Monday, December 1, 2014

A Revised Definition of the Political System

A political system is generally characterized by its laws and institutions, in the broadest sense of these terms. However, this definition does not directly address the individual, who ought to be at the centre of politics.[1] To remedy this, the concept of "political system" could be extended to include also the impact of these laws and institutions on the individual, and more generally, on the entire society.[2]

Seen in this way, different political systems are different from each other not only because they have different laws and institutions, but also because they have a different influence on the individual. This way of defining a political system seems justified if one assumes that society existed before the State, and that, in principle, the State exists to serve society. Furthermore, this notion of the impact of the laws and institutions on the individual is particularly important because it is difficult for the individual to change them, even in a so-called "democracy".[3]

Obviously, the individual is not only influenced by the political system in which he lives; there are many other factors. Technological progress, for example, has a direct impact on the individual, through the appearance of innovations, but also an indirect impact, through its economic, political and social consequences. It is therefore necessary to see the political system of a society as only one factor, though arguably the most important, that influences the life of the individual in this society.

The definition proposed here is particularly suited to contemporary political systems. Before the advent of the modern world, the concept of the impact of the political system on the individual was less important; the existing laws and institutions had a relatively small impact on a largely poor and rural population. With the establishment of the modern nation-state, this impact has become much more important, largely because of the expansion of the role and responsibilities of the State. The study not only of laws and institutions, but also their influence on the individual, therefore allows not only the "qualitative" aspect of these laws and institutions to be taken into account, but also their "quantitative" aspect that has become so important.

The political system defined here thus contains the idea, already mentioned by J.S. Mill, that individual freedom not only depends on the type of political system but also on the size and scope of government in society.[4] It is Isaiah Berlin's question related to negative liberty that is posed here, namely: "How much shall I be governed?"[5], that is to say, to what extent should the State intervene in the life of the individual. Furthermore, the important role traditionally played by ideology (belonging to the "qualitative" part) is thus automatically reduced, which is desirable when analysing contemporary political systems.

This "qualitative" concept of laws and institutions is also important because it implies a particular distinction between different laws and institutions. Indeed, all laws and institutions obviously do not all have the same kind of impact on the individual, but some certainly have more impact than others. There is an important difference here regarding the laws and institutions that would impact the individual if they did not exist, and those that impact the individual when they do exist.[6] The first category consists of laws and institutions of a constitutional character, and the second category consists of laws and institutions of an administrative character. 

With this notion of the political system presented here, the administrative laws and institutions therefore receive more attention than they get in the conventional perception of the political system. The administrative aspect of the modern political system is arguably also far more important than the constitutional aspect of this system since the latter has already been fixed for a long time and hardly changes any longer, while the former is changing constantly.

The individual, subjected to the impact of the political system in which he lives, generally takes this impact of laws and institutions into account. Indeed, there is inevitably some adjustment on the part of the individual to the political system. This adaptation of the individual is obviously as complex as the impact itself, but it might be said that this adaptation may be intentional or unintentional, conscious or unconscious. In general, this adaptation to the political system is usually economic, but it can also be political and cultural.

The analysis of modern political systems can be made using the model briefly reviewed above. It is important to note, however, that it is not only the term "political system" that should be broadened to include the impact on the individual, but the entire political thought that should keep the individual as a reference. In politics, it is always advisable to follow the recommendation of Aristotle, according to which man is the measure of all things.


[1] After all, etymologically, politics directly implies the relation with the citizens.

[2] The term "impact on the individual" is used here as a general term that includes, of course, not only the impact on a particular individual, but also, by extension, on a specific group of individuals, on a portion of the population, or even on the whole society.

[3] This is of course connected to electoral apathy and the widespread disappointment in politicians. As Theodor Adorno said: “The most compelling reason for apathy is the by no means unjustified feeling of the masses that political participation within the sphere society grants them, and this holds true for all political systems in the world today, can alter their existence only minimally.” Free Time, The Culture Industry, p192. (Routledge, 1991)

[4] J.S. Mill famously said in this respect: “there is an increasing inclination to stretch unduly the powers of society over the individual, both by the force of opinion and even by that of legislation: and as the tendency of all the changes taking place in the world is to strengthen society, and diminish the power of the individual, this encroachment is not one of the evils which tend spontaneously to disappear, but, on the contrary, to grow more and more formidable.” J.S. Mill, On Liberty, p16. (Everyman’s Library, 1992)

[5] See I. Berlin, Two Concepts of Liberty, Introduction, page xlvii. (Four Essays on Liberty, Oxford University Press, 1969).

[6] This nuance shows that the concept of “negative liberty” is important also in this context.

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