Alien: So tell me more about your ‘leaders’. Who is the current leader of your species and where are they leading you?
Human: We don’t have just one leader for the whole world. The world is divided into countries, and each country has a leader of its own, and a government of its own.
Alien: You don’t have one government that rules the whole planet?
Human: No, this planet is really big and there are billions of people on it. The world is divided up, because people in different places want different kinds of leaders and governments.
Alien: How many countries are there?
Human: A couple of hundred, I think.
Alien: So there are millions of people per country?
Human: Yes, or hundreds of millions, in some of them.
Alien: And all the people in a country live under one single government?
Human: There can be layers of government, but there’s only one government in each country. That is how it works.
Alien: But you can have multiple governments on the same planet?
Human: Yes and its better that way. If you had single government for the whole planet and it turned tyrannical, there’d be nowhere to escape to and no one to oppose it. And I wouldn’t want to be ruled by a bunch of people living thousands of miles away on the other side of the planet. It’s better having government more local, because then it’s more accountable.
Alien: How far is it from here to where the rulers of this country live?
Human: The capital of this country is hundreds of miles from here.
Alien: So you don’t want to be ruled by a bunch of people living thousands of miles away, but you don’t mind being ruled by a bunch of people living hundreds of miles away?
Human: That’s just how it is, I guess.
Alien: Why don’t you and your neighbours set up your own country here, so you can keep a close eye on what the individuals acting as your government are doing?
Human: I don’t think our government would allow us to do that.
Alien: So you have these countries, some big and some small, and the individuals living in each country separately choose which people are going to be their politicians and as act as government of that country?
Human: Yes, although not everyone is lucky enough to live in a country where we get to choose our leaders. A lot of countries have kings or dictators or warlords running their government. People in un-democratic countries don’t get to choose their leaders.
Alien: So you consider yourself lucky because you live under a democratic government, where you, along with millions of other people, get to vote, and whoever gets the highest number of votes becomes leader of the government, the gang that tells you what to do and robs you.
Human: Yes. But there’s more to it than that. Democracy isn’t the only thing that’s great about the government of this country. In fact, democracy itself is not an ideal system at all – everyone knows that. With a pure democracy, the majority rules, because the politicians do whatever the majority of people want them to do, and this can be a problem for minorities. We know this. The real reason why we’re lucky in this country is that our government is not a pure democracy, but a republic. With a republic, minority rights are protected against the tyranny of the majority.
Human: Our rights are listed in our Constitution, the document that established our government. It lays out how government is supposed to work. It says what government is allowed to do, and what it isn’t allowed to do.
Alien: What does it say government is allowed to do?
Human: Government is allowed to collect taxes for things like national defense...
Alien: Hold on - the Constitution says that government is allowed to collect taxes? So it says that the individuals who are acting as government are allowed to rob everyone else using threats of violence?
Human: Yes, but only to do good things.
Alien: Where did the Constitution come from?
Human: It was written by the Founders of this country, the people who first set up the government.
Alien: The first politicians of the country?
Alien: So a bunch of regular people just got together and wrote on a piece of paper that they’re allowed to rob everyone else, as long as they call themselves “government” and call their robbery “taxation”. Then because they have this special piece of paper, everyone just sits back and lets these guys rob them?
Human: You’re missing the point. The Founders wrote the Constitution to restrain government. They made sure there was a separation of powers, so there were checks and balances in the system. They did this to strictly limit the power, size and scope of government. They made a list of things the government can do and must do, and everything else the government can’t do. They even wrote about specific things that the government can’t do, like violating the inalienable rights of the people to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Alien: OK. But I don’t see why the piece of paper is so important. I mean, hypothetically, what if the majority of the people want government to do something that the Constitution says government shouldn’t do? Couldn’t the people vote in politicians who promise to do it for them, regardless of what the Constitution says? How does having your rights listed on an old document help protect your rights today?
Human: Well if the politicians who get voted in want to pass unconstitutional legislation, then the third branch of government, the judicial, will step in and not let the legislation pass. The Founders recognised the problem of democracy, so they gave us a Supreme Court, and their role is check whether legislation is constitutional or not.
Alien: But the Supreme Court is itself part of the government?
Human: Yes. Politicians get voted into positions in the Executive and Legislative branches, but the Judicial branch is made up of judges. So if a majority supports the government violating the rights of a minority, the judges of the Supreme Court simply won’t let it happen.
Alien: Are these Supreme Court judges just regular humans?
Alien: So how does a regular human become a Supreme Court judge?
Human: They are appointed.
Alien: By who?
Human: The politicians.
Alien: But then what is to stop the democratically-elected politicians just appointing judges who will allow their popular but unconstitutional legislation to pass?
Human: Well, they just aren’t allowed to do that.
Alien: By who?
Human: By the constitution.
Alien: The piece of paper?
Human: Yes. I admit it’s not a perfect system. I suppose what you’re saying could happen.
Alien: Does the government of this country, which you consider yourself lucky to live under, ever do things its own Constitution explicitly forbids?
Human: Yeah, a lot of things actually. The government is a lot bigger now than it was when the Constitution was written. The politicians pay lip service to the Constitution, but they trample over our rights anyway.
Alien: What about the Supreme Court?!
Human: I guess that system hasn’t worked very well lately. Government does pass unconstitutional laws all the time. The separation of powers worked for a while though, it’s not a bad system!
Alien: Powers were separate? I thought you said that the powers were all in branches of the same government?
Human: Well yes. The branches of government are totally independent and separate from each other, except that they are all part of the same organisation and all funded by taxation.
Alien: So when you said the system had checks and balances in it, you meant that the government would check itself, and balance itself?
Human: That was the idea.
Alien: So, let me get this straight, a long time ago a small bunch of regular humans had a meeting and created a document called a Constitution that said that they can rob everyone else – millions of people – using threats of violence to make everyone obey their rules and commands. But so that the masses of the people would let them get away with this robbery and slavery, that small bunch also promised in the same document that there were some things the government would never do, and they described a way to structure government so as to restrain it. But, over time, the promises have proven to be worthless, the restraints have proven to be useless, and government has grown significantly in size, power and scope, violating more and more of the rights of the people. It sounds to me that if the Constitution was written to constrain government, then it has been a complete failure.
Human: Well, the real problem is that people just don’t believe in the Constitution any more. The Constitution only works when people know what it says and why it’s important. If people just knew that, then they wouldn’t vote for politicians who violate it. An informed populace: that’s the only way to really restrain government.
Alien: Wait, you said you feel lucky because this country is a republic not a democracy, and a republic has these supposed “checks and balances” that prevent government from violating people’s rights, even when a majority wants to violate the rights of others. But now you’re telling me a republic can only work if people refrain from electing politicians who will violate the rights of others in the first place. That’s the same as a democracy. We’re back to where we started.
Human: I see your point.
Alien: Is there anywhere on the planet where government is, despite the imaginative labels, anything other than a gang of thieves and bullies?
Human: But there’d be chaos without government!
Alien: I’m sure that’s what they tell you…