Disputes, conflicts, differences of opinion and interest arise constantly between people. They need to be resolved. Our primitive ancestors lacked the mental perception which would allow them to settle their differences peaceably through discussion, arriving at a solution perceived to be just and equitable for all parties concerned.
Primitive mankind lived in a world dominated by physical force, force to kill for food, force to cut trees and hew stone for shelter, and force to settle disputes between individuals, families and tribes. But force can both build and destroy, and war can be highly destructive, destructive of crops which can result in mass starvation, and homes which only have to be rebuilt.
Gradually peaceful methods of resolution began to develop. A village would elect a Headman, whose judgment would be respected. Tribes melded together into nations, and nations accepted the governance of a monarch as the price necessary to ensure stability. Monarchs, in turn, established Courts of Justice, often, as in the case of England, basing decisions on a body of Common Law developed and accumulated over many years.
Parliaments developed as a means through which influential men of the land could share power with the monarch, gradually taking over as the senior partner. Today in those countries considered as politically developed, popular assemblies of one sort or another make the rules, the laws which govern the nation and shape its life and its destiny.
Yet even in these popular assemblies, decisions are established by force. Our much-lauded democracy is governance by force of numbers, or increasingly in the United States, force of money and media influence. He, not with the greatest physical force, but with the greatest power of votes, wins the day. We are still governed by force, rather than reason.
The ideal of governance by reason and its related concept of natural justice has always existed however; and indeed historically exerted considerable influence. The essence of natural law is that the Ruler, the State or the legislator is always subject to the law of God, or the moral or natural law, the higher rule of right and reason which transcends human interests and human institutions. Thus the ruler or legislator becomes an interpreter of a higher law, rather than an instigator or originator of law reflecting perhaps the interests and profit of himself or the group he represents.
This general principle of government – that authority is justified only on moral grounds – may appear somewhat alien today. But it achieved almost universal acceptance as the basis of Roman Law and remained a commonplace of political philosophy throughout the Middle Ages, becoming a part of the common heritage of political ideas.
It was indeed this ideal of Right or Natural Law which gave birth to the concept of constitutionalism, from which in turn the world's great constitutions grew. This concept, recognizing the existence of higher laws than those enacted by mortals, places clear limits on the activities of government, establishing boundaries between the individual and the state, forbidding the state to trespass into certain areas reserved for private action. Constitution is traditionally recognized as being the highest power in the land, thus transcending even the decisions of democratically elected legislators. In that sense, human nature reveals its “secret self” – it would seem that we are ever searching for some way, some system whereby higher laws of natural justice are revealed and adopted as the means by which all our disputes, even in today's complex society, can be solved in ways which can be clearly perceived by all as being right, true and just.
We dream of justice for all. We dream. And yet, like the great dream of peace, we have to ask, are we ready for it? The attainment of peace could be so easy – we simply stop creating aggression.
Likewise, if we truly wanted just laws, that too could be so easy. The answer is there, transparently simple, ready and waiting for us to adopt any time we are ready for it. All we need is one simple principle from which all our laws can be derived: Do No Harm. Under the guidance of this one single principle, the purpose of legislation becomes interpretive, the prevention of injury and exploitation between people. It's so simple. The idea that we should not do to others, anything we would not want others to do to us, is a simple principle of social conduct familiar to us all. It forms one of the pillars of major religions, and it has been familiar to higher-principled political theorists for centuries. In the words of Thomas Jefferson: “the purpose of government is to prevent men from injuring one another”.
With the guidance of this one single principle, we would trade honestly, share resources fairly and with proper respect to the inherent rights of the environment, and we would respect the individual rights of one another. Remuneration would relate to work done, which in turn would create structural monetary stability and permit economic expansion to full employment.
With government clearly defined in its field of action and subject to the disciplines of its own laws, restrained by constitution from intrusive law, corruption and waste, it would fulfill its functions productively and without incurring an over-burdensome tax on our earnings.
This ideal was summarized by Thomas Jefferson in his first Inaugural Address given on March 4th, 1801:
"A wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another yet leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and which shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned: this is the sum of good government necessary to complete the circle of our felicities".
Like peace, it's all there. Just waiting for the time when we are ready for it.