The Legitimacy of Government
(This is part two of the discussion I started Sunday with Constitutions: Why the EU Will Fail.)
On Sunday, I discussed the various ways in which Constitutions can be written to describe a government. Specifically, I discussed the American Constitution, which is a document which we are mostly able to agree forms a strong foundation for the government we would like to live under, and thus considered by most Americans to uphold a government that we consider legitimate. At the same time, the proposed EU Constitution is a convoluted mess of indecipherable legalese, trampling on what its member nations consider to be their own sovereignty. In short, they do not see the rule imposed by the EU Constitution as legitimate, and have thus voted against it.
But what makes a government legitimate? It is not simply a Constitution, although that can be a very important part. The British consider their government legitimate, although there is no single written Constitution. They consider their Constitution to be the amalgam of common law, Parliamentary acts, and judicial tradition. Earlier tribal societies likewise had no written Constitution, but yet considered their governing rules to be legitimate.
Whether or not a government is legitimate rests on one very simple basis: whether the overwhelming majority of people living under that government recognizes its legitimacy.
In the middle of the 18th Century, the American colonists were increasingly feeling as if the British crown was ignoring their rights as Englishmen. They were heirs of the Magna Carta and the Glorious Revolution, and yet the King was increasingly infringing upon their affairs with taxes and regulations that they considered onerous. In short, the King and Parliament were treating the colonists as if they were subordinate to Englishmen, not as if they were Englishmen.
Now, at the time, it is not that Americans though taxation was illegitimate. Americans were not searching for anarchy, they were searching for a just, legitimate government that respected and protected their natural rights. They didn’t object to taxation, they objected to taxation without representation. They didn’t object to being under the rule of a government, but they objected to the arbitrary rule of men.
The situation of the Americans under British rule really wasn’t all that bad. America was a frontier, where many of the edicts of the British couldn’t reliably be enforced. The taxation of the Crown was nowhere near the levels of taxation in almost any major nation. But the colonists rebelled against one of the world’s two superpowers, barely winning independence, because they refused to live under a government they considered to be illegitimate.
Fast forward a couple of hundred years, and look across the globe to Iraq. Much like the American colonists who wouldn’t submit to British rule, the Iraqis of today won’t submit to American rule. It doesn’t matter whether that rule is better for them than things were under Saddam. It doesn’t matter if we were to set up the means to ensure that they’d have a Bill of Rights protecting the very same freedoms that we have here in the United States. To the Iraqis, we are, and always will be, an occupation force. And as long as they perceive themselves as living under foreign rule, that rule will be considered illegitimate, no matter how well-intentioned.
For us to succeed in Iraq, the Iraqis cannot see the endgame as America’s success. For the Iraqis to consider the government they live under to be legitimate, they must see it as an Iraqi government, not an American government. It’s a dangerous razor-blade we must walk. We must constantly show that we are turning over government and security to the Iraqis, but we cannot do so before they’re ready, as the power vacuum will be filled by the terrorists and insurgents. The Iraqi people won’t consider the rule of people like the now-neutralized Zarqawi to be legitimate, but tyrants often take power, and the Iraqi people may have little to say in the matter.
So that brings us to a major point. Governments must have certain aspects to be considered legitimate. The experience of both the American revolution and the Iraqi occupation show us that a government, to succeed, must be accountable to its citizens. Governments who are not accountable can only preserve their place– as we saw in the Soviet Union or Iraq under Saddam, and as the British attempted– by force.
And that forces us to look at our own government. When the notreason folks ask us minarchists and classical liberals where our own government draws its legitimacy, we tell them that it draws its legitimacy from the fact that the vast majority of our populace has agreed that it is legitimate. While that doesn’t mean that the social contract is something every individual agreed to, it does mean that if they are to damage that legitimacy, they must convince a critical mass large enough to get the rest of the majority to doubt the legitimacy. Once that doubt is there, their job is half won.
But it cuts both ways. We classical liberals ask why it’s legitimate that our government should have an income tax, or why it should allow things like Kelo to stand. We ask why our government has the authority to replace our private charities with their own distribution of our tax dollars, or why our government thinks it is their responsibility to control education, or health care, or the stock market, or anything else they’re shoving their grubby hands in.
Why is it legitimate? Because our populace largely believes it is. While we classical liberals expect our government to live within the means provided in the Constitution, the majority asks for bread and circuses, and act as enablers for the power over which the statists lust. Our government has been accountable to those who demand more government.
But times are changing. I believe that recent approval ratings for our Congress show that the majority are starting to believe that the government is becoming increasingly unaccountable. They see that government has become accountable to furthering its own power and to satisfying the wants of special interests– not of helping ordinary citizens. And as information and media are increasingly dominated not by big interests, but by individuals, I think that feeling of unaccountability will increase.
In my estimation, we’re on a tipping point in society. The feeling of ordinary Americans in the legitimacy of their government is failing. While they ask their government to protect them from terrorists, the government is arguing ceaselessly over gay marriage and flag desecration. And as we fight against this stupidity, I am reminded of something. History isn’t written by the majority, it is written by small groups able to sway opinion. This is as true today as it was when Samuel Adams suggested it 2 centuries ago:
It does not require a majority to prevail, but rather an irate, tireless minority keen to set brush fires in people’s minds.
The American people all revere the Constitution, but cracks are forming in the government that has grown out of control and exceeded the specifications that document lay out. Those cracks aren’t simply in its ability to do its job, but they are cracks in the publics belief in the legitimacy of that government to continue to exist. How do classical liberals and minarchists make changes? We don’t need to dynamite the structure. A few well-placed stresses with crowbars will open those cracks up and bring the whole thing down. The revolutionaries had pamphlets, and we have blogs. Both are proverbial crowbars, and they’re working better every day.