Thursday 14 December 2023

Sovereignty: The Nature of Government

Over the course of the Enlightenment, ideas on sovereignty were changing – and were changing most on how sovereignty was justified. What gave anyone the right to boss someone else around?

To start at the beginning: “a government is an institution that holds the exclusive power to enforce certain rules of social conduct in a given geographical area.”[1] But who, or on what basis, gives a government the moral authority to do that.

Earlier times were happy to ignore the question, devolving these questions to ones about who had the power. Might made right. If Attila the Hun could invade and conquer, then Attila was your new sovereign. And if Attila needed a justification, there was always a witchdoctor to be cultivated who could supply one.[2]

This co-relationship between Attila and his assorted Witchdoctors eventually morphed into the idea of the Divine Right of Kings, a symbiotic relationship in which priest, Archbishop or Pope would sanctify the monarch in return for his organisation's elevation as the official state religion.

The relationship was a symbiotic one for them both.

The cosy power structure was dramatically overturned by Enlightenment thinkers like John Locke, who demolished any idea of Divine Right to rule, and argued instead that the sovereign’s moral authority derived only from the mandate of its citizens. Citizens, not subjects, was the new rule – the constitutional monarchy Locke helped establish being “tied up’ constitutionally to protect the individual rights established in the Bill of Rights, 1688.
This means that the government is not the ruler, but the servant or agent of the citizens; it means that the government as such has no rights except the rights delegated to it by the citizens for a specific purpose. [2]
The idea, when ill-defined, could go wrong – as it did in the French Revolution and later, when dictators proclaims themselves to represent or embody the will of the people. But the idea is a deceptively simple one that took years to develop and understand: that (as Thomas Jefferson was to phrase it [3]) government’s derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.

This -- that government could be a moral undertaking, for which consent was needed -- was a transformation in human affairs and was, arguably, the culmination of Enlightenment thinking.[4]

And it was the reason that, for a period from the early to mid-1800s (until the Indian Mutiny and ideas about utilitarian calculus began to change everything) Britain began asking for the informed consent of native populations in places in which it intended creating new sovereign governments.

But what exactly is the nature of government, and what form precisely does sovereignty take? READ ON...

"A government is an institution that holds the exclusive power to enforce certain rules of social conduct in a given geographical area....
    "The precondition of a civilised society is the barring of physical force from social relationships - thus establish­ing the principle that if men wish to deal with one an­other, they may do so only by means of reason: by discus­sion, persuasion and voluntary, un-coerced agreement.
    "The necessary consequence of man's right to life is his right to self-defence. In a civilised society, force may be used only in retaliation and only against those who initi­ate its use. All the reasons which make the initiation of physical force an evil, make the retaliatory use of physi­cal force a moral imperative....
    "The use of physical force - even its retaliatory use­ - cannot be left at the discretion of individual citizens. Peaceful coexistence is impossible if a man has to live under the constant threat of force to be unleashed against him by any of his neighbours at any moment. ...

"If physical force is to be barred from social relation­ships, men need an institution charged with the task of protecting their rights under an objective code of rules. This is the task of a government - of a proper govern­ment - its basic task, its only moral justification and the reason why men do need a government.
    "A government is the means of placing the retaliatory use of physical force under objective control - i.e., under objectively defined laws. ... This is the means of subordinating 'might' to 'right.' ...

The nature of the laws proper to a free society and the source of its government's authority are both to be de­rived from the nature and purpose of a proper govern­ment. The basic principle of both is indicated in The Declaration of Independence: 'to secure these [individ­ual] rights, governments are instituted among men, de­riving their just powers from the consent of the gov­erned . . .'' 

Since the protection of individual rights is the only proper purpose of a government, it is the only proper subject of legislation: all laws must be based on individ­ual rights and aimed at their protection. All laws must be objective (and objectively justifiable): men must know clearly, and in advance of taking an action, what the law forbids them to do (and why) , what constitutes a crime and what penalty they will incur if they commit it.
    "The source of the government's authority is 'the consent of the governed.' This means that the government is not the ruler, but the servant or agent of the citizens; it means that the government as such has no rights except the rights delegated to it by the citizens for a specific purpose.
    "There is only one basic principle to which an individ­ual must consent if he wishes to live in a free, civilised society: the principle of renouncing the use of physical force and delegating to the government his right of physi­cal self-defence, for the purpose of an orderly, objective, legally defined enforcement. Or, to put it another way, he must accept the separation of force and whim (any whim, including his own)....

"Such, in essence, is the proper purpose of a govern­ment: to make social existence possible to men, by pro­tecting the benefits and combating the evils which men can cause to one another."
~ Ayn Rand, from her essay 'The Nature of Government'
[1] Ayn Rand, ‘The Nature of Government.’
[2] The concept and mutually-dependent relationship of Attila and the Witchdoctor is explained in the title essay of Rand's 1961 book For the New Intellectual. In her view, the concept described two philosophical archetypes: "Attila, the man who rules by brute force…respects nothing but the physical reality immediately before him, respects nothing but man’s muscles, and regards a fist, a club, or a gun as the only answer to any problem—and the Witch Doctor, the man who dreads physical reality, dreads the necessity of practical action, and escapes into his emotions, into visions of some mystic realm where his wishes enjoy a supernatural power unlimited by the absolute of nature (pp. 8-9)."
[3] Ayn Rand, ‘The Nature of Government.’
[4] Jefferson, US 'Declaration of independence,' 1776
[5] See especially Peikoff, ‘The Nation of the Enlightenment,’ in Ominous Parallels, 1983

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