April 12th, 2011 // 6:45 am @ Oliver DeMille
These three aspects of success in any endeavor can teach us a lot about government, freedom and prosperity. Most importantly, they can teach us about government for freedom—since most governments in history have had different goals than liberty.
Good government—which maintains freedom and opportunity for all citizens—must meet the tests of quantity, quality and method. We naturally use all three in governmental analysis, often without noticing it. For example, terms such as democracy, aristocracy and monarchy emphasize the quantity of leaders—many, few or one. In contrast, we emphasize the method of governance in terms like communist, capitalist, commercial, and limited governments—these all describe the process which drives their respective societies. Words such as oligarchy, confederation, socialist, mercantile, militarist, federal, national and empire deal with the qualities of a nation’s governance, the attributes that make it what it is.
Quality, quantity and method are different ways to analyze any governmental institution, power, program or proposal. All three are important. Before we tackle how this applies to government, let’s learn a little about these three perspectives using a few examples. In the Great Books, for example, the discussion of quality centers on primary versus secondary qualities: attributes that cannot be separated from a thing are primary qualities, while attributes that can be changed without changing the thing—like color, taste, number or temperature, etc.—are secondary.
As for quantity, a big debate through written history has been the question of why mathematics doesn’t directly apply to the real world. Engineers, inventors and others who use math in the real world have to calculate for various non-mathematical realities in order to apply math to real things. This has caused many arguments among the great thinkers, from Aristotle to Buckminster Fuller. Newton invented calculus in order to bridge the gap between the mathematical and physical universes.
Perhaps the most interesting point about all this is that the discussion of method, as opposed to quality and quantity, runs through the Great Books and great conversation of history at nearly every turn. Almost every topic covered by the great thinkers and leaders from ancient, medieval and early modern (1800s) times deals extensively with competing ideas of method. Amazingly, this significantly slows in modern times, especially after 1900. Somehow the general acceptance of scientific experts as the true authorities on almost everything caused, or at least coincided with, a reduction of the common people asking questions about method.
Consider some examples that most moderns have experienced. Let’s say you decide to lose weight or get in shape. One diet approach, the most frequent in the United States, is to focus on “how much” food you eat. The formula is simple: Cut Calories + Exercise More = Lose Weight. This view attempts to change your body by decreasing how much food you eat and increasing the amount of exercise you get. Quantity is the focus.
Another viewpoint emphasizes the quality of what you eat (e.g. no sweets or fats, more raw vegetables, fewer carbohydrates, etc.). This perspective holds that if you eat the right kinds of foods and cut out the “bad” foods you’ll get your desired result. Likewise, it suggests effective exercise, like certain weight-training routines, interval cardio workouts, or changing your exercise to keep your body constantly adapting. The emphasis here is on “how well” you eat or exercise rather than how much.
A combined perspective emphasizes both how much and how well you eat, exercise, study, sell or whatever you are trying to do. Most modern “how to” literature combines these, and there are many thousands of management, sales, health and other books and programs in many fields of life.
Only a few programs exist from the third perspective: method. This viewpoint cares less about “how much” or “how well” than about “how”. For example, it might recommend eating whatever you want, as much as you want, but chewing each bite 20 times and fully enjoying each mouthful. The fact that those who do this tend to eat a lot less (you get full with less food) and better food (when you really taste them, many junk foods lose their appeal), isn’t the point. The focus is on process or method. Again, this is less common than the quality and quantity approaches.
Another example is provided by college sports. One team might focus on getting the most fans (quantity), and consider this the measure of a successful sports program. More fans often means more money for the school, more donations, better community relations, and so on. Another school might emphasize getting the best, most talented, coaches and players (quality). A third might focus on the process of great practices, training, conditioning and preparation—trusting that doing the right things will bring the desired outcomes (method).
The most successful programs—like the most effective sales techniques, educational systems, and governments, etc.—will encourage all three: quantity, quality and method. If a team becomes the best recruiter in the nation but puts very little work into conditioning or practice, it will likely not win very often. On the other extreme, teams which ignore recruiting probably won’t flourish either. All three perspectives are needed.
Two more quick examples: Imagine a school or church which focuses only on numbers without regard to knowledge or truth, or exclusively on truth while refusing to share it with anyone. Few modern institutions seem to focus on greatness—on the methods and processes of, say, being a great student, a great teacher, or a great believer. The scientific method lends itself to experts, and it seems that in the wake of accepting this reality our society has decided to leave most issues of method to the specialists.
There are many examples of all three perspectives in business, science, art and beyond, and method remains a small minority in most fields. Quality and quantity rule the day. As stated above, this is the opposite of nearly all recorded history.
Let’s consider how these concepts apply to government. One way to measure the effectiveness of a government is how big or small it is (quantity). If it is too small, it is naturally weak, and it if it is too big it is naturally tyrannical—so argue the authors of The Federalist. A second viewpoint asks how “good” our leaders are, or how “effective” a government program is (quality). Both of these are legitimate ways to analyze our government.
A third perspective is to analyze government by process (method). For example, does it have a written constitution? Does this constitution separate the legislative, executive and judicial powers in a way that all three are independent, generally equal with each other in power, and effectively checked and balanced? Does this constitution separate (or fit into a separation of) national, provincial and more local governments—with most sovereign powers left to the lower governments and the people? Was this constitution ratified by the people? Do the regular people deeply understand this constitution today? Does the government always follow the constitution?
Any nation that does not follow these methods will not long maintain widespread freedom or prosperity. Free citizens who expect to remain free must carefully analyze and lead their government utilizing all three of these perspectives.
Unfortunately, nearly all current discussion of government centers around one thing—debates about the quality of our elected leaders and the effectiveness (or not) of various government programs. The quantity and method questions are seldom mentioned by anyone.
There are many examples of how this drastically impacts our freedom and prosperity. Consider taxes. Following the modern trend, most current debate about taxes centers on quantity (e.g. How much is too much?, How can government tax the people more?, or, Don’t we need to raise taxes to pay down our deficit?) or quality (e.g. Should we tax the wealthy or everyone equally?, or, Are income, sales or other kinds of taxes best?).
In contrast, the American founding generation used a method approach to taxes: Many kinds (quality) and levels (quantity) of taxes were constitutional, but the federal government could only assess taxes from the state governments—never from individuals or households. When we changed the method, we saw the rise of government that is too big, too inefficient and increasingly out of control.
This same argument (that we are mostly ignoring the method approach to government and that all three approaches are important) can be applied to many of our most pressing current issues, from education or health care to energy policy, immigration, fiscal and monetary decisions, the national debt and deficits, etc.
Quality government matters, certainly, but the quantity and method questions (especially method) are ultimately more important to the freedom and prosperity of the people. If the regular people want to remain free, they must understand and act on this.
He is the co-author of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today bestseller LeaderShift, and author of A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the 21st Century, and The Coming Aristocracy: Education & the Future of Freedom.
Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through leadership education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.