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11.1 Historical Perspectives on Government

Early political philosophers were concerned with ideas of justice and how best to ensure the most virtuous city. In Plato’s imagined city, the most just city is one in which each member of society occupies the social role they are the best equipped for based on their talents. The city is governed by guardians, who are trained from infancy to protect the needs of the society, with the wisest and most virtuous of these becoming philosopher-kings, the natural rulers. Al-Farabi borrows much from Plato but considers those best able to rule to be determined by heaven. Al-Farabi’s supreme ruler is the founder of the city—not an historical founder, but rather one who possesses both practical and theoretical knowledge and is not bound by any precedent or prior authority. The Mohists, in turn, think that we must have leaders that display virtues so that we may emulate them and become virtuous ourselves. The Mohists believed that individuals were essentially good and wanted to do what was morally right, but they often lacked an understanding of moral norms.

11.2 Forms of Government

Whereas Plato and Al-Farabi believed that good government could be achieved by having a virtuous leader, philosophers and laypeople have advanced other structures of government that they feel might better accomplish this purpose. Monarchies placed political decisions in the hands of a ruler who was chosen by God and so must be virtuous. Ruling authority in an aristocracy is in the hands of a small number of individuals considered to be elite members of society. However, ideas of representative government arose as class systems changed and social contract theory became popular. Later, totalitarian governments emerged as the new ideologies of communism and fascism sparked revolutions in the 20th century.

11.3 Political Legitimacy and Duty

The concept of political legitimacy grounds the authority of a political system. This is important because it is difficult to defend the right to rule if a system of government is not accepted by the people. The sociologist Max Weber identifies three sources of legitimacy: traditional, charismatic, and rational-legal. If we accept the legitimacy of a political system, then one must consider what obligations exist between the state and its citizens—and what avenues exist if these obligations are not met. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, and other members of the civil rights movement recognized the legitimacy of the United States government but felt it was not fulfilling its obligations to all of its citizens equally.

11.4 Political Ideologies

Political ideology refers to beliefs about the ways in which society should be governed. Generally, this includes beliefs about what rights and responsibilities individuals have as well as how goods and resources should be distributed. Often, individuals will hold similar views in some respects, and likewise, many ideologies have features in common. This can make it difficult to create sharp distinctions between them. However, because ideological beliefs influence the actions of those who hold positions of authority in a society, it is important to attempt to understand their major underlying features. Some of the most common ideologies fall under the umbrellas of egalitarianism and conservatism, including liberalism, socialism, and anarchism, among others.

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