The Idea of Government

  • A. J. M. Milne


An inquiry into the idea of government must answer three questions: ‘What is government?’ ‘What makes government possible?’ and ‘Why should there be government at all?’1 All three questions need to be answered before we can address the central question of this book: ‘What is the proper scope, and what are the proper limits, of government action?’ The second and third questions arise because government is not necessary for social life as such. Communities of food-gatherers, of hunters and of nomads have existed without it. The third question must also be considered in connection with anarchism, which answers it negatively: ‘There does not have to be government and social life would be better without it’ (see 5.2.3 below). We saw in the last chapter that correlative to the common morality obligation of social responsibility is a corporate power-right of the community to organize, control and regulate the activities of its members to the extent that this is needed to maintain and promote its interest (see 3.2.3 and 3.4.1 above). This gives us the outlines of an answer to the first question: the agents who collectively exercise a community’s power-right are its government. A community, that is to say, has a government if there is within it an agency to which the exercise of its corporate power-right has been entrusted. While this is an incomplete answer, it is sufficient to indicate the moral basis of government.


Federal State Provincial Government Political Authority Representative Democracy Representative Government 
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  1. 2.
    D.G. Ritchie, Natural Rights, 5th edn (Unwin, 1952), p. 88.Google Scholar
  2. 4.
    S.E. Finer, Comparative Government (Allen Lane, 1970).Google Scholar
  3. 8.
    For a recent discussion of this distinction see the essay by Peter Winch and R. S. Peters, in Anthony Quinton (ed.), Political Philosophy (OUP, 1967), p. 83.Google Scholar
  4. 11.
    See Max Weber, ‘Three Types of Authority’, in Roth and Wittich (eds), Economy and Society (University of California Press, 1978).Google Scholar
  5. 14.
    Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia (Blackwell, 1974). I borrow Nozick’s language but do not thereby endorse the doctrines he uses it to express.Google Scholar
  6. 15.
    See Bertrand de Jouvenal, Sovereignty (Cambridge, 1957), in which the notion of a team of action is briefly touched upon.Google Scholar
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    Edmund Burke, ‘Speech to the Electors of Bristol’, 1744; in B.W. Hill (ed.), Edmund Burke on Government, Politics and Society (Fontana, 1975), p. 156 et seq.Google Scholar
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    Burke, ‘Thoughts on the Present Discontents’, 1770, ed. by B.W. Hill, op. cit., p. 113.Google Scholar
  9. 50.
    There was a provincial government in Northern Ireland from 1921 to 1972. But political authority was not divided between Westminster and Belfast. Rather it was devolved by the British government upon the the Stormont government and removed by the former from the latter in 1972. Appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, the relationship was not a federal one.Google Scholar
  10. 51.
    Andrew Shonfield, Europe: Journey to an Unknown Destination (Penguin, 1973) — an expanded version of the BBC Reith Lectures, 1972.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© A. J. M. Milne 1998

Authors and Affiliations

  • A. J. M. Milne
    • 1
  1. 1.Political Theory and InstitutionsUniversity of DurhamUK

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