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The "rule of one" (monarchy) was preferred by many pre-modern philosophers as a form of government. E.g. Thomas Aquinas regarded it as most perfect government, since it imitates nature (like bees have one queen).

Today, in most democracies a state of emergency can be declared, in which a government is allowed to do what is normally not.

One aspect is special powers to restrict fundamental rights of citizens, which is already justified by the existence of an unreasonable minority.

Another aspect is that the government’s power to reach decisions is expanded and streamlined by using fast-track procedures for which, in practice, the legislative body or parliament (and also the citizens themselves) are disempowered.

The government is often protected from motions of no confidence, that are either impossible or need a higher majority.

Isn't this a presumption of irrationality of larger deliberative bodies?

What justifies the assumption that abuse of power and potentially ill-considered actions, which were passed without hearing all the voices, or even against the majority of usual decision makers, are strongly preferable to potential deadlocks decisions or inaction?

"The price of inaction is far greater than the cost of making a mistake." said Meister Eckhart. Sounds nice, but is it true?

So while democratic governments don't become a "rule of one" in emergencies, they considerably move in this direction. What is the justification for this?

At first, it seemed intuitively right to me, but I can't give any good reasons for it.

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  • Suppose a missile has been launched at a country's capital. Should they hold an election to decide whether or not to shoot it down?
    – D. Halsey
    Dec 22, 2023 at 23:06
  • @D.Halsey Of course, practically you need people in government that can react fast - but why not instate them beforehand and define their powers and obligations beforehand? That's what we usually do and oops, that's also exactly what goes on in the missile case (this is so fast, there won't even be time to declare a state of emergency). State of emergency powers OTOH give the executive government more power generally, not restricted to a certain task, not dependent on practicalities and not easily revocable. They seem ripe for abuse, a kind of temporary "autocratization" of democracies.
    – viuser
    Dec 23, 2023 at 3:27
  • Bees have a queen, but a flock of sparrows or school of fish do not. Flocking is a democratic, distributed algorithm that produces organized behavior. Also, the bee queen doesn't give many "orders"; most of the time she just sits in the hive laying eggs, and the workers organize what to do by instinct and communication among themselves.
    – causative
    Dec 23, 2023 at 4:33
  • @causative Aquinas gives this example (also of cranes). He just didn't know better. Also the queen bee is hardly a "ruler".
    – viuser
    Dec 23, 2023 at 9:12
  • There are many cases where a fast decision is preferable to a wise one, particularly when the problem at hand is an existential threat and does not grant the time necessary to deliberate. The necessary reaction to the missile exemple above is easy: shut it down. Protocols can be designed for such foreseeable crisis. But how about the unforeseen? There's not always a preestablished protocol handy. That's when governments need temporary extended powers.
    – armand
    Dec 23, 2023 at 15:55

1 Answer 1

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In well-run democracies, emergency powers are not arbitrarily assumed but defined in advance and excercisable only when specific criteria are satisfied. Thus the prevailing democratic process decides to allow emergency powers; the powers are there because the elected representatives of the voters allowed them to be there, and in that sense they are no more or less legitimate than any other powers of the government. If you would like to see examples of detailed arguments for and against emergency powers, I am reasonably sure that you could discover on-line the actual debates about them in UK parliamentary archives.

The need for emergency powers should be obvious. The usual processes through which laws are developed, refined and enacted typically take far longer to complete than the time that might be allowed for decision-making in an unprecedented emergency. More importantly, perhaps, the time-consuming management of 'business as usual' would be too much of a distraction, so it can be necessary to put at least some of it on-hold to allow the administration to focus on emergency priorities. You should bear in mind that much of the time and energy that goes into political decision making is not expended in an effort to ensure that the decision is 'correct' or 'the best' in some technical sense, but instead is an effort to win supporters around by flexing proposals to align with their interests, or an effort by opponents to weaken the credibility of the government for political reasons. In an emergency, all the focus on vested interests might be better put aside.

Civil liberties might need to be curtailed for all kinds of reasons- if, for example, a country's fuel supplies are cut, then it might be necessary to reduce private fuel consumption in order to protect essential services, and so on.

You should also bear in mind that decisions taken during a declared emergency can be revoked afterwards, as can the emergency powers themselves if they are abused.

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