Published Humanitas, Volume XII, No. 1, 1999

Some theorists define politics as who gets what, when and how. Alasdair MacIntyre defines it as “civil war carried on by other means.” I prefer a more hopeful definition, and lean toward Michael Oakeshott’s definition as “attending to arrangements.” Or, Claes Ryn’s definition—“the peaceful settlement of disputes”—especially since Ryn correlates politics at its best with community. Such an emphasis would require the student of politics to examine not just who gets what, but how individuals arrange things, and how each takes into consideration the others who are trying to do the same.

At the very least, the peaceful conduct of affairs would require some sort of agreement on the rules. To get that agreement without actual violence, participants might still use threats based on superior power (natural or supernatural), although eventually a challenge may require executing the threat. Peaceful arrangements could also depend on deceit, bribes, persuasion and an endless variety of human tricks. The goal is to obtain sufficient agreement among enough of the individuals subject to the arrangements to give the rules stability. This is true even for political regimes based on some principle other than consent of the governed. Failure leads to chaos, rebellion, war or permanent and physical separation of contending factions.

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