What Makes a Government Legitimate?

December 16, 2012

[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"']


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 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 "authoritarian" principle. This is the principle that one is morally obliged to obey the highest level of the government if it has a 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 authoritarian principle. Read here how people in the past have, on occasion,  refused to obey the authoritarian principle.

But what gives a government a 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." 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.


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, could not be enforced. 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 the law who deems the law a bad law!

Government Yes, But With a Different Basis of Legitimacy

But there is a dilemma. On the one hand society needs government, as discussed here. On the other hand, the 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, (and also here) which advocates "voluntary federation."


Voluntary federation says, "Yes, the there should be a government, 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 the basis of legitimacy of a government is two-fold:


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


2) all adults who will be obliged to obey the laws may, if they support the principles of equality and mutual aid, participate in the meetings that make the laws, as full equals of all the other lawmakers.


Everybody is presumed to support the principles of equality and mutual aid 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 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. 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 send delegates to meet with delegates from other local governments for the purpose of crafting proposals (as opposed to laws) for the local governments to implement jointly if they wish (meaning that back and forth negotiating takes place to try to reach a widely shared agreement among local governments.) 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 Does What We Want Governments to Do, Better

Voluntary federation is more capable of preventing bad people from doing bad things than any Federal government in Washington D.C. ruling with the authoritarian principle, and at the same time it is far less prone to making people obey bad laws.


Firstly, the voluntary federation local governments are far less likely than today's Federal government in Washington D.C. to be controlled by bad people making bad laws (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. 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 who will have to obey the 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 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.

Thirdly, voluntary federation 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 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 as described here! Wealthy and privileged elites 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 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 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 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, governments can only obtain--at best!--phony "informed consent."

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" concept is not appropriate in this context.