Have you consented to be governed?

Conservatives believe in tradition. Libertarians believe in less state power. Socialists believe in more state power.

Yet they all accept ‘consent of the governed’ and the resulting ‘social contract’ as words chiselled in stone. In fact, they’re drawn in the sand just before the tide comes in.

As do so many perverse modern notions, ‘consent of the governed’ derives from Hobbes and mostly Locke, the inspiration behind both the American and French revolutions, and therefore the modern world.

An idealised picture Locke must have had in mind was that of ‘the people’ coming together at some instant to decide on accepting or rejecting the notion of post-Christian secular government unaccountable to any absolute moral authority. Upon deliberation, they consented to it. A show of hands must have been involved, all perfectly equitable and democratic.

This idea is doubtless attractive, and it would become even more so if any evidence could be found that this meeting of minds ever took place. Alas, no such evidence exists.

In fact, no attempt to replace a traditional monarchy with a modern state, be that the English revolutions of the seventeenth century, the American and French ones of the eighteenth, or the Russian ones of the twentieth, involved asking for the ‘people’s’ consent.

What they all did involve was unbridled violence unleashed in ‘the people’s’ name by a small cadre of subversives and their variously named revolutionary committees. In most cases, including the American Revolution, ‘the people’ not only didn’t give their explicit consent but in fact withheld even their tacit approval.

When such reticence was detected, the revolutionaries, acting in the name of ‘the people’, would resort to violence, its extent restricted only by expediency, not any moral considerations. They could kill hundreds (Americans), thousands (Englishmen), hundreds of thousands (Frenchmen) or millions (Russians). Whatever was needed.

Since neither Locke nor his French followers could pinpoint the granting of ‘consent’ to any specific historical event, they had to talk about some nebulous ‘social contract’, to use the phrase first used by Democritus and later popularised by Hobbes and especially Rousseau. This idea is false even at an elementary logical level.

According to the legal principle going back to the Old Testament, for any contract to be valid it has to be adjudicated by an authority holding sway over both parties, one whose judgement they accept as binding.

In any reasonable sense, such an authority has to be institutionally superior to the two parties. That’s why, for example, when the seller and buyer of a house sign a contract, they have to have the document notarised by a legal official empowered by the state.

The only authority that can be deemed superior to both the state and the individual is God. Hence frequent, if insincere, appeals to the deity in various founding documents of the early liberal democracies. Yet one would look in vain for any reference in the Judaeo-Christian Scriptures either to ‘government by consent’ or to ‘social contract’.

Nowhere does it say that a third of the electorate, a proportion considered adequate in most modern democracies, can cast their vote in a way that’ll give them absolute sovereignty over the remaining two-thirds. What both Testaments do repeat time after time is that “all power is from God” – not from some mythical compact.

A critical aspect of ‘consent’, as understood by Lockeans everywhere, is that it’s irrevocable: once presumed to have been given, it can’t be reclaimed by any peaceful means. Yet in no conceivable way could it be true that a third or even a fourth of the population voting in a government has given consent on behalf of the rest of the people as well. This is patently ludicrous, as is the whole idea of consent.

Any valid contract includes terms under which it may be terminated. In the absence of a higher adjudicating authority, no ‘social contract’ can possibly have such a clause. Therefore violence is the only recourse either party has, meaning that in a modern state a revolution isn’t so much an aberration as a logical extension of the ‘social contract’, the only way for the people to withdraw their ‘consent’ – just as tyranny is the only way for the state to enforce it.

In any logical interpretation of Locke, a society can only remain peaceful not because of the people’s meaningful consent but because of their docile acquiescence. In other words, the people can give ‘consent’ only passively, not actively – by refraining from overthrowing either the government or the whole political system by force.

Thus Hobbes and Locke, along with their American, English, French and Russian followers, had no option but to sanctify the people’s right to revolution. But the people at large never perpetrate revolutions – this function is usurped by a small group of activists and ideologues (‘professional revolutionaries’ in Lenin’s parlance) who combine radicalism with deviousness.

Those chaps are seldom, and never merely, driven by noble motives. Hatred is always present as a significant animus.

In modern revolutions, this hatred is really levelled not at any particular abuses singled out as pretexts but at the traditional order as such. Depending on the pet issue of the day, this target may be packaged in a box labelled as ‘monarchy’, ‘absolutism’, ‘popery’ (a bugbear for both Hobbes and Locke), religion in general, ‘taxation without representation’ – the tag doesn’t really matter.

Hence Hobbes and Locke were issuing a carte blanche to arbitrary violence as the only option for withdrawing ‘consent’ never given in the first place. The people, or rather those acting in their name, would henceforth feel justified to rebel against any legally instituted authority for any reason exciting them at the moment.

If it’s ‘popery’, that’ll do famously. If it’s ‘taxation without representation’, that’ll work just as well. If it’s ‘bloodthirsty tsarism’, even better. In most instances, the existing government would be predictably replaced by one palpably more abusive.

All modern democracies were originally contrivances with tenuous claims to legitimacy. That’s why the most successful and durable among them always contain elements of the organic, monarchic state.

That state appeared so seamlessly that it was tempting to take a cue from St Paul and believe it was indeed willed by God – in fact Burke interpreted it that way. According to him, the same God “who gave our nature to be perfected by our virtue, willed also the necessary means of its perfection. – He willed therefore the state.”

To see whether a state is organic or contrived, one can apply a simple test that would work in most cases: unlike the origin of a contrived state, the origin of an organic one can’t be pinpointed to a single historical event or, for that matter, any precise moment in time.

We know that the American republic started in 1776, the French one in 1789, the unified German state in 1871, the Bolshevik one in 1917, Israel in 1948 and so forth. But when did the English state begin? We can’t be sure. That’s how we know it isn’t contrived.

Contrivances of any kind demand some kind of plausible justification. They can’t just be accepted; they need to be explained.

Hence, unlike the Decalogue, modern law relies on thousands of recondite, exegetic tomes. Without accompanying stacks of abstruse articles on art theory, most modern painting would be seen as a madman’s scribble. And without the falsehoods of consent and social contract, modern democracies would be seen for the arbitrary contrivances they are.

Thus it’s not only totalitarian states that excel at inculcating false ideas in people’s minds. Liberal democracies do a good job of it as well, and that’s where all modern states converge.

4 thoughts on “Have you consented to be governed?”

  1. “In fact, no attempt to replace a traditional monarchy with a modern state, be that the English revolutions of the seventeenth century, the American and French ones of the eighteenth, or the Russian ones of the twentieth, involved asking for the ‘people’s’ consent.”

    The British North American colonies in rebellion did so with the consent of their colonial legislatures.

    To the extent that only white men, property owners could vote it was democracy and “consent”.

    1. “…the consent of their colonial legislat-ors” would be a more accurate phrase. In no way did the people at large give their consent to the rebellion. The delegates to the Continental Congress claimed to be acting on their behalf, but that claim was false.

    2. One of the managers of a local business wondered why one of the firm’s employees wasn’t coming into work so he asked her sister, a fellow employee. ‘She is in holidays’ was the reply. ‘Who gave her permission’ was the next question. ‘I did’ replied the sister. Still with me Bert?

  2. If you don’t mind, I’ll use this for the next senior art assignment; “Without accompanying stacks of abstruse articles on art theory, most modern painting would be seen as a madman’s scribble.” Do you agree or disagree with this statement? Substantiate your viewpoint with reference to specific artwork. Thanks Alexander.

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