Where Do Governments Derive Their Right to Rule

So I am a libertarian - I hold opinions that are controversial in a traditional sense, but when you boil them down to their core sentiments, most people share. An example of this, I feel that gun ownership should be liberalised. The typical first reaction to this is “Oh so you don’t care at all about kids being murdered?”, which can be translated to “I disagree with your statement”. However, when I express my reasoning behind it, most people come to understand that the pro/anti-gun argument is a tad more complex than “gun kills person, and kil is bad”. They may not agree with my point, but that isn’t what is important. This is not the post for this argument, but my point is that most people’s relationship with politics is not nearly as nuanced as they think.

The reason behind this surface-level relationship with politics is because for most people western society is not nearly as bad as it is made out to be. Typically, the frameworks of our society are only called into deep questioning in the event of a widespread cultural breakdown. Most people don’t think about these things because they don’t have to - Good for them in my opinion, ignorance truly is bliss in almost all cases. However, it is more akin to the drug “Bliss” from Fary Cry 5, rather than its actual definition of “perfect happiness; great joy”. It’s nice while you’re tripping, but as soon as you snap out of it you will very quickly be dropped into an active warzone.

I am going to posit a very dangerous question in this post. I don’t think many people fully appreciate the ramifications of this question or how it is answered. I only recently took into account this because of my experience in HCPP.

“Where does the government derive its right to rule the populace”

What does this question mean

As an entity a government is made up of individuals, and they rule over a populace. This is done by leveraging political frameworks falling at various points on the political compass. This academic definition however is not helpful to break down this question for digestion. Instead, I will posit the following model.

There are 5 people: Luke; Harry; Eddie; Ivan; and Daniel. They all exist in an isolated community made up only of them. They all have jobs that serve the community. All of them exist as individual units and make their own decisions in a way that benefits them. There is no central authority that makes rules. This is in essence an isolated anarchistic society.

Let’s suppose one day an argument breaks out saying “Eddie took bread from Luke without permission”. From this, an agreement is made among the five to not take things from others without permission. This is now no longer an anarchistic society as there are rules in place. The five individuals came together to make a rule for the whole populace, and in doing so formed an entity which social rules originate from. This while not traditional is a form of government. This government’s right to rule is derived from the collective consent of all who exist in that society. This is the most stable form of government, as all stakeholders of the society make the rules that they live by.

Okay, now go further down the timeline a few generations. One day Harry’s decent wants to bring in a rule that everyone needs to give him bread every month for nothing in return. Let’s say some disagree, but Harry threatens them. The rule is brought in place, and while all consented, the reasoning behind the consent was not the same as the original rule. This consent was born out of fear.

When I ask most people the question “Where does the government derive its right to rule” most say “We elected them”. This however completely misses the point of the question. We elect individuals into a position of power, my question has more to do with where that power comes from. Why do we collectively agree that this power is morally and lawfully just? The derivation of the right to rule is more of a question of “why do we agree that this is the status quo”, and what legitimises the government.

There are of course various answers to this question, some better than others. One curious answer would have fundamentally challenged an opinion I once held about the separation of church and state. It posits that the government’s right to rule comes from God. This is based on British law, where strictly speaking the British Parliament’s right to rule is derived from The Crown. The Crown does not however refer to the current monarch, it instead refers to a somewhat mallable and complex legal entity that is meant to be representative of the monarchy as a whole. This derivation however does not answer the question, all you have done is kicked the proverbial can down the road. Where does The Crown derive its right to rule? Well as with all ancient frameworks, the answer is God. What this does is create a fairly complex scenario where G-d gives the current government an indirect right to rule, which brings up some quite awkward questions in the modern political environment. How on earth does this facilitate a separation of church and state? What happens in a Christian country adopts widespread atheism or another religion? Many of these issues are ignored for the sake of stability in modern times, but this is very much the same as sweeping the dirt under the rug. It may be hidden, but as soon as enough people discover it, then tidying it up will become a humiliating public spectacle.

The “divine right” argument is only one possible answer, the most popular one nowadays relates to a political concept called ‘consent of the governed’. In political philosophy, this refers to the idea that a government’s legitimacy and moral right to use state power is justified and lawful only when consented by the people or society over which that political power is exercised. Relating it to our model, the government’s right to rule first rule was legitimate because all people of the society concentrated. This theory runs in a different direction than the “divine right of kings”, and is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with “The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government”.

John Locke says in his essay “Human Understanding”

“Civic power can have no right except as this is derived from the individual right of each man to protect himself and his property. The legislative and executive power used by governments to protect property is nothing except the natural power of each man regained into the hands of the community… and is justified merely because it is a better way of protecting natural right than the self-help to which each man is naturally entitled” [1]

What this means in very basic terms is that the consent of the governed is there such that life under the government makes a man’s duty to protect himself and his property easier than under anarchy. This again can be related to our model, where the five formed a government to protect their property from theft enshrined in law. The government did not exist for any other reason at this point, and the derivation of the consent of the governed came from utilitarian beliefs to ease each individual’s goals. This is also a lot of the reason why British common law has many of its foundations enshrined in the protection of private property.

However, while this may account for the causal origins of government, as we see in the model the government eventually devolves. The derivation of the consent is based on fear of violence as opposed to utility. This however is not questioned by the populace, because (as mentioned before) we only begin to question these things when things get to the point where we have to. David Hume said, “Absolute governments which do not even do lip service to the fiction of consent are more common than free governments, and their subjects rarely question their right except when tyranny becomes too oppressive” [1]. What needs to be understood is that this is not something that happens overnight. State creep happens across multiple generations, with the government growing slowly enough that even those who notice do not care.

It is reticent to the cycle of “strong men make good times, good times create weak men, weak men create bad times, bad times create strong men”. The government was originally made for utilitarian purposes by strong men. This creates a state of stability, which fosters a generation of weak men. These weak men allow for the state to creep more and more and more. This eventually creates bad times. Then as Cody Wilson so eloquently phrases it in Death Athletic, “the only philosophically coherent position is revolt”. This goes back to my reasoning behind wanting the liberalisation of gun ownership. Green says “Even the most powerful and the most despotic governments cannot hold society together by sheer force; that that extent there was a limited truth to the old belief that governments are produced by consent”[1]. There is a phrase that states “a man that cannot fight is not a pacifist, he is harmless” - In the same sense, a population that cannot fight back against a tyrannical government is not consenting, it is powerless. Gun ownership is not about what is lawful and unlawful, it is a human right. It is an example of one of the many checks and balances that are required to keep a stable and fair government. The consent of an armed population is based on more than just anecdotal evidence - it is based on lead.

Just as saying the government derives its right to rule from The Crown is kicking the can down the road, so is the “consent of the governed framework”. What is consent? According to the Cambridge Dictionary consent is “permission of agreement”[2]. With a one-on-one transaction, the concept is simple, all you need is for both parties to agree. How does that work with more than 2 people, however?

Typically when we refer to consent we imagine unanimous consent, which is where every stakeholder agrees. The key question remains, is unanimous consent required for a government’s moral right to rule to be sound? All democratic governments today allow decisions to be made for all of the populace, even those who disagree. In some views, this opens up the question of whether the governments in this question can rightfully claim to act with the consent of the governed. One possible answer to this comes from the article “The ‘Consent’ of the Governed” where it says “By that act each voter affirms the principle that what the majority determines shall stand as the policy of the whole state, while his right remains effective to work for the triumph of the policy which is his own”. What this means is that when a person exercises their right to vote (even if they choose not to, which in itself is a vote), they are giving their consent to the principle that the decisions made by that majority should be accepted as the policy of the entire state. I think this misses the point, however, because “voting” is a mechanism that is part of the government entity. It is not a viable answer for the same reasons that “we voted them in” is not a viable answer for where a government derives its right to rule. Other frameworks are made such as hypothetical consent, and engineered consent - In all cases, you are beating around the bush and not dealing with the core issue. If I say “x”, then no matter how many people agree there will always be someone who says “y”. So how can you deal with this issue that no one will ever totally agree with everything a government does?

You could say that people consent inherently by not overthrowing the government, but this is hardly a good solution because we would very quickly fall back to an age of war and instability.

Parallel societies

If the rise of cryptocurrencies has taught us anything it is that there is a parallel culture rumbling underneath the epidermis of society. The biggest threat to any ruling authority is competition - Will you spend XMR or GBP? Will you trust the state to defend you or arm yourself? Will participate in their broken system or cooperate in the parallel one? Unsubscribing from this political framework is not a new concept, but the road that has been paved in the past is painted red with blood i.e. Ruby Ridge, Waco Texas.

The way I will sum up this post is by saying “Why do you pay your taxes?” For many of us, the answer to that question is “Because I have to”. For the vast majority of us we don’t pay tax because we want to, we pay tax because we know if we don’t we will be harassed/arrested/killed. Whenever I pay tax I try and view it more akin to a protection racket. If the only reason why we pay out tax is just to avoid the government monopoly of violence, then where is our consent being derived from?

[1] - George Sabine (1937) A History of Political Theory, Holt, Rinehart and Winston [2] - https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/consent [3] - Cassinelli, C. W. (1959). “The ‘Consent’ of the Governed”. Political Research Quarterly. 12 (2): 391รข409. doi:10.1177/106591295901200202. S2CID 154712817.


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