Methods of Governing

Methods of Governing: Commands, Laws, & Principles

By C. J. Oakes

No study of criminal justice would be complete without a study of the ways in which humans are governed. These methods of governing reflect the level of maturity of a society, so knowing this is useful to those working in the criminal justice system.

Unlike animals, which are governed almost entirely by instinct, humans are generally accepted to be governed by freewill. Of course, there have been studies conducted in recent years which consider just how much freewill humans actually possess and we may yet find that we have less freewill than we would like to believe, but until then society will continue to be governed in three distinct methods depending on the level of maturity possessed by society overall. These methods of governing are…

  1. Commands
  2. Laws
  3. Principles

This information is important to students of criminal justice because depending on the dominant methods chosen for a given society, those working in the criminal justice system will be better equipped to handle those who enter the system. This is because a particular mindset applies to those entering the system which may be at odds with the dominant method of governing society overall. We will now consider how to assess how different methods of governing apply to various social groups, how the maturity levels of those governed and those governing can be assessed using these methods, and at what level of maturity the United States functions.


What Are Commands, Laws, and Principles?

Society must be governed. Without governments, society enters anarchy and chaos so most people, whether preferring smaller or larger government, never-the-less accept that some government is needed for a stable society. In addition, regardless of the form of government, Democracy, Monarchy, Oligarchy, or Theocracy, those in charge use three methods in greater or lesser degrees to govern. These three methods (or tools) are commands, laws, and principles. Consider each.

  • Commands – Commands are exactly as the word suggests, a means of governing whereby a command is issued which must be carried out to serve a function of society. In the United States, the President is termed the Commander in Chief of the Military because he holds the ultimate say in all military matters. In the military, there is a chain of command leading up to the President. In addition, starting with George Washington, commands called Executive Orders have been used at times when things needed to be handled quickly. For instance, George Washington’s first Executive Order/command was to drain the swamps in DC so that construction could begin on the Capitol buildings for the new nation. Congress was at recess and would not return for some time. The new executive, George Washington knew that Congress had already authorized the construction, but had failed to provide details regarding the process. So the drainage had to be performed prior to construction starting—thus, the Commander-in-Chief issued an executive order, a command so that the work could commence. He was well within his administrative right to do issue this command. However, it is not possible to always provide commands for every situation in a complex society so more is needed.
  • Laws – Laws permit a complex society to have a foundation upon which all can agree. The Constitution delegates that “all legislative powers” are in the hands of Congress. In other words, all laws are to be passed by a representative Congress as outlined in the first Article of the Constitution. Laws are specific rules for governing society and spell out not only what must be done but also what may not be done in a given situation. Laws are naturally limited because these must be specific to situations. If one situation is similar to another, the law will not apply unless it is specified in the law that it applies. This is where the concept of Loopholes enter because even a very detailed law cannot cover every possible situation which may arise in a constantly evolving, complex society. Thus, something more is needed for proper governance.
  • Principles – Principles are the means by which a society can be guided even when laws fail to specify exact behaviors in a given situation. The Constitution itself outlines various principles for governing and the laws passed by Congress should ideally align with these. This is where we get the idea of the spirit of the law. The laws passed by Congress and other elected officials are the letter of the law but the purpose of the law is the spirit of the law. In the United States’ Constitution, the Supreme Court is tasked with determining whether a law passed by Congress or an executive order issued by the President is in harmony with the principles outlined in the Constitution.

Notice that Commands, Law, and Principles, while not specifically stated in these terms in the Constitution, align with the three governing bodies provided by the Constitution: the Presidency, the Congress, and the Supreme Court. All are needed for balance in governing the nation. This can also permit us to gauge the maturity level of society, depending on which governing body yields the greater power. If the balance of power swings to the Presidency, there is one level of maturity in society; if society places more power in the hands of Congress, this indicates another level of social maturity; and if the greater power rests in the Supreme Court, yet another social maturity level exists.

To better understand how different balances of power indicate the maturity level of society, we now turn to how commands, laws, and principles are applied in social groups.


The Application of Commands, Laws, & Principles in Social Groups

Regardless of the form of rule under which humans are governed, all use these three methods to determine how those within will function within the group. The size and composition of the group does not matter, the functions are the same and these three methods of governing tell us much about the maturity level of those governed.

In order to better understand how the three forms of governing apply, we can use as an example, the simplest form of social group: the family unit.

When a child is born, he is a blank slate. The world into which he is entering is foreign and unknown. The child needs guidance and direction. Fortunately, there are older, more experienced humans available to teach the child what is needed to survive. For some time, the child understands nothing and all choices regarding his life are made by others, but in time, the child understands simple commands. It is at this point, that the most fundamental of tools/methods of governing are implemented: the command. The child is told yes or no, more frequently no in fact because the child will often do things which may cause serious harm. This is not done out of malice, but ignorance. For instance, an infant may pick up a knife and the parent will command, “No! Put it down.”

However, in time the child comes to understand more of our language and can be provided with simple rules. One rule for example may be “Do not play with knives.” Although parenting styles differ with some parents using rewards and others using punishers to achieve compliance, the method employed is the same: Rules are established to govern behavior. In the case of a punishing parent, the rule may be “Do not play with knives or you will go into time out.” This rule is provided to protect the child who at an early age does not know how to properly handle a knife. This is the family equivalent to a law. Note that as the child advances in age and understanding, the rules can become more complex, but the method of governing the child’s behavior is still a form of law.

In time, the child gains a better understanding of knife handling and safety. The child knows that the knife can be harmful to himself and others and no longer needs the rule (law) to not play with knives. It is at this point, that the child has matured enough to use knives properly or has the option to misuse them as well. Rather than governed by law, the young person is now governed by principle.

This illustration of knife usage over time by a child growing to maturity simplifies the concepts of commands-laws-principles, but demonstrates never-the-less the relationship between these three methods for governing human behavior in society.

This also illustrates a simple, yet powerful concept: The level of maturity of a society and/or its rulers can be seen in the dominant methods of governing employed. This will be considered next.


Assessing the Maturity of a Society via the Dominant Methods of Governing in Use

The Bible may seem an unlikely source for understanding this concept, but the fact is that the progression of governance described within is the same as that designed by the framers of the Constitution. This is not to state that the Constitution is a religious document, but rather to demonstrate that this concept is factual. In fact, it can be seen across a number of societies throughout the ages. Considering the example of the Jews in the Bible, they went from a society wandering in the wilderness of the Sinai to a society governed by the Mosaic Law to the age of Christianity. They were initially given 10 Commandments, then a law code containing more than 600 laws, then a set of guiding principles under Christianity. In essence, the nation was led in its infancy from commands, to laws, and when some were mature enough, the laws were eliminated in favor of guiding principles.

This is why the Roman historian Tacitus once stated that,

“We were once a nation which feared lawlessness; now we fear law.”

The Romans has a nation which had been founded on principles, but in time, they regressed to the point of needing a multitude of laws to govern their every action. All behaviors were eventually governed by the state under the governance of an Emperor, who was counted as a god. Thus, although the nation started out more mature than many, it slipped into a cast of immaturity. Whether the regression occurred because society needed additional guidance or the rulers took it upon themselves to forcibly over time promote such regression is a matter of debate, but the simple fact is that the Roman society began to crumble when it was transformed from a mature society to one which was less mature; a society governed by principle to one governed by law. It was almost as if having once learned how to properly use a knife, they had to again have rules such as, “Don’t play with knives or your will be punished.”

In looking at Nazism under Adolph Hitler, the nation was destined to fail because Germany went from a nation largely ruled by principle under Hindenburg, to one governed by law under the early Nazi Party, to one governed largely by command under Hitler. Thus, as infants afraid to act unless told what to do by their almighty father, der Führer. This made the commanders of the Army and other vital departments impotent to act when necessary.

This is why despots eventually fall. Although most people will willingly live like teenagers with rules governing their conduct in exchange for some degree of security and stability, few will continue to permit themselves to be governed like infants. We can see the maturity of a society in the methods of governance they accept. What can we tell about the methods of governance employed by those in charge?


Just How Mature is the United States, a Nation of Law?

Some parents raise their children to be independent and self-sufficient. Others attempt to keep their children subservient and needy throughout life. Still others say they want their children to become mature, but fail to teach them how to do so. Finally, other parents are wishy-washy, telling their children one thing, doing another, changing their mind, sometimes arbitrarily, and being generally unreliable.

Part of the reason our criminal justice system is so clogged today is because in the United States, leadership is more like the latter case. This is largely the result of the system we have employed and permitted.

As a representative government, we hold elections. However, we also have a system of parties and these parties often use any means possible to gain control of the elections. This, in itself is not a problem. What is a problem is that every few years, the American people change their minds. For a few cycles, one party holds power and then the pendulum shifts to the other party for a time, then back again. This is like a child raised in a home with two parents who do not agree on how to raise the child. For a year, the child must listen to the father and the following year, the mother, then the father again. The two parents fight over who has the right to decide and the child must learn how to walk a balance between the two. In addition, neither parent teaches the child why certain actions are to be avoided or carried out, but rather, both simply lay down rules. Because the parents are at conflict, the rules provided also often conflict. This is what is happening on a national scale.

Thus, the two-party system of politicians are treating the American people like children, providing arbitrary and conflicting rules (laws). The United States is not as mature as a society as at the start. The nation began as a mature culture in need of few laws because most people were governed by principle. Slowly, as with the Romans, the United States has slipped into becoming a nation of law. Thus, we are not mature as a society because we either need law or because we permit the situation.

This is not presented to denigrate the U.S. in any way but rather to simply illustrate why the criminal justice system today is clogged as it is, as well as provide an additional example to show how to apply this information. The simple fact is, as a nation of Law, we are either immature as a society or our leaders believe we are. Either way, as a nation of law, our society is not as mature as it could be and perhaps once was.

Next, we consider how to apply these methods of governing as citizens, students of criminal justice, professionals in the system, and as leaders of society.


How to Use This Information in the Criminal Justice System

This information can be used by criminal justice students and professionals in many ways. For instance, in the field of corrections, a variety of persons are encountered, but the system must have order and structure because those in charge are obligated to both protect the inmates and maintain the security of the facility. Thus, there will be times when commands must be issued and rules (laws) created. Both are necessary, but the most important element involves principles. If the overarching principles of the system, the purpose of the facility and the reason the inmates are contained within are considered when making rules and issuing commands, the facility will generally operate smoothly. It is only when commands and rules contradict the purpose, the principles in force that problems arise which cannot be handled.

This is a particular challenge in the correctional system today because of the considerable mixing of prisoner types, though generally, the various security levels work to minimize this. Indeed, the system provides five distinct sentencing purposes and these generally correspond to the security levels. These will also impact which principles are involved along with the specific rules and commands which will be issued.

As an example, the principle at play in an Admax facility might be to prevent the offender from ever making contact with the public again. Thus, the rules will be stricter and the commands more stern with submission the goal. However, in a low security facility, the principle will be to rehabilitate the inmate for reentry into society so the principle will be to train, the rules designed to condition and instruct, with commands issued in a spirit of constructive council rather and total submission.

Society needs all three methods of governing to function successfully, but the circumstances (the principles, the spirit) will dictate what rules/laws are needed and what commands may be issued.


Leave a Reply