easiest, fastest way to get it usually is to take it away from someone. That is government's role. Only government can take something away from someone else lawfully. Why? Because governments make the laws.
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