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Political Authority and its Legitimacy

by Tony M.

I was recently engaged in a debate on political legitimacy, so I decided to look up the sorts of things people have published about where and how political legitimacy is present. I came across the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, with a lengthy summary of some 20 or so treatments of the topic, everyone from Hobbes and Locke to Weber, Bentham and Rawls. I was frustrated at the insistence on turning the topic into quasi-technical language, that made it difficult for anyone but a true poli sci type to follow the points in real detail. So I refuse to follow that path.

In general, there are either 2 or three levels of recognizable status for political capacity to rule: raw power is the condition in which a person gives orders and they are carried out. Many times this power resides in people who have a right to be giving orders, but in some cases it is not: a mafioso don gives orders (both to his minions, and to people he has successfully cowed) and his orders are followed. I don’t call this political power, because the organization is too small to call a polity, but it illustrates the principle. When a colonel in the army “takes over” and starts giving orders in Libya, at the first he may have nothing more than raw power, but it is political power, because virtually the whole state follows his orders, once he has consolidated his power (note, we don’t say, “consolidated his authority”).

At the next level, I think, there is authority: when you have authority, you have the right to give orders that is independent of whether you are actually being obeyed. I think that a right to give orders is a very close correlative of the moral obligation of others to obey, although not absolutely (not when the orders exceed the authority held, for example). The really odd thing about the article was that although it talks about sources of authority (and of legitimacy), it virtually ignores the position that says God is the source of authority. Since this is an extremely important philosophical position, it is a glaring oversight.

Finally, (at least for this discussion) there is legitimacy: the legitimacy of a political authority is present with the public recognition, or validation, that this person has authority. Most times we would not admit that a person has authority, without there having been some event(s) or state of affairs that provided the validation. But it is not always a one-to-one correspondence. When a father gives orders to his 16 year old daughter, and she sniffs at him and walks away and (regularly) does whatever she darn well pleases, his “public” is not “buying” the validity of his authority, but the authority is real nonetheless. It is conceptually possible that the authority may be present without a public recognition thereof, and vice versa there may be public acclamation of acceptance of rule without the ruler actually having authority. So it is necessary to be ready to discuss them distinctly.

I am not going to get into the details of a debate about whether God is actually the source of authority, not at this time. For the purposes of this discussion, the existence of God the Creator and sustainer of the universe is a given. Since he has absolute sovereign authority over his creation, all other authority must be in some fashion related to his. That’s a good enough starting point for me. I am willing to entertain any point of view within that: for example, maybe God gives authority directly to each ruler, or maybe he gives it to the body politic and lets them place it in a ruler, or maybe he permits a body politic to identify who will receive the authority from him. All three of these are compatible with the principle that no authority in the universe can be wholly disassociated from the authority that is absolutely sovereign over every particle of the universe. (Maybe if I get ambitious in the future on I will tackle what the philosophical picture looks like when you don’t assume that sovereign authority over the universe resides in God.)

What I am especially interested in is the way that validation or recognition occurs ties up with the manner in which authority to rule (politically) comes to rest in some individuals. It seems to me that there is a mysterious “gap” in what happens with a coming-to-authority. Looking at changes of governmental orders (e.g. moving from aristocracy to democracy, or from kingship under the Stuart line to kingship under the Hanoverian line, not just the handing on of the baton under existing law, as the swearing in of a new president), it seems that there is a problem in describing WHAT happens to achieve the end result that authority eventually rests with a totally new order. And this mystery is, I think, what leads to there being so many different theories about where legitimacy and authority come from. So that’s what I want to pull up a microscope to look at. To do so I will look at the difference at least indicated between making a ruler – that is, forming them so as to have authority – and identifying them as ruler – that is, the public validation of that authority, in the Bible: The making of Saul as king, and of David.

Samuel anointed Saul in private first.

(1 Samuel 10:1) Then Samuel took the vial of oil, and poured it upon his head, and kissed him, and said, Is it not that the Lord hath anointed thee to be prince over his inheritance?

Later Saul became the recognized king by casting lots:

(1 Samuel 10:17) and ye have said unto him, [Nay], but set a king over us. Now therefore present yourselves before Jehovah by your tribes, and by your thousands. 20 So Samuel brought all the tribes of Israel near, and the tribe of Benjamin was taken. 21 And he brought the tribe of Benjamin near by their families; and the family of the Matrites was taken; and Saul the son of Cis was taken…24 And Samuel said to all the people: Surely you see him whom the Lord has chosen, that there is none like him among all the people. And all the people cried and said: God save the king.
(1 Samuel 12:1) And Samuel said to all Israel: Behold I have hearkened to your voice in all that you said to me, and have made a king over you….. But seeing that Naas, king of the children of Ammon, had come against you, you said to me: Nay, but a king shall reign over us: whereas the Lord your God was your king. 13 Now, therefore, your king is here, whom you have chosen and desired: Behold the Lord has given you a king…And Samuel said to Saul: The Lord sent me to anoint you king over his people Israel… When you were a little one in your own eyes, were you not made the head of the tribes of Israel? And the Lord anointed you to be king over Israel.

It seems possible that, in Sam’s eyes, it is the anointing that constituted Saul as king, that’s the moment he received authority from God, not the casting of lots. But clearly in the eyes of the people, the anointing (done in private) was not enough to tell them who held the authority of prince, the validation of the authority to them required another act, and this was supplied in the casting of lots.

Now, interestingly, David too is anointed long before his kingship is proclaimed publicly:

(1 Samuel 15:23) Forasmuch, therefore, as you have rejected the word of the Lord, the Lord has also rejected you from being king… And Samuel said to Saul: I will not return with you, because you have rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord has rejected you from being king over Israel… And Samuel saw Saul no more till the day of his death: nevertheless, Samuel mourned for Saul, because the Lord repented that he had made him king over Israel…(1 Samuel 16:1) And the Lord said to Samuel: How long will you mourn for Saul, whom I have rejected from reigning over Israel? Fill your horn with oil, and come, that I may send you to Jesse, the Bethlehemite: for I have provided me a king among his sons. 2 And Samuel said: How shall I go? For Saul will hear of it, and he will kill me. And the Lord said: You shall take with you a calf of the herd, and you shall say: I have come to sacrifice to the Lord. 3 And you shall call Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you are to do, and you shall anoint him whom I shall show to you… and Samuel said to Jesse: The Lord has not chosen any one of these. 11 And Samuel said to Jesse: Are here all your sons? He answered: There remains yet a young one, who keeps the sheep. And Samuel said to Jesse: Send, and fetch him: for we will not sit down till he come hither. 12 He sent therefore and brought him. Now he was ruddy and beautiful to behold, and of a comely face. And the Lord said: Arise, and anoint him, for this is he. 13 Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the midst of his brethren: and the Spirit of the Lord came upon David from that day forward: and Samuel rose up, and went to Ramatha…

After years of Saul’s nonsense against David even though David did nothing to actually claim the kingship, Saul and Jonathan die, and finally David accepts official title – but only in Judah:

(2 Samuel 2:3) David also brought along the men who were with him, each with his family. They settled in the cities of Hebron. 4 The men of Judah came and there they anointed David as king over the people of Judah.

Eventually (after more intrigue in Saul’s remaining family and 7 years) David is accepted by the rest of Israel.

(2 Samuel 5:1) All the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron saying, “Look, we are your very flesh and blood! 2 In the past, when Saul was our king, you were Israel’s general. The Lord said to you, ‘You will shepherd my people Israel; you will rule over Israel.’” 3 When all the leaders of Israel came to the king at Hebron, King David made an agreement with them in Hebron before the Lord. They designated [“anointed” – Am. Standard, Douay, and King James] David as king over Israel. 4 David was thirty years old when he began to reign and he reigned for forty years. 5 In Hebron he reigned over Judah for seven years and six months, and in Jerusalem he reigned for thirty-three years over all Israel and Judah.

So, I am going to suggest that even within the context of assuming that all authority comes from God, it is a natural, essential feature of political authority in exercise that there be a public act or condition under which it is recognized, before the ruler can rightly and appropriately demand obedience.

Other than the sheerest direct intervention by miraculous sign, this public event or condition is at the hands of men: it is men, for example, who design and regulate the law of succession from one king to the next. In many cases, it is the oldest son, but in some cultures a group of elders select which son it is. Men can change the rule of succession without a revolution against the existing order. So, it seems to me correct to say that whatever we say about whether God puts the authority into the hands of the body politic as a whole for them to pass on, or not, it must be the case that God normally permits the designation of who shall hold authority as a matter for men to determine. (And this does not imply democracy.)

There are lot’s of other examples to pick from. There are a whole host of events around the fall of the Iron Curtain and the rise of new non-communist governments in Eastern Europe, and, eventually, Russia. Some of them were, I think, bloody ousters of the dictator, while others were more complex situations involving people resisting the government until the government itself chose to accept a new order. Or, maybe that characterization is inaccurate – I am only passingly familiar with the events.

Feel free to suggest your own examples, if you have one that makes things clearer. The matter is a little different for American independence: the states had real authority as colonial entities, and these authorities persisted throughout the change, and these formally declared the new order. There was no cessation of the prior political authority in toto, there was instead a transference of ultimate sovereignty away from the British king.


Comments (43)

Becoming king by right of conquest is another interesting one. In the case of the Norman Conquest, William of Normandy tried at first to claim kingship by way of two peaceful means--that Harold had sworn on a saint's relics that William would be king after Edward the Confessor died, and that Edward had ostensibly designated William to be the next king. The council of England, however, wasn't buying it. They made Harold king. So William invaded and simply took over England by main force. There's no question that at _some_ point William and his heirs "became" the kings of England de jure as well as de facto. No one (except maybe some unrealistic character in a Walter Scott novel) would have actually told Richard the Lion-Hearted more than a hundred years later that he wasn't really king because he was a Norman. And William was swift in consolidating his power. At what point loyal Saxons who saw that their side had been defeated were _bound_ to obey William rather than fighting on is, I suppose, rather central to your question. Perhaps I'm overly pragmatic, but I'm inclined to think they were bound to give in when/if the alternative was that they and their families would be killed. But it would be understandable if for the rest of their lives they privately spoke of William as "not really the king." Perhaps one peaceful succession was necessary for that charge to become ludicrous?

In the Netherlands, after the German Army rolled in, the German authorities gave the home grown Dutch Nazis governing authority. Two leading conservative reformed leaders responded to this transfer of power in opposite ways.
The conservative Neo-Reformed theologian, Klaas Schilder, was an enemy of the Nazi movement before the war and viewed the Nazi take over of power as illegitimate. He urged resistance to the Nazi, both Dutch & German.
The conservative Pietist Reformed theologian, G. H. Kersten, was a critic of the Nazi movement before the war but after the Nazi take over viewed it as God's judgment on the Netherlands. He urged acquiescence to Nazi authority

Interesting, Thomas. I suppose that even for the Pietist theologian, it would depend on what the Nazis were ordering, though. One would hope so.

Here's an example that shows the superiority of the American over the English system. The English "laws" of succession left genuine ambiguities when the king died without an heir. (These may now have been eliminated by codification; I don't know.) When Richard the Lion-Hearted died, he had designated his brother John Lackland as his heir. But according to some apparently quite plausible traditional laws of succession, Arthur, the eldest son of Richard's deceased older brother, was the rightful heir. Arthur brought a rather pathetic army over from Brittany to fight John and was squashed. He afterwards, as I recall, disappeared in captivity, presumably killed.

America's Founders wanted to avoid any such disastrous ambiguities, so the question of who is President is set out meticulously by a plethora of written rules, governing both the peaceful transfer of power at the normal end of a term and also the peaceful transfer of power should the President die or be incapacitated in the middle of a term.

Ernst Kantorowicz had something to say in The King's Two Bodies about your question of when a king actually gets his power, and about some of your other points as well. As I remember (?), during the late Middle Ages the trend was for the new king to get his power earlier and earlier, eventually at the previous king's demise, rather than later when the new king was officially anointed and/or crowned (sometimes after an interregnum of years).

I recommend that great book very highly for a historical, as opposed to a theological, look at some of your questions. The King's Two Bodies was written for scholars but it's readable and free of technical jargon. Medieval technical terms are explained. There are some untranslated Latin quotes, but you can often guess the meaning. I quickly learned to skip the footnotes.

On the word "authority," there are really two meanings. One is legitimate power, as you suggest. The other is auctoritas as contrasted with potestas. Auctoritas in this sense has famously been described as "less than a command and more than advice."

Wait, did we just start a debate over the sources of political authority based on nothing but a few passages from Samuel? Paging St. Thomas, Paging St. Thomas. St. Thomas Aquinas, please report to the internet . . .

Lydia writes:

Becoming king by right of conquest is another interesting one

Yes. A source of authority, legitimacy and power that we don't think about much now but which has great historical significance, is the right of conquest.

Although William I is always referred to as 'the Conqueror', he didn't think of himself as such. His 'conquest' was merely the inheritance of a crown that he believed was his by lawful succession. Edward the Confessor had promised the English throne to William in 1051, and they also had a distant blood relationship. But it's doubtful that Edward had the right to bequeath his kingdom as a personal gift to a distant cousin.

William knew that his entitlement to the English throne rested on shaky foundations, and he remained Duke of Normandy (and a filibuster) until Christmas Day 1066 when he was crowned king of the English in the abbey at Westminster.

The ceremony which took place on that day followed the traditional English pattern, and William was consecrated according to a rite which was substantially the same as that which had been followed in the coronation of English kings at least since the time of Edgar (King of England, 959-975). William was proclaimed ruler of 'the kingdom of the Angles and Saxons'.

So at the very beginning of William's reign as king, every effort was made to emphasize the continuity of regal authority in England. His claim to inherit the crown through an unbroken royal succession was the source of his legitimacy and authority. It was to regulate his policy for the rest of his life.

If Harold had had an heir, things would have _really_ been interesting.

Becoming king by right of conquest is another interesting one

Yes. A source of authority, legitimacy and power that we don't think about much now but which has great historical significance, is the right of conquest.

But doesn't the right of conquest also imply one is capable of wielding power such as to govern what has been conquered? The latter in those days being presumed to be easier. I don't think it was the conquest per se, but what conquest implied.

Something possibly related is that often I think too much is punted to the legal domain these days. If Canada has claims near the North Pole that it has done nothing with, then why shouldn't Russia stick an outpost on it and say "it's ours." Does it really matter who they signed their name on a paper many years ago if it was never used? That is why nations always wanted settlers to occupy the land. In barren land a mine and other commercial interests would serve the same purpose. The same principle holds even in the internet age. Copyrights have to be used to be defended. Maybe this is a tangent, but it seems related to legitimacy.

Legitimacy in the world since 1945 is a function solely of acceptance (or increasingly rarely, mere acquiescence) by the US Dept. of State (or its vassal organs such as the UN or NATO). Such legitimacy implies authority, which in turn necesitates power (which, for the less actually powerful, is often accompanied a hefty "aid" payment)... Legitimacy, so bequeathed by the US Dept. of State, operates as long and only as long as the US Dept. of State says so..

In truth, today there are approximately two kinds of sovereign governments: 1) those whose legitimacy is recognized by the US Dept of State (which thereby strongly implies a lack of actual sovereignty), and 2) illegitimate ones. The only reason type 2 governments exist at all, is that insufficient political will and financing exist thus far to carry out the Perfect Will of Foggy Bottom.

Tho' it is frightful, and certainly unchristian, to ponder the idea that power implies authority implies legitimacy, I have to conclude that such would at least be a step in the right direction. It might, at least, reduce the body count.

Lydia, great example to bring up. Thanks.

Thomas, that's a very interesting dichotomy. It shows one of the grave moral perils of starting a war of conquest, or civil war: that well-educated people of good intention end up on opposite sides of "X must be obeyed", and end up cutting the average joe off from a solid, irreproachable reservoir of certainty as to what he ought to do. I hope we get more into that issue in a follow-up discussion.

Aaron, I'll try to get the book if I can find if for cheap. I don't have access to a university library at the moment.

Mark, I don't think your point is entirely a tangent. I think it is pretty on point to try to discover what is in the transition of a person who, at first, ONLY commands by fear of his army, but passes over to commanding without a raised fist.

Lydia proposes that maybe there needs to be one peaceful transition before it is a legitimate government, but I doubt that: how could the people who are actually responsible for carrying out the specific forms of the peaceful transition be doing so without already more or less a kind of legitimacy, since they cannot be carrying it out with violence and threat of war to achieve the "one peaceful transition", and they cannot be carrying it out under the direct pressure of the guy who died whose power now has to shift to someone else. Those people who carry it out peacefully seem to have already granted the new order legitimacy. It almost seems like a chicken and egg conundrum, though, doesn't it? It really is mysterious.

Titus, I'll get there. Unless you beat me to it, which would be pretty easy. I wanted to just lay out the problem itself before really throwing some potential solutions up. (Heh heh, as if I thought I had some really good solutions.)

Tony,

When you get to St. Thomas, be sure to explain the distinction between power and authority. That seems to be where this is heading.

The Chicken

Never mind...I read your post in more detail and see that you are getting there.

The Chicken

But doesn't the right of conquest also imply one is capable of wielding power such as to govern what has been conquered? The latter in those days being presumed to be easier. I don't think it was the conquest per se, but what conquest implied.
Legitimate - meaning authorized by law - isn't acquired by conquest. That's why William the Conqueror was anxious to establish his claim to the English throne by right of lawful succession. His coronation ceremony was intended to consolidate his legitimacy. Doubters might be won over by the traditional rite that crowned William I as king. He didn't consider himself a usurper.

Maybe political legitimacy can be acquired or conceded by degrees over time. When a conquest has 'settled in', laws will passed to justify the de facto situation. I believe it was Tom Paine who said that every monarchy originated in an ancient tyranny. But I don't think the English constitution - vague as it is - contains any fundamental uncertainty about the legitimate status of the monarch. It's much too late for that.

Maybe political legitimacy can be acquired or conceded by degrees over time. When a conquest has 'settled in', laws will passed to justify the de facto situation.

That's great. I was thinking along just those lines, Alex: at least in the beginning of some new governments, it may be that legitimacy comes to exist in degrees. We always _like_ there to be some definitive, instantaneous break so that there is no moral doubt about the matter, but maybe that's just looking for the wrong kind of answer. If you want to determine when a green apple becomes red, you can average it out to give when it is 51% red, or 85% red, but you cannot specify the single moment that people would say "it became red" both because there is variance in when people would think it became red, and still more because the change is something that inherently takes time - through an interval. The real answer would be that it "became red" from July 26 through September 18.

But we should not be hasty here: if it is indeed possible that a new government acquires legitimacy in degrees, this would have logical implications. For example, it might mean that people are only partly obligated to obey the new regime. Another result would be that the gradual change would (at least probably) require some kind of continuing cause that is responsible for the increase in legitimacy. For example, when people find that the new government makes one law after another that really is geared for the common good instead of private good, that might be part of the ongoing 'cause'.

It would also imply a fairly close connection between the ongoing cause and something that people (at the minimum, that subset of people for whom the acceptance of the new order as legitimate is something they have a choice about) can actually take note of - something that is public such as laws, or a coronation, or whatever. And might lead to a conclusion that the very essence of "being legitimate" or "becoming legitimate" as a government is something that rests in the hands of (some of?) the people. I don't want us to back into such a conclusion accidentally - it should be accepted or rejected with clear understanding of what it means.

Another example: When the Dauphin (Duke of Orleans?) was crowned king at Rheims after Joan of Arc's intervention making it possible. In theory he had the correct requirements to be the ruler (he was the legal descendant to take the throne), and de facto some of the people followed him and some did not. After the coronation, most of France not under the English (and the Burgundians) obeyed him. Does the fact that the country was rent by warfare, with some towns being passed back and forth repeatedly, muddy any conclusions we can take about to what extent Charles was legitimate?

If a valid, legitimate ruler is being deposed by a people who simply doesn't like his rule (even though it is, in fact, for the common good) does he lose his legitimacy by the very fact that he ceases to have the acceptance of the people? That would be a very problematic conclusion. Is it possible for him to lose power first, and later to lose legitimacy by the very fact that another ruler gains acceptance?

I hate to say it, but I don't think there are any straightforward answers to some of these questions. For example, Tony envisages an unjust revolution (the people overthrowing a ruler who is in fact ruling for the common good) and asks whether there is an obligation after that to obey the new revolutionary government. It seems to me that that question can be answered only by, "It depends." Obviously, it depends in part on what the new government is telling one to do. But it probably also depends on the extent to which things have "settled down" under the new government, the extent to which it has become the de facto government, and the extent to which there is any viable alternative.

One of the reasons that English uncertainties went on for so long (e.g. the Wars of the Roses) was because the hereditary nature of the kingship and the many different ways that could be passed on meant that there was often another claimant behind whom the opposition could join forces. Hence the many murders in prison and the various dubiously willing marriages with females of the opposing camp. But if a revolution has succeeded (even if it was unjust originally) and there is no one else behind whom to rally in trying to reverse the revolution, then I suppose things _would_ come to a point where the ordinary folks were obliged to regard the new government as "the powers that be who are ordained by God"--"ordained" just in the very messy sense of God's allowing the radical contingencies of history to create facts on the ground.

(If I get a chance later I'll type in an interesting quotation that goes in a completely different direction from this comment from a novel I coincidentally just started reading about Bolingbroke's deposition of Richard at the beginning of the Wars of the Roses.)

Tony writes:

But we should not be hasty here: if it is indeed possible that a new government acquires legitimacy in degrees, this would have logical implications. For example, it might mean that people are only partly obligated to obey the new regime. Another result would be that the gradual change would (at least probably) require some kind of continuing cause that is responsible for the increase in legitimacy. For example, when people find that the new government makes one law after another that really is geared for the common good instead of private good, that might be part of the ongoing 'cause'.
Doesn't the difficulty of establishing legitimacy account for the antique notion that "kings were by God appointed" ? This notion circumvents many difficulties that arise from secular political thought. Here's a few satirical lines from an old ballad we used to sing at school. I still remember the tune:

In good King Charles's golden days,
When loyalty no harm meant;
A zealous High-Church man was I,
And so I gain'd preferment.
To teach my flock my flock I never missed;
Kings were by God appointed,
And damn'd are those who dare resist,
Or touch the Lord's anointed.
And this is law I will maintain
Unto my dying day, sir,
That whatsoever King shall reign,
I will be Vicar of Bray, sir!

To grossly oversimplify, one could say that the English civil war was a struggle against the theoretical divine right of kings. The government of Charles I was legitimate, but he didn't rule wisely nor well. His overthrow was justifiable.

I'm not sure that we are ever entirely obligated to yield to legitimacy - however acquired. There's an arbitrary element in the sources of legitimacy that unquestioned obedience ignores. What happens to be lawful may be corrupted or cruel, and it might be our duty to resist. Under Norman law, John was the legitimate King of England. But the rebel barons who resisted his rule and extracted the Magna Carta from him, had at least self-serving 'right' or perhaps interest on their side.

The American War of Independence could be characterized as another justified rebellion against legitimate authority. The legitimacy of rule by the 'present King of Great Britain', can be inferred from Jefferson's long list of grievances in the Declaration of Independence. (I can't remember and I haven't checked whether it's explicitly referred to in that document.)

Doesn't the difficulty of establishing legitimacy account for the antique notion that "kings were by God appointed" ? This notion circumvents many difficulties that arise from secular political thought.

Well, I don't think that the notion that "kings were by God appointed" actually solves the problem. All it does is clap a name "God" on something that, if is in fact God doing it, is actually done through humans. There are virtually no cases - none I can think of - where God miraculously designates by manifest sign to all the people that THIS is now the ruler. So if we ascribe the source to God, we must still assign the intermediate activity to men, and then we must locate that intermediate activity.

I'm not sure that we are ever entirely obligated to yield to legitimacy - however acquired. There's an arbitrary element in the sources of legitimacy that unquestioned obedience ignores.

Alex, you raise a very good point in your second sentence: beneath our obedience to God, there can be no such thing as absolutely unquestioned obedience to men. At the least, we must be prepared to ask 2 questions: Is what I am commanded moral or immoral for me to do; and Is what I am commanded within the writ of authority of him who commands me. But these questions apply to legitimate authority just as much as they apply to someone who is merely in power without authority (well, the first one does, anyway), so they cannot help distinguish the legitimacy of legitimate authority from the illegitimate.

But you managed to cloud the issue with your first sentence. For a ruler to be legitimate means, at least ostensibly, just precisely that we are obligated to yield to him (as long as the matter is within his writ of authority and he is not commanding that I do something immoral). To call it legitimate authority is to say that I have an obligation to obey, isn't it?

It seems to me that that question can be answered only by, "It depends." Obviously, it depends in part on what the new government is telling one to do. But it probably also depends on the extent to which things have "settled down" under the new government, the extent to which it has become the de facto government, and the extent to which there is any viable alternative.

Lydia, I think that this is true. But I think also that there are or used to be some political theorists out there who DON'T think that it is true: they would maintain that mere time does NOTHING to make an illegitimate government to be now legitimate, and that therefore it was right and just (for example) for King James II's descendants to agitate for the throne many decades after the Stuart line was deposed.

I am not trying to make light of the pragmatic difficulty of figuring out who to obey or when to accept the new order. What I am trying to suggest is that we should expect that there is some principle that allows us to conceptually distinguish legitimacy from mere power. And time alone doesn't seem to serve the purpose: it would leave politics in the tent of Machiavelli as its chief explainer. Nor should the overwhelmingness of superior force do it, by itself.

Let me give an example that illustrates the problem. If the US wanted to, we would be able to walk into the Bahamas and, with armed force, cow the citizens into immediate and general obedience. Within hours or a day or two, because of our overwhelming force, there would be near-total acquiescence. After a year or so they would be quite used to that obedience - especially if we left most of their laws intact. If, on the other hand, a modest but significant group of people of Myanmar decide to overthrow their tyrants, they cannot think that they have overwhelming force and they cannot imagine that they will convince the entirety of the population that they are surely going to succeed. So at the beginning of the revolt, they can only hope to gain a modest following, and hope that this continues to grow by the days and weeks. In the intervening time, there will be plenty of people (those closest to the army barracks, and who will be shot if they don't follow the tyrants, who cannot think that acquiescence to the new group is mandatory. But suppose that this revolt eventually succeeds after 6 months of struggle.

It would be silly to suggest that at the 5 months mark the new US government-backed regime in the Bahamas was vastly more legitimate than the new order in Myanmar, because the Bahamas would have been solidly obeying the new government for 5 full months. It would also be silly to suggest that at the 1 year mark the good citizens of the Bahamas should not be calling their obedience "acquiescence to superior force" but simply submission to legitimate government. If a regime gains legitimacy precisely in virtue of gaining acquiescence, then sheer success in revolt justifies revolt, and overwhelming force creates legitimacy. And political legitimacy is pointless.

Shouldn't there be something other than time and acquiescence that explains legitimacy?

Tony:

If we assume a secular order, the divine right of kings doesn't answer the question of where political legitimacy comes from. That was understood, I suspect, by its advocates. It was a most convenient doctrine intended to close down debate about who was entitled to rule. Assuming a traditional Christian order, the belief that kings were appointed by God would be a powerful incentive to obey the monarch and a disincentive to rebel.

My own view is that legitimacy is ultimately an arbitrary bargain made between contending wills to power. Rulers usually procure and keep their places because their supporters believe it's expedient for them.

Legitimate authority cannot command our conduct in every respect - which is why I said, and you agree, that we are never entirely obligated to yield to it. The mere existence of a legitimate authority with power to compel our external obedience cannot exact our internal (moral) consent.

At the risk of sounding Machiavellian, perhaps time and acquiescence will "do" if one doesn't have legal legitimacy. Whereas in the short-term, legal legitimacy is also sufficient to justify adherence, so that if there is a short-term clash between legal legitimacy and force, or if there is a long-term series of such clashes, especially where those adhering to the originally legitimate rule have some hope of success, those who continue to adhere in that way are not doing anything wrong, because there is a genuine ambiguity concerning legitimacy. After all, there _are_ real situations of semi-anarchy or civil war in which the definitely seems to be the case--as, for example, in the Wars of the Roses themselves or during the period called "the anarchy" (in which the Brother Cadfael novels are set) in the 1100's in England. Maud had the better legal claim, but Stephen had gotten himself anointed king and for a significant period of time looked like he could bring order to England. It seems to have been pretty much a person's choice, probably determined more by things like family tradition or geographical location, which one to follow and fight for. And lots of people hoped they wouldn't have to fight at all.

At the risk of sounding Machiavellian, perhaps time and acquiescence will "do" if one doesn't have legal legitimacy.

I guess I am OK with that for the moment. But it still doesn't answer the question "what does legal legitimacy consist in" when I don't really have to settle for time and acquiescence. That is, what sort of X should I be looking for that establishes legitimacy when there hasn't been much time, but I think legitimacy might be present?

For a test case, what about when Texas became an independent country? I don't know the details well enough, but I don't recall there being any underlying fount of legitimacy from which the new government could springboard - wasn't the new order new from top to toe?

I have this worried feeling that what I am groping for in the dark is something that might be approximated by the phrase "consent of the governed". Worried, because Zippy for one hates the very idea that legitimate government might rest on the consent of the governed. But still: it is distinguishable from the situation where despot Joe grabs the reigns by a muscle play, but people live with that out of fear: consent is to be understood as free consent, not mere compliance under a raised fist. That is, the people who are responsible for the legitimacy coming into being are really able to chose yea or nay, and they choose yea. (In most times and places, this need not be a majority of the people, at least initially.)

It might be the case that many times that consent is not publicly proposed and voiced in a single concrete way (such as an election or a fealty-swearing ceremony), but is real nonetheless. From the standpoint of history, such an inchoate and dispersed consent might be very difficult to discern from one of acquiescence under a raised fist eventually turning to legitimacy with enough time. But I would propose that in the latter type of case, time alone might not do it unless the people eventually acquired a sense that the raised fist was at least as much there for protection from outside threats and to put down mal-contents as to force compliance - i.e. two basic functions of government. And if they sense that, then their acquiescence would, to that extent, be turning into actual consent, wouldn't it? If the raised fist was ALWAYS felt by the people to be an immediate and direct threat of unjustified violence, then by that very fact they would never have the opportunity to freely consent to such a government, and it might NEVER become legitimate. (Pol Pot for example.)

Much better, then, to have a public and formal opportunity for the people to express their reception of the new government. Even a coronation ceremony where the people shout in acclamation is better than nothing at all.

One of the conclusions I would draw from the War of Roses, then, is that a forum for consent is fraught with difficulty when in fails to be general enough. If you have 1/3 of the nobles support Henry, and 1/3 support Richard, and 1/3 sits out waiting, hoping their heads stay attached to their shoulders either way, then you can't resolve anything. Truest legitimacy comes with a preponderance of the people capable of saying yea or nay freely, not with a local collection. The entire body of Electors for the Holy Roman Empire, perhaps, were sufficient, but there were masses of lesser nobility who retained capacity to maintain soldiers and lend their support. Elections are not the sole way of handling legitimacy, but they can help resolve one of the most intractable problems.

So, can we defend the position that legitimacy is grounded in consent of the governed, and that it is most perfect when that consent is expressed publicly by a preponderance of those capable of giving or withholding consent freely?

If we assume a secular order, the divine right of kings doesn't answer the question of where political legitimacy comes from. That was understood, I suspect, by its advocates. It was a most convenient doctrine intended to close down debate about who was entitled to rule.

Alex, I don't really agree. I think that "divine right of kings" as a political theory amounted to a smoke and mirrors game: it distracts you from the real issue. Even if you are NOT in a secular argument but in one that presumes authority is from God, that "divine right" does nothing to tell you WHO ought to be king. The initial king in a line is NEVER (except for Saul and David) chosen directly by God, he is chosen by men. And the rule by which power passes from one king to the next is ALSO chosen by men. God allows men their instrumental agency.

My own view is that legitimacy is ultimately an arbitrary bargain made between contending wills to power. Rulers usually procure and keep their places because their supporters believe it's expedient for them.

I cannot tell how this amounts to a way of obtaining real authority, a condition where I am morally obligated to obey. If it is an arbitrary choice on my part that allowing Henry to rule is expedient for me, then as soon as Henry's back is turned and his attention is elsewhere, it may become expedient for me to ignore the laws he set out. Law become simply a collection of rules that you must be on the watch for in case the police might notice you are not obeying, not obligations.

I think that "divine right of kings" as a political theory amounted to a smoke and mirrors game: it distracts you from the real issue. Even if you are NOT in a secular argument but in one that presumes authority is from God, that "divine right" does nothing to tell you WHO ought to be king. The initial king in a line is NEVER (except for Saul and David) chosen directly by God, he is chosen by men. And the rule by which power passes from one king to the next is ALSO chosen by men. God allows men their instrumental agency.

It's true that while the divine right of kings is supposed to sanction the authority of a reigning monarch, it doesn't give any guidance about who ought to be king. But a man who would be king and succeeds in establishing his rule, could secure his position by claiming that he would not have been crowned unless it was God's will.

Under the divine right theory, whoever happens to be king - no matter the ruthless and serpentine route to the throne - is in the happy situation from which no man can lawfully eject him. Usually of course, the king didn't just 'happen' to be in his place; he inherited it. But the same considerations applied.

By the way, I agree that God allows men their instrumental agency. I am not an advocate for the 'divine right'. I don't like monarchy and would prefer to be a citizen in a republic rather than a subject in a kingdom.

On the supposed necessity of consent, the obvious problem arises when the people to be governed are consenting to evil.
Consent is to be desired and sought, certainly, but I find it impossible to grant that consent is necessary for the legitimacy of political authority.

A question for those Christians who hold to the necessity of consent: it is clearly true that consent, if it be necessary for legitimacy, is not sufficient for legitimacy. At least I do not understand how any Christian could hold that the legitimacy of political authority lies in consent alone. What, then, is the specific quality that completes the formula for legitimacy: consent plus what?

On the supposed necessity of consent, the obvious problem arises when the people to be governed are consenting to evil.

Jeff, that's a good point. I have 2 thoughts in response, neither of which I feel is totally conclusive. First, it is at least possible that a new ruler could be "consented to" for bad reasons, where this would make it a bad thing that he had become a ruler and making the "consenters' " actions bad acts, but leave him intact as really the ruler.

Secondly, this possibility would actually EXPLAIN, rather than leave as a absolute brute fact, why God submitted to the Israelits' request (demand?) to Samuel for a king. I am reminded of Aslan's comments to Lucy and Susan that even He is subject to "the ancient magic". If a ruler's legitimacy needs consent, then in a certain sense God was "following the rules" when He gave in to their request - even though He made it clear that they were sinning against Him in doing this. It is totally clear that they were in the wrong. But instead of striking them with lightning or plague or snakes or earthquakes, He gave them their requested king.

A question for those Christians who hold to the necessity of consent: it is clearly true that consent, if it be necessary for legitimacy, is not sufficient for legitimacy. At least I do not understand how any Christian could hold that the legitimacy of political authority lies in consent alone.

Very good point. I would submit (not as a direct answer, more as a tangent) that if consent means free consent, then it implies that the consenter is ABLE to refuse to consent, not that his choice is morally neutral. Most times - indeed, nearly ALL times - we are morally obligated to give our consent. This is clearly true when there is already a law providing who shall be the next ruler, and there is no morally sound basis for departing from the law: to decide to reject the lawfully designated person out of personal preference would be immoral.

It's when there is no law that covers the facts on the ground for "who is the new ruler" that there is no definite requirement.

I can certainly imagine situations in which consent could create a new ruler, and I think those could be very good situations.

Jeff brings up situations in which the "threatening fist" is necessary to prevent the people from doing some horrific evil. Here's an interesting question: Suppose that country A is constantly suffering unprovoked attacks from neighbor B, and that a large swathe of the adult population of neighbor B is in favor of these unjust and continuous attacks. Country A might be obligated to occupy neighbor B in self-defense, possibly over the long term. This might be a necessary and justified occupation, but I wonder if we would want to use a phrase like "legitimate rule" for it. Perhaps moral legitimacy could become separated from anything like normal, legal legitimacy, because the latter would be defined in terms of the mechanisms for ruler selection within neighbor B, and also because the inhabitants of B would never be consenting.

Personally, I find all the lawyerly attempts to rescue the idea that government authority is illegitimate unless it derives from consent rather precious.

First, it is the very nature of legitimate authority that the commands it issues are legitimate independent of the consent of those commanded. An authoritative command with morally binding authority isn't a call for volunteers. If we want to draw on how God has modeled the nature of authority, we can look to the fact that the ten commandments aren't ten suggestions. And the fact that the Israelites wanted a king (and God gave them what they wanted, good and hard) doesn't imply that governance under the Judges was illegitimate. (It may say something about the prudence of republican subsidiarity, or what today we might call federalism, though).

Second, however one wants to construe this incoherent principle (incoherent principles can be construed pretty much any way you want, which is part of why they find their way into the basis of legal arguments so often: if you can keep the incoherence from being obvious, you can make an argument for anything you like) -- however one wants to construe this incoherent principle, if (for example) the reign of St. Louis IX was a "government by the consent of the governed" every bit as much as modern liberal regimes are, then the principle is vacuous.

So modern Catholic consent-idolaters can pick their poison: either your principle is so vacuous that it entails no constraints which are not already encompassed by the fact that government's just powers derive from the common good, or all those previous illiberal governments acknowledged as legitimate by saints and even run by saints were illegitimate.

With apologies to the Lost Boys, that's one thing I never could stomach about the Internet: all the damn lawyers.

I think we can boil down one aspect of this "consent" question to something like this: Suppose that the people in Country A are just minding their own business, not particularly better nor worse than most people, not attacking their neighbors nor sacrificing their children to Moloch, and person B (he might be from within or without Country A) gets a bunch of his boys together and takes over as a tyrant. The people in Country A hate him and don't want anything to do with him, and he starts issuing orders all over the place because he feels like it, confiscating their lands or what-have-you, and they continue to simmer with resentment. Is he now the legitimate ruler just because his boys can pound you if you resist? In a sense, a "no" answer to that question arises from one's position on the possible moral justification for revolution. If person B sets up ab initio a tyrannical government against which the people would have been justified in starting a revolution, then (so goes this theory) his government never got to first base--it was never legitimate _ever_.

If I were clearly convinced that there are conditions that justify revolution (I'm ambivalent on this question, based on some Scripture verses), I would find this argument about this kind of situation convincing. And it seems to me that one could understandably characterize this position by some principle like, "Under a wide variety of ordinary cases, government set up in the first instance sheerly by force without either consent or the ordinary mechanisms of the laws of the country is tyranny and hence illegitimate." Which does bear some resemblance to a "consent of the governed" theory.

It seems to me that the answer lies in the fact that the just powers of a government are not arbitrary: they derive from the common good.

If all governments, good and bad, ultimately depend on the consent of the people, an interesting question is why do people consent to their own servitude?

David Hume's thoughts on the mystery of civil obedience:

“Nothing appears more surprising to those, who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye, than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few; and the implicit submission, with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers. When we enquire by what means this wonder is effected, we shall find, that, as FORCE is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion. It is therefore, on opinion only that government is founded; and this maxim extends to the most despotic and military governments, as well as to the most free and most popular.”

First, it is the very nature of legitimate authority that the commands it issues are legitimate independent of the consent of those commanded. An authoritative command with morally binding authority isn't a call for volunteers.
It seems to me that the answer lies in the fact that the just powers of a government are not arbitrary: they derive from the common good.

Zippy, I don't disagree with the basic premise that the very purpose of government is for the common good, and that (as a natural consequence) political authority itself is ordered to the common good.

But neither of these points helps us locate the new ruler when the old one is gone and there is no law that tells us: when the old king dies without kin, or when the old king MUST be deposed because he is an immoral and unjust tyrant opposed to the common good. In these cases, the people may be absolutely wedded to the notion, with you, that legitimate authority derives from the common good. It is just that, since there is (in these examples) no specific pointer that tells you that "obedience to X is obligatory on account of the common good" because there may be a Y or Z as well to whom obedience would serve the common good. You cannot get away from the fact that the natural law doesn't declare who, among 2 or 4 or 20 realistic options, ought to be the one you submit to, and human law doesn't: the matter is indeterminate from the standpoint of the common good. So, some additional principle, in addition to the common good, must be consulted. Such an additional principle would not reject or undermine the common good in the least.

You may have noticed that I started this thread without a pre-determined direction. That's because I WANT us to look at other options. Please, I beg you, suggest a better source of legitimacy for a new government, or a better explanation of how a brand new government becomes the legitimate authority, than what we have so far. I don't think that consent explains everything, as I indicated to Jeff C. So far, I have not heard a better explanation, but I am open to the possibility.

If all governments, good and bad, ultimately depend on the consent of the people, an interesting question is why do people consent to their own servitude?

Perhaps because it isn't "servitude" properly speaking. To serve the common good isn't to be a thrall in slavery to someone else's good. It is to be fulfilling your human nature ordered to mutual society, where the whole good is shared in common: justice, peace, knowledge - these are shared together in community, and this constitutes community life by which a person's life is richer than when he lives for himself alone.

To say that government is founded on opinion is to imply that there is no such thing as a community or a common good. That is manifestly wrong. Marriage forms a community, where the sharing of life mutually is more enriching than doing all the exact same things only for yourself. Hume the reductionist rejects one obvious truth in order to explain another obvious truth - that power cannot be maintained without assistance. Big deal.

I think that the example that you just gave, Tony, shows that you are thinking along the ceteris paribus lines that I've suggested here and above in Zippy's new post. In other words, consent of the governed can be a sufficient condition for a legitimate new government all else being equal--that is, when other sources of legitimacy that would "trump" consent of the governed are absent (or, if we can dream up such a case, when they are equipoised among different claimants or possible rulers). Moreover, in these cases it may even be _necessary_ to consult consent of the governed because one lacks other sources of legitimacy.

But neither of these points helps us locate the new ruler when the old one is gone ...
Perhaps what we've done here is beg the question by simply assuming that you are Samuel. If you are having trouble "locating" the person in authority responsible for the common good, that person is you.

All I really have to say about state-of-nature theories is that they have resulted in so much mass murder and mischief that I can hardly stand to discuss them.

Alright, Zippy, so I, and my confreres "the people", are not Samuel. And yet: you have admitted in the past, I think, that there is a valid right of revolution against a tyrant whose rule ruins a people's morals (as well as, obviously, being ordered to his own welfare). So, if there is a revolution deposing the tyrant, and yet there is no Samuel, WHAT THEN/? What is to be done? You have said nay, nay, nay, but you have not yet said what is the other thing that takes the place of nay to all I have suggested. Do you instead suppose that there is NO such right of revolution to overturn the tyrant?

Oh, it has happened in the past that the king died with nobody in line for the throne: the law only indicates male descendants of the king or in his direct line, but there are none. Then what? There is no Samuel, but need of a determination.

I finally got a chance to look up some St. Thomas's stuff on the subject. In "On Kingship":

If to provide itself with a king belongs to the right of a given multitude, it is not unjust that the king be deposed or have his power restricted by that same multitude if, becoming a tyrant, he abuses the royal power. It must not be thought that such a multitude is acting unfaithfully in deposing the tyrant, even though it had previously subjected itself to him in perpetuity, because he himself has deserved that the covenant with his subjects should not be kept, since, in ruling the multitude, he did not act faithfully as the office of a king demands. Thus did the Romans, who had accepted Tarquin the Proud as their king, cast him out from the kingship on account of his tyranny and the tyranny of his sons; and they set up in their place a lesser power, namely, the consular power.
If, on the other hand, it pertains to the right of a higher authority to provide a king for a certain multitude, a remedy against the wickedness of a tyrant is to be looked for from him. Thus when Archelaus, who had already begun to reign in Judaea in the place of Herod, his father, was imitating his father's wickedness, a complaint against him having been laid before Caesar Augustus by the Jews, his power was at first diminished by depriving him of his title of king and by dividing one-half of his kingdom between his two brothers. Later, since he was not restrained from tyranny even by this means, Tiberius Caesar sent him into exile to Lugdunum, a city in Gaul.
Should not human aid whatsoever against a tyrant be forthcoming, recourse must be had to God, the King of all, Who is a helper in due time in tribulation. For it lies in his power to turn the cruel heart of the tyrant to mildness.

So, St. Thomas seems to provide that there are indeed cases where the people have the capacity to justly depose the tyrant king. But he conditions this as a hypothetical: "If to provide itself with a king belongs to the right of a given multitude."

In other places, though, that hypothetical takes on a different cast: In the treatise on law in the Summa, Q 105 A 1, he says:

Two points are to be observed concerning the right ordering of rulers in a state or nation. One is that all should take some share in the government: for this form of constitution ensures peace among the people, commends itself to all, and is most enduring, as stated in Polit. ii, 6. The other point is to be observed in respect of the kinds of government, or the different ways in which the constitutions are established. For whereas these differ in kind, as the Philosopher states (Polit. iii, 5), nevertheless the first place is held by the "kingdom," where the power of government is vested in one; and "aristocracy," which signifies government by the best, where the power of government is vested in a few. Accordingly, the best form of government is in a state or kingdom, where one is given the power to preside over all; while under him are others having governing powers: and yet a government of this kind is shared by all, both because all are eligible to govern, and because the rules are chosen by all. For this is the best form of polity, being partly kingdom, since there is one at the head of all; partly aristocracy, in so far as a number of persons are set in authority; partly democracy, i.e. government by the people, in so far as the rulers can be chosen from the people, and the people have the right to choose their rulers.

Such was the form of government established by the Divine Law. For Moses and his successors governed the people in such a way that each of them was ruler over all; so that there was a kind of kingdom. Moreover, seventy-two men were chosen, who were elders in virtue: for it is written (Deuteronomy 1:15): "I took out of your tribes wise and honorable, and appointed them rulers": so that there was an element of aristocracy. But it was a democratical government in so far as the rulers were chosen from all the people; for it is written (Exodus 18:21): "Provide out of all the people wise [Vulgate: 'able'] men," etc.; and, again, in so far as they were chosen by the people; wherefore it is written (Deuteronomy 1:13): "Let me have from among you wise [Vulgate: 'able'] men," etc. Consequently it is evident that the ordering of the rulers was well provided for by the Law.

Nevertheless, as regards the appointment of a king, He did establish the manner of election from the very beginning (Deuteronomy 17:14, seqq.: [14 When you have come into the land, which the Lord your God will give you, and possess it, and shall say: I will set a king over me, as all nations have that are round about: 15 You shall set him whom the Lord your God shall choose out of the number of your brethren. You may not make a man of another nation king, that is not your brother. ] ): and then He determined two points: first, that in choosing a king they should wait for the Lord's decision; and that they should not make a man of another nation king, because such kings are wont to take little interest in the people they are set over, and consequently to have no care for their welfare: secondly, He prescribed how the king after his appointment should behave, in regard to himself; namely, that he should not accumulate chariots and horses, nor wives, nor immense wealth: because through craving for such things princes become tyrants and forsake justice. He also appointed the manner in which they were to conduct themselves towards God: namely, that they should continually read and ponder on God's Law, and should ever fear and obey God. Moreover, He decided how they should behave towards their subjects: namely, that they should not proudly despise them, or ill-treat them, and that they should not depart from the paths of justice.

Here is what I think St. Thomas is doing in "On Kingship". He sets out an either or: either you as a people have the right to establish a ruler, or you don't. If you have the right of establishing one, you have a per se right to dis-establish him (upon the right conditions, that is).

Who are the ones who don't? The ones who are in a condition of bondage, enslavement, or conquered - those who are in subjugation to a foreign entity. They cannot order their own rulers because they cannot throw off the foreign conqueror who appoints those rulers. These people cannot throw off a conqueror-appointed ruler, but they can apply to the foreign conqueror for assistance.

All other people do have the natural capacity to make (and unmake at extreme need) their rulers.

Thus in the Summa, when he talks about Israel when they come into the land of Canaan, there is a natural presumption that they may say:

I will set a king over me, as all nations have that are round about
. The construction that Moses uses about this has not the least bit of suggestion that maybe they have no capacity to chose a ruler. What he is cautioning them about is to follow God's direction. He is in no way saying that there is no such thing as the people's capacity to make a ruler.

Oh, and by the way, can I comment that the US construction of government follows St. Thomas's and Deuteronomy's plan of a mixed government quite well: a single chief executive, an aristocracy of a sort (senators for sure, but congressmen in lesser degree), all chosen out of the people, and all chosen

by the people.

All I really have to say about state-of-nature theories is that they have resulted in so much mass murder and mischief that I can hardly stand to discuss them.

Fortunately, Zippy, nothing in St. Thomas's (or my) discussion involves any sort of resort to a "state of nature" type of situation. You need not get ill over our comments. Nor do I have any sympathy for the Hobbesian theory of the "state of nature" explanation for political authority. When Moses references the people saying "I will set a king over me", he is talking about a people who already have an organizing order - a judge, the 72 elders. No state of nature.

I am quite confident that if you wanted to ask St. Thomas whether King St. Louis IX's throne (i.e. the monarchical order that he inherited) was established by way of a people's "setting a king over themselves", his answer would be a resounding yes. That is to say, it clearly fits with what he says in both On Kingship and in the Summa that peoples do in fact set kings over themselves, and that they have a natural capacity for same. And so, unless a kingship was established by an exterior power of conqueror, we may certainly find that a kingship was established by a people choosing a king over themselves. That it does not occur by a formal election of the entire multitude is irrelevant to whether consent is present. Nor is it necessary to suppose that the consent that is referred to is the consent of each and every person. Nobody is supposing such nonsense.

I should like to hear you explain what you think Moses, Samuel, and St. Thomas considered a "choosing" when the people chose a king over themselves.

Tony, briefly:

Yes, republican forms tend to be better than "undistilled" forms like pure democracy, dictatorship, etc; in no small part because republican forms better reflect subsidiarity. Yes, communities form governments. And yes, it is possible at least in principle to justify overthrowing a tyrant when he is exercising his power for selfish ends rather than in pursuit of the common good.

It is not necessary to assent to the principle "powers of government not derived from the consent of the governed are illegitimate precisely because they do not derive from consent" in order to believe any of those things.

All of which has been visited ad nauseum in historical threads here, and need not be revisited over and over again in a game of death by a thousand paper cuts.

Tony: I guessed David Hume might be persona non grata. But I think you did a good job in taking apart his facile opinion. In Hume's defence, I would say the emphasis in what he says applies to tyranny.

Here's something I read in a discourse on the politics of obedience by Étienne de La Boétie who was a Catholic lawyer and a contemporary of Montaigne. He became a source of Huguenot thinking about monarchy. (I believe Huguenot influences can be traced in the ideas of the Founding Fathers.)

La Boétie contends: “There are three kinds of tyrants; some receive their proud position through elections by the people, others by force of arms, others by inheritance. Usurpers or conquerors always act as if they are ruling a conquered country and those born to kingship are scarcely any better because they are nourished on the breast of tyranny, suck in with their milk the instincts of a tyrant, and consider the people under them as their inherited serfs.

As for elected rulers, they would seem more bearable but they are always intriguing to convert election into a hereditary despotism......They surpass other tyrant in cruelty because they find no other means to impose this new tyranny than by tightening control and removing their subjects so far from any notion of liberty that even if their memory of it is fresh, it will soon be eradicated."

La Boétie can find no choice between these three kinds of tyrants: "For although the means of coming to power differ, still the manner of ruling is the same; those who are elected behave as though they were breaking in bullocks; those who are conquerors make people their prey; and those who are heirs plan to treat their subjects as natural slaves".

The bit I have bolded is what seems to be the relevance of La Boétie's thought to the perennial impostures of overweening government. I believe Americans are more alert to the dangers of 'tightening control' than most European people would be.


It is not necessary to assent to the principle "powers of government not derived from the consent of the governed are illegitimate precisely because they do not derive from consent" in order to believe any of those things.

Then we see eye to eye on this: neither you nor I believe that powers originate in the consent of the governed.

All of which has been visited ad nauseum in historical threads here, and need not be revisited over and over again in a game of death by a thousand paper cuts.

Sorry, that's not good enough. At least in my time at this site (about 2 years), we have not attempted this current discussion, to peer specifically into legitimacy of a government as it is coming into being. Lots of discussions have assumed various points of view about this, without actually making the case for those points of view.

I repeat my request: what you think Moses, Samuel, and St. Thomas considered a "choosing" when the people chose a king over themselves. What accounting do you give of it, so that what was before no kingship came forth into a kingship with true authority.

all chosen out of the people, and all chosen by the people

In principle, yes, in practice, no. "The people" from whom modern governments are formed would never have elected Moses - he was poor, you see, and without those miracles, he would never have come to the notice of the people-at-large. Then, there was the stuttering problem. People want their representatives to be 8 x 10 glossies of perfection. He was probably dirty and might have spoken with an accent (his early Egyptian up bring might have negated this, however).

The point is that people, most certainly, today, do not chose the common man as their representative. They could not conceive of a poor, humble man having authority over them. That is why many in Israel (and today) could not believe that Christ was a king.

In principle, it ought to work that good, honest men are elected to authority, but in practice, it is the pleaser, those who separate themselves from the people they represent, who are elected. People do not elect the best representatives, they elect their dreams. I am certain that there are fifty good men in the United State who would make better presidents than any we have had in the last 60 years, but as long as they would have to raise money, to smooze, to be sure not to say what's really true, and to please, please, please the electorate with meaningless platitudes and promises, the really good people, who would exercise authority humbly and rationally are GUARANTEED not to be elected.

Governments are needed for the common good, but, in recent times in such plainly obvious ways, governments have not reflected not meditated on the common good, but reflected the common depravities they were elected to shield against.

All true authority is from God, but the focus of that authority is a matter of free will. If they focus their authority where it should not go, they separate themselves from their authority. Jesus rightly said, "apart from me, you can do nothing.". He is the vine and when the branches of government separate themselves from that life-giving perspective, they drain death, in one way or another, onto their people.

I only trust, "the people," to the extent they are humble and tending towards righteousnes. I see less and less of that, anywhere in the world, today.

I am very pessimistic about the role of man in government, today. Sadly, in many cases , a computer program could do better - while it will never know compassion, neither will it know corruption. Computers can't sin and while rulers can be sinners, sin, when it rules the ruler, removes any legitimacy to his claims of service,

The Chicken

MC, I agree with you for the main, but I would pull out a question or two for further examination. Supposing that the king starts out with true authority, and he sins in his use of power, is it by reason of the sin itself that he removes a claim to legitimacy?

David was a true king with valid authority, anointed by God and acclaimed by the people. And he ruled for the common good. That is, until Bathsheba came along. Then he had his general put Uriah in the front lines. Now, if David did not confide in the general as to WHY he wanted Uriah in the front lines, the general would not know, and could not say: "that's immoral, I won't do it, and you're no longer my king." Until Nathan was told by God how David sinned, nobody would have known. But God did not say "David is no longer king because he sinned", which is exactly what God told Saul.

I cannot say I know exactly why God dealt so differently with David compared to Saul. But here is my guess: David's use of power was an abuse in a personal sense, but not in a political sense - it was not against the common good of its own nature. It belongs to the art of command to say to certain soldiers "I want you in the thick of things" even though it places them in the greater danger. There is nothing offensive in the use of command as such that one or another, Uriah or Jonathan, should be singled out for risk. To single out like that does not detract from the common good, in some cases it is necessary for the common good. What David did, then, was a sin not in the FACT of commanding that one person be put in the dangerous part of battle, but rather that it be done for personal reasons rather than reasons of state. And, thus, David's sin was a sin against Uriah, but not of such a nature as to be a sin against the state except by reason of being a sin against Uriah.

Secondly, does it require that a ruler commit more than one single sin that they lose their authority? Or, to put it another way: God can certainly remove a man from authority because of one sin. But if man is to remove a man from his authority, it seems that it must be a clear and overwhelming need, and it seems impossible to meet this criterion with a few mediocre sins - it must either be the most horrible of sins (outright betraying the state) or a long, long string of lesser evils - for men to be able to say, of their own capacity, that a ruler cannot be the ruler anymore. If that be so, then from the standpoint of the people ruled, it is not so much simply that the ruler sinned, as rather that the ruler can no longer be thought to be ordering toward the common good.

Finally, (at least for this discussion) there is legitimacy: the legitimacy of a political authority is present with the public recognition, or validation, that this person has authority.

I'm reading Robert Nesbit's "Degradation of the Academic Dogma," and here's a quote that expresses something I've had in mind in this discussion.

". . . authority not undergirded by the sense of recognized function is notoriously tenuous."

I think this is one of the reasons that public consent figures in our political philosophy as it does.

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