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What Makes a Government Legitimate?

by John Spritzler

December 16, 2012

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[Read "Proof We Have a Fake Democracy"]

[Read "A Misunderstanding about Democracy"]

[Read "U.S. Constitution: Help or Hindrance?"]

[Read: 'The U.S. "Founding Fathers" Were Enemies of "We the People"']

[Read "Should There Be Any Government At All?"]



Many national governments that primarily enable the haves to dominate and oppress the have-nots are governments based on more or less fair elections. This demonstrates that it is a mistake to believe that holding fair elections--a.k.a. "consent of the governed"--makes a government legitimate. The specific problem with the "consent of the governed" principle is the focus of the sub-section below with that sub-title. What truly is the fundamental basis of a government's legitimacy is the topic of this article.


Why do good people obey bad laws? Why do ordinary people obey the Federal government's laws that benefit the haves at the expense of the have-nots?


All of the laws regarding the rights of employers are laws that ordinary working class people obey to their detriment, not to their advantage. Laws give employers the right to claim personal private ownership of what is rightfully public property--vast tracts of land, and industrial machinery, factories, office buildings and so forth that were produced by the labor of countless working people with the indispensable assistance of even more countless working people (such as the farmers who fed them and the teachers who taught them.) Laws prohibit some workers from going on strike. Laws prohibit workers from engaging in sympathy strikes in support of other workers on strike. Laws require people to pay taxes that the government uses to pay back the interest and principle on loans by banks and billionaires whom the government should have taxed, not borrowed from.

Laws are responsible for the enormous economic inequality in the United States and for all of the ways ordinary people are harmed by policies designed to make them accept this inequality. For example, laws mandating high stakes standardized testing of our school children--testing that is a form of child abuse and that is designed to ensure that large numbers will fail no matter how well students learn their lessons--were imposed by the Federal government at the behest of Big Business for the purpose of making many working class children blame themselves instead of our unequal social system for their relegation to low-paying jobs or unemployment. Parents and teachers and students have never supported these laws and so many other bad laws like them, but we obey them. Why?

The VALID Authoritarian Principle is Why People Obey

One of the main reasons people obey bad laws today, perhaps a more compelling reason even than fear of imprisonment for breaking the law, is that they accept, for quite understandable reasons, the valid authoritarian principle. This is the principle that one is morally obliged to obey the highest level of the government if it has a truly legitimate right to rule. People who deny that there is any basis for a government claiming the legitimate right to rule, those who say they are only obliged to obey laws they agree with but not laws they disagree with, such people are rightly viewed as dangerous anti-social individuals because of their refusal to abide by the valid authoritarian principle.

The INVALID Authoritarian Principle

The problem is when people, because they support the valid authoritarian principle, feel obliged to obey a government that does not in fact have true legitimacy to rule over people but only (falsely) declares that it does. The invalid authoritarian principle says that one must obey the highest level of government if it declares itself to have legitimacy to rule, even if it really doesn't.


Read here how people in the past have, on occasion,  refused to obey the invalid authoritarian principle.

But what gives a government a truly legitimate right to rule? How governments have claimed legitimacy has varied over time and in different parts of the world. In the past kings claimed legitimacy from "God's will," the so-called "Divine right of kings." Sometimes a government seems legitimate to people merely because it has been the government for a very long time before they were even born. In most of the world today governments claim legitimacy on the grounds that they were voted in by a fair election and thus "have the consent of the governed." Read below in the section "Consent of the Governed?" about why consent of the governed is an inappropriate concept in the context of governmental legitimacy with respect to virtually all currently existing governments.


Regardless of the particular basis for a government's legitimacy, there is something to be said for the idea that governments should exist and have the power to enforce laws. Otherwise good laws, such as the one requiring people to drive on the right hand side of the road (not to mention laws against rape and murder and theft, etc.), could not be enforced, at least not with the enormous effectiveness of a government that has--by definition (read about this here)--a monopoly on violence in the given region. Society has a right to enforce good laws even if some disagree that they are good. Didn't people have the right to tell the slave owners in America in the 19th century that they no longer owned their slaves and had to set them free, even though the slave owners insisted on their right to own slaves? Clearly a good society cannot be based on letting anybody break a good and just law who deems the law a bad law!

Government Yes, But With a Different, True Basis of Legitimacy

There is a dilemma. On the one hand society needs government, as discussed here. On the other hand, the invalid authoritarian principle on which governments are typically based causes good people to obey bad laws. The solution to this dilemma lies in seeing that the problem is not government itself, but rather the particular bases of legitimacy used by current and past governments. The solution, therefore, is to radically change the basis of legitimacy of a government, as spelled out in "Thinking about Revolution," "Genuine Democracy: What Is It?,"  "Why Should Laws Only Be Made By Local Assemblies?," and "Why Only Egalitarians Can Make Laws," which describe and advocate voluntary federation of Local Assemblies of Egalitarians.


Voluntary federation of local assemblies of egalitarians says, "Yes, there should be a government with the power to make and enforce laws, but the basis of a government's legitimacy needs to be radically different from what we are accustomed to, so as to greatly reduce (if not eliminate entirely) the problem of people feeling morally obliged to obey bad laws." In voluntary federation of local assemblies of egalitarians the basis of legitimacy of a government is two-fold:


1) The lawmakers are people, and ONLY people, who support the good principles (discussed here) of no-rich-and-no-poor equality and mutual aid and fairness (let's call such people "egalitarians," and call those who oppose these principles "anti-egalitarians"); 




2) All adults who will be obliged to obey the laws AND who support the principles of equality and mutual aid and fairness, and agree that egalitarians have a legitimate right to democratically make and enforce laws, have a right to participate, as full equals of all the other lawmakers, in the meetings of the Local* Assembly of Egalitarians, which is the sovereign law-making governmental body that rules over all the people in the local community, both egalitarians and non-egalitarians. The sovereignty of the Local Assembly of Egalitarians means that no other governmental body, in particular no higher governmental body such as a national central government, has the right to make a law that people must obey.


Everybody is presumed to support the principles of equality and mutual aid and fairness unless they make it abundantly clear that they don't, in which case those who do support these principles are within their rights to remove the ones who don't from any role as a lawmaker. Elections no longer play any role in determining the legitimacy of a government; the lawmakers are no longer elected.

This two-fold basis of legitimacy is very different from the current "elected by a majority" basis. It implies that only governments that are local can make laws, because it is not realistically possible for the second condition of legitimacy (that all who must obey the laws and who support the egalitarian principles of equality and mutual aid and fairness may participate equally in making the laws) to work except on a local scale. Because only local governments can make and enforce laws, it follows that individuals in Washington D.C. (or any nation's capital) can make proposals that local governments may accept (by making appropriate laws) or reject as they wish, but they cannot make laws that everybody is morally obliged to obey.

Social order on a larger than local scale is achieved by the voluntary federation principle: local governments (i.e., local assemblies of egalitarians) send delegates to meet with delegates from other local governments for the purpose of crafting proposals (as opposed to laws) for the local assemblies of egalitarians to implement jointly if they wish (meaning that back and forth negotiating takes place to try to reach a sufficiently widely shared agreement among local assemblies of egalitarians.) Regional bodies of delegates in turn send delegates to meet with delegates from other regions, etc., up to even bodies consisting of delegates from all over the planet, in order to craft proposals for cooperation and coordination on as large a scale as people wish.

Voluntary Federation of Egalitarians Does What We Want Governments to Do, Better

Voluntary federation of local assemblies of egalitarians is more capable of preventing bad people from doing bad things than any Federal government in Washington D.C. (or any other nation's capital) ruling with the invalid authoritarian principle, and at the same time it is far less prone to making people obey bad laws.


Firstly, the voluntary federation of local assemblies of egalitarians is far less likely than today's Federal government in Washington D.C. to be controlled by bad people (anti-egalitarians) making bad anti-egalitarian laws (such control or influence by anti-egalitarians is the main reason today's Federal government doesn't prevent bad people from doing bad things in the first place). Why? Because the very legitimacy of the voluntary federation government requires all lawmakers to support the egalitarian principles of equality and mutual aid and fairness. In contrast, the legitimacy of today's Federal government has nothing to do with support for these principles, the very principles that distinguish good from bad laws.

Secondly, when laws are made by meetings open to full and equal participation by all the egalitarians a) who agree that egalitarians have the right to democratically make and enforce laws and b) who will have to obey those laws, then it is far less likely that laws will be passed that the egalitarians who have to obey them will consider to be bad laws.


Today's politicians, in contrast, make laws in virtual secrecy behind closed doors, under the influence of lobbyists for Big Money who use all sorts of methods to bribe politicians to do their bidding. Ordinary people have to obey these laws but they are excluded from the actual process of writing them. No wonder so many bad laws are now the law of the land!


With voluntary federation of local assemblies of egalitarians the people who are left out of the process but who must nonetheless obey the laws are the anti-egalitarians who want society to be unequal and who disagree with the principle of mutual aid--people like our current wealthy, privileged and powerful billionaire elite. These people may not approve of the laws and yet will be made to obey them, which is right and proper, just as it was right and proper to force the slave owners in the American South to have to obey the law against slavery, and it was right and proper for the state of Missouri after the Civil War to bar pro-slavery people from voting or holding any government office, as you can read about here.

Thirdly, voluntary federation of egalitarians enables the local governments to act in unison, even, when necessary, to organize military forces to enforce egalitarian laws against the wishes of anti-egalitarians who don't like those laws. There is nothing weak about voluntary federation. In fact, voluntary federation is particularly strong because it unifies only people who support the principles of equality and mutual aid and fairness, and is not weakened by internal disagreement over whether or not to support these principles.


Slave owners in the 19th century United States would have had a much harder time remaining slave owners if there had been voluntary federation of egalitarians as described here! Wealthy and privileged elites, when there is voluntary federation of egalitarians, will no longer be able to persuade working class people that they have to obey anti-working class laws by claiming the Federal government has a legitimate right to rule because it was elected.

Voluntary federation of local assemblies of egalitarians is the way for good people to unite and thereby prevail over bad people. It's that simple.

Consent of the Governed?

Most oppressive governments in the world today--governments that are actually instruments of a privileged and oppressive upper class--hold elections in order to be able to claim that they have the "consent of the governed" and hence exercise legitimate authority. Here is why this is a bogus claim.

First, it is obvious that the people who did not vote for the winners of the election (and this is commonly nearly 50% of the voters!) did not give their consent to the winner to rule over them.

Second, the constitution that determines how the government operates and holds elections is a document that typically was written and made the law of the land long before the people who must live under it were even born, and so they never gave their consent to it. And even if the document was ratified in the lifetime of the people who must live under it, the ones who voted "no" did not give their consent to it.

Third, informed consent--true informed consent!--is a wonderful concept, but it means something very different from what people point to when they argue that a government has "informed consent." Here's what true informed consent means. True informed consent is what is required (in most nations today) from a person before he or she can be enrolled in a medical research clinical trial. To give true informed consent the person must, under no compulsion, sign an "informed consent" document that must be written in language the person (or adult guardian in the case of a child) can understand; often the person must sign each paragraph in the consent document to make sure he or she fully understands and consents to it.

Here is a real-life story that illustrates what it means to say that the consent in a clinical trial must be under no compulsion. I heard this story told by the U.S. medical officer in the National Institutes of Health who was involved in a clinical trial carried out in a poor African village. The trial design was to randomize subjects to either the experimental treatment or a placebo. The experimental treatment was one that had to be taken by a well-fed and well-nourished person. The problem was that in this poor village people were starving. At first, the people planning the study thought it would be sufficient to simply provide all the people volunteering to be subjects in the trial (whether they were assigned to the experimental treatment arm or the placebo arm) with good and adequate food. But then they realized that if only volunteers received this food it would amount to implicit coercion/compulsion to make people volunteer to be in the trial: starve or else "consent" to be a subject in our trial. The solution that was carried out was to provide everybody in the village with good and adequate food for the duration of the clinical trial regardless of whether they volunteered to be in the trial or not. Only this way would a person's consent to be in the trial be truly without compulsion.

In contrast to true informed consent, today's current non-egalitarian governments can only obtain--at best!--phony "informed consent." In no case did the people ruled by such governments have an opportunity to vote against having a non-egalitarian government and for abolishing class inequality and having a government based on voluntary federation of egalitarians. The upper class always used compulsion to prevent people from making this choice an option for which people would be able to vote. Thus when people vote for the available option(s) it is under compulsion, as much as a person given a choice between being hanged or electrocuted "freely" chooses one or the other option.

Fourth, an egalitarian government, the purpose of which is to shape society by egalitarian values, must impose its aims on anti-egalitarians who object to its egalitarian aims. Anti-egalitarians will not give truly voluntary (no compulsion) consent to an egalitarian government. This does not make an egalitarian government illegitimate. It simply shows that the "consent of the governed" (i.e., consent of ALL the governed) concept is not appropriate in this context, as I discuss further in "A Misunderstanding about Democracy."


I recently read Leviathan and discovered, to my surprise, that the answer to the above question is, essentially, yes. Here's why.

Hobbes first says that in the absence of a sovereign power (i.e., a government that is the sole power able and willing to enforce laws) people live in a state of a war of each against each, because nothing prevents anybody from harming another person whenever and for whatever reason they wish. Hobbes writes:

"Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of Warre, where every man is Enemy to every man; the same is consequent to the time, wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength, and their won invention shall furnish them withall. In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short."


Hobbes then says that most people naturally do not want to live in such a state of war of each against each. People, Hobbes says, want to live according to natural law morality, which is based on the Golden Rule. ("Natural law," according to Hobbes, is what people, just using their natural God-given reasoning power, know to be the moral law that people should follow, whether it is formally written down or not.)


For this reason most people want there to be a sovereign power that has the power, exclusively so, to ensure peace among the members of the society over which it rules, to ensure that people honor mutual agreements, to ensure that people do not harm others except in necessary self-defense, and to defend the society with violence as needed against foreign enemies.


Hobbes then argues that the morally valid way for people to have such a sovereign power (to prevent there being a war of each against each) is for them to mutually all agree to transfer many of their rights (but not including what is necessary for personal self-defense) exclusively to a sovereign power, in which case the sovereign power exclusively enjoys these rights and no matter what it does on the basis of these rights is thereby done with the permission of each and every member of the society (which is what makes it morally legitimate), even when a particular member of the society may be personally harmed by what the sovereign power does. (Hobbes says that the sovereign power rightfully views those individuals, who claim not to have mutually agreed to hand over rights to the sovereign power, as enemies of the society just as if they were a foreign enemy.) 


Hobbes says there are three kinds of perfectly acceptable sovereign powers: 1) monarchy, when people transfer individual rights to a single individual; 2) aristocracy, when people transfer individual rights to an assembly composed of a sub-set of individuals in the society; 3) democracy, when people transfer individual rights to an assembly of all (all adults? all males? all landowners? Hobbes gives no details about this) the people in the society. 


The fact that Hobbes gives the name "aristocracy" to a sovereign assembly composed of some, but not all, of the people in the society, suggests that he assumed that it would be the wealthiest people who composed the assembly, but he never says this explicitly. 


So, if the sovereign Local Assembly of Egalitarians is composed, as I advocate, of all the people in the local community who want to shape society by egalitarian values and who agree that egalitarians have the right to make and enforce laws, and only such people, and non-egalitarians and those who do not agree to obey the Local Assembly of Egalitarians are considered to be essentially the enemy and hence not members of the society, then the society, in the Hobbesian framework, consists only of the local egalitarians who agree to obey the Local Assembly of Egalitarians; and since all of them are welcome to participate as equals in the Local Assembly of Egalitarians the sovereign is a democracy. And such a government has, according to Hobbes, all of the same morally valid legitimacy to rule over society that Hobbes ascribes to monarchies and aristocracies!

Hobbes makes an important point about a sovereign assembly, be it an aristocracy or a democracy, that is relevant to a Local Assembly of Egalitarians. The point is that the sovereign power (to make and enforce laws) is the assembly as a whole, not the individuals in it. Hobbes says, and I agree, that the will of the sovereign assembly is naturally the will of its majority of members. Thus the majority of the assembly members (at any given time with respect to any given decision) have the legitimate right to rule, despite the fact that a minority of assembly members disagrees with it. Therefore, the decision-making rule in a Local Assembly of Egalitarians is, at any given time, whatever rule the majority of its members choose, be it simple majority-rule or consensus or a hybrid consensus method.


Of course Hobbes never imagined a sovereign assembly that was composed only of egalitarians, i.e., people who opposed class inequality.  Hobbes took class inequality for granted, as a given, as entirely non-controversial. Hobbes's vision of a good society was apparently one of class inequality where everybody (except an enemy) was contented with it and happy to be living in peace instead of in a war of each against each. It never occurred to Hobbes that natural law--which he said is absolutely to be followed in all cases and which he said is based on the Golden Rule--implies that it is immoral for a person to hog socially produced wealth at the expense of others who contributed reasonably towards producing that wealth and to treat the have-nots like dirt in order to keep them "in their place" at the bottom of a class-inequality society, in other words that natural law means egalitarianism.


Nonetheless, Hobbes's Leviathan is, in my opinion, a brilliant, coherent, common sense, rigorously logical defense of the moral legitimacy of a government that makes and enforces laws. And though Hobbes never imagined that his Leviathan could be used to defend the legitimacy of an egalitarian government in which only the Local Assembly of Egalitarians is the sovereign power, in fact it can!


Of course Leviathan is not perfect. There are aspects of it with which one can quibble. One of the things that Hobbes does not adequately address with his otherwise very rigorous logic is this: by what right does the sovereign rule when the people who mutually all agreed to transfer individual rights to it have all died and been replaced with a subsequent generation of people who made no such mutual agreement? (John Locke a few decades later discussed how people can give their consent/mutual agreement to the sovereign rule either with an explicit declaration or implicitly by simply living under its rule and enjoying the benefits of it.) But this is only a problem when the sovereign is not a democracy. When the sovereign is a democracy (an assembly of all the people in the society) however, each new generation of individuals constituting the entire society tacitly, by continuing to meet in assembly, renews the required mutual agreement of all the people in (but not enemies of) the society over which the sovereign rules. Because the egalitarian sovereign (the Local Assembly of Egalitarians) is, as shown above, a Hobbesian democracy, there is no problem with its legitimizing mutual agreement, among all the people in the society, remaining in effect from one generation to the next.


* Read in the second paragraph below why the Local Assembly of Egalitarians is a local assembly for just a relatively small local community, and not a large regional or national assembly.


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