Monday, January 14, 2013

Instructions to the Delegates from Mecklenburg, North Carolina, to the Provincial Congress at Halifax, 1 Nov. 1776, I.2.8

This North Carolina congress (the fifth and final of the five which were held from 1774 to 1776) approved the first constitution of the state, including its "Declaration of Rights" (such as the right to peaceable assembly and the right to bear arms.) The instructions bid the delegates to accept the Declaration of Independence, to press for a simple democracy for the state, and to oppose the concentration of power in the hands of the wealthy. The delegates were to press for a bill of inviolable rights of the people and individuals, which would maintain that the people are the source of power, that politicians are their servants and have inferior power, so that the people are the ultimate authority and so that no other power should be able to alter the determinations of the people.

Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Edmund Pendleton, 26 Aug. 1776, I.2.7

Jefferson would like the senate to be wise and independent. Its members should be elected by representatives of the people since this will greatly increase the likelihood of their being wise (the people being less likely, and their selections more, to elect wise men.) The senators should also be limited to one term (of nine years) since this will let them be free from worry about re-election and therefore independent.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

James Burgh, Political Disquisitions, I.2.6

Burgh (1714-1775), a British Whig and schoolmaster, was involved in reform movements in the mid-18th Century in England. His point in this passage is simply that members of the British House of Commons no longer take seriously their duty to represent their respective groups of constituents. The power of the representative derives from his having been selected by his constituents and in former times members took this seriously by reflecting their constituents' views and consulting with them before making decisions. But by Burgh's time, they think themselves entitled to be members for life, their elections are infrequent and corrupted by bribery and power-broking, they take themselves to be dictators, and they feel themselves national leaders, rather than representatives of small areas. Burgh laments that the danger of power without responsibility is a perennial lesson which must be learned over and over again by the people. In this deplorably corrupted state of affairs, Burgh sarcastically remarks, "And yet we are a free people."

Monday, June 27, 2011

James Otis, The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved, I.2.5

Otis treats it as axiomatic that the legitimacy of governmental authority is dependent upon the consent of the people. The deification of kings was a trick used to obviate this axiom, since only God's authority trumps that of the people. Otis mocks and ridicules such deification and notes that the prevention of this ruse is a good reason for separating religion from government.

Otis states the purpose of government succinctly:
The end of government being the good of mankind, points out its great duties: It is above all things to provide for the security, the quiet, and happy enjoyment of life, liberty, and property....In solitude men would perish; and yet they cannot live together without contests. These contests require some arbitrator to determine them.
Note the trio "life, liberty, and property."

Otis notes that the unwieldiness of direct democracy makes it necessary that the people appoint representatives of their will in government. The form of government (democracy, aristocracy, or monarchy) and the division of executive and legislative branches are questions which Otis says are for each society to decide. In any event, the people may depose their government when it acts against their interests.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

David Hume "Of the Original Contract" I.2.4

The sleepy ready might be forgiven for nodding a bit at the beginning of this excerpt of Hume's essay and taking Hume to be merely voicing assent to the Lockean view of the basis of political authority. However, the point of the essay is to demolish Locke's view. The beginning of the excerpt acknowledges only that in the time before government, there must have been some consent to be governed in order for government to have been created since people are roughly equal in power and one could not easily subdue another.

Hume contends that such original government would have been short-lived and small in scope had its chieftain been able to solidify it by the use of force. The frequent persuasion of force caused an habitual acquiescence to his rule and became no longer necessary. In fact there is no actual case of government by consent in the Lockean sense, Hume points out. Authority is instead based on particular cultural conditions everywhere we look and never based on the consent of the governed. A lengthy history and the habits resulting from it (i.e., the tradition and culture) produce this authority and the reverence for it and also conceal from us a more distant past of forced subjection resulting itself from the exigencies of inter-tribal warfare and the power of a general over his soldiers which lasts even after military victory. Consent is a chimera which cannot be reconciled with actual historical knowledge.

Furthermore, if some original contract were the basis for authority, this would assume that the consent of ancestors could obligate descendants, which is certainly objectionable to "republican writers." Moreover, elections are not only rare but always by the suffrage of a tiny few, which shouldn't obligate all members of society on the republican view. These wise electors choose leaders who can keep order and master a people who need one but are not wise enough to choose the right one. Again, the man on the street will say that the authority of his revered prince has nothing to do with whether he consents to it or not but rather that he consents to it because it is authority. There isn't even tacit consent in the obedience we observe in actual societies. Finally, the duty of allegiance to political authority is based on the apprehension of the utility of an orderly society, rather than consent. (This is a rule-utilitarian calculus where a person sees that if everybody disobeyed the chief, conditions would be intolerable.)

Hume agrees that consent is "the best and most sacred" basis of government. But he contends that it is hardly ever to be found as the basis of actual observed authority.

Let me propose two Lockean responses to Hume's critique. First, the utility of social order may well be part of the basis for obedience to political authority, but it is also a reason to give consent to be governed. Moreover, the Lockean might contend that the legitimacy of any governmental authority depends upon that government's being of a kind to which an informed and rational subject would consent, namely a just and competent kind. The Lockean consent, then, might be seen as not only tacit but logically implicit in the sense that although few members of a given society consciously recognize that there are sufficient reasons for consenting to the authority of the government, any reasonable and informed member of society should come to this conclusion if he thought it through. Of course there are good qualities of a government which call forth consent to be governed but these qualities constitute authority itself only with the addition of this implicit, tacit consent. Hume is right that history, tradition and culture cover up this logic, but perhaps it is nevertheless real.

Montesquieu, "Spirit of Laws (II.2)" I.2.3

Here we find the following key ideas of government:

Suffrage should be given and limited to the right people. For this is precisely choosing a sovereign.

The people should decide everything they can decide. What they can't decide, because of its complexity or its need for quick decision ("the motion of the people [being] always either too remiss or too violent."), should be decided by the representatives of the people Therefore, these representatives should be chosen by the people. The people are quite able to select representatives using common sense (see quote below.)

Suffrage should be public so that the upper classes can influence the vote of the lower who otherwise might vote for their own destruction.

Montesquieu says that "[t]he people are extremely well qualified for choosing those whom they are to intrust with part of their authority," because the facts required for them to do so (for example who has been a good general and who is talented in business) are obvious. However, he warns that when they "are gained by bribery and corruption," they "grow indifferent to public affairs and avarice becomes their predominant passion. Unconcerned about the government and everything belonging to it, they quietly wait for their hire."

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Thomas Gordon, Cato's Letter 38, I.2.2

The gist of this letter is that many politicians will try to make the they govern believe that government is for experts and not for them to stick their noses into. They will then misrepresent the voice of the people in the political forum and proceed to plunder and oppress the people. These are "not Governors, but Jaylors and Spunges, who chain them and squeeze them, and yet take it very ill if they do but murmur; which is yet much less than a People ought to do." Politicians need not be experts. For governing "Honesty, Diligence, and Plain Sense are the only Talents necessary...."

According to Gordon, the voice of the public should have influence in government because it is in the public's interest that the government be good and it cannot be bribed. A politician, on the other hand, can be bribed and can find it in his interest that the government be oppressive and plundering.

On this last point, Gordon is mistaken. Votes can be bought. There is no unified voice of the people. Perhaps Gordon didn't realize this because he didn't conceive of a government which would command enormous wealth redistribution schemes with which to bribe the people by having them share in the plunder. For his definition of government is "a Trust committed by All, to the Most, to One, or a Few, who are to attend upon the Affairs of All, that every one may, with the more Security, attend upon his own[.]"

Also, Gordon draws a stark contrast between England and other countries, namely Turkey, as if English government weren't prone to precisely the corruption he describes. I doubt that.