Friday, March 03, 2006

Power To The People: The Impossible Dream?

In my reading for classes this week (and for the past few actually), I have been forced to confront some thorny issues concerning the nature of government, the location of sovereignty in a system and the fact that government by consent might not make sense or even be remotely practical.

It is often strange how this happens, especially for historians. We confront what are supposedly dusty ideas of the past and, lo and behold, we are confronted with the same issues that plague us from their day to our own. I guess that people always come back to worrying about the same issues.

The specific period in question here happens to be England in the seventeenth century. More specifically the decades leading up to the English Civil War. The debates then extant were concerned with the locus of power in society and had been so for some time. On one side of the issue were the ideas and partisans of such people as Jean Bodin and Sir Robert Filmer. Bodin argued in his Six Books of the Commonwealth that sovereignty is indivisible and is not based on any sort of contract. It descends from God, through Adam (leader of the first human community) to kings (or, by implication, other forms of government). Bodin also argued that it can never be within the right of the people to oppose a king unless his actions are sinful, and even then all they can do is pray or flee the country. For Bodin, then, sovereignty lies not with the people, nor did it ever. The people did not cede the right to govern to the king and it was not in their power to do so. There is no social contract and therefore no limits on the power of the king. While, however, the king is enjoined to rule justly, there is no requirement that he do so.

These arguments were further extended by Sir Robert Filmer in his Patriarcha. Filmer argues that the authority of a king is like that of a father in a family. A father should be just but firm and should (get ready for this one) have the right of life and death over his children. In the same manner, a king rule his people this way. Filmer quotes often from Bodin, agreeing that sovereignty cannot be divided because it descends from God perfect and whole. He, therefore, rejects the idea of popular sovereignty and the separation of powers. This also, implicitly, rejects the idea of the social contract by which the people allow themselves to be governed in exchange for the freedom of the "commonwealth." Filmer asserts that to divide the power of government is to open the society up for anarchy and a non-extant rule of law.

Filmer argues that consent to be governed cannot be possible because this would involve a "meeting" of all the people of earth to cede the right to their rulers. It would also call into question the idea of elective versus successive monarchy. When the king dies, for example, is the transfer of sovereignty natural to his heirs or does it devolve to the people, to be given again upon the accession of a new monarch? Filmer firmly believes the former, stating that without the ability for commonwealth consent, it is only natural that the succession be maintained. While this argument may seem to be a sort of reductio ad absurdum, it bears consideration in the light of the question of the origins of government power.

On the other side are two different groups of theorists, the "monarchomachs" and (more historically specific) those who argued for the power of parliament during the English civil war. First, the monarchomachs (if you are not familiar with this term in general, read Lecture Five in John Neville Figgis's 1907 classic Studies in Political Thought From Gerson to Grotius.) Their ideas were basically that there WERE situations in which the king could be deposed, thus implying that his authority was not complete and that it DID descend from a consent from the governed. In his De jure magistratuum in subditos, Theodore Beza (John Calvin's "right-hand man") argues that, while it is not in the purview of the people to resist, it is the job of the magistrates and other "minor officials" to assure that the king governs for the benefit of the commowealth. If he does not, he can be deposed and Beza gives examples of this. Similarly, George Buchanan in De jure regni apud Scotos, asserts that if the king does not rule with justice and is swayed by evil-doers or flatterers at court, he can similarly be deposed of his power because that power exists from a consent of the governed.

The term "consent" presents a problem. While Filmer's argument seems to be fallacious, it must be considered how exactly the entire human race entered into such a contract with their leadership and that this contract can stand the test of time and history. The answer, as far as I am concerned, is given by John Locke in his idea of "tacit consent." But, back to the negative case...

Another group of thinkers who challenged the unfettered power of the sovereign were several parliamentarian pamphleteers of the seventeenth century in England. They were responding to the reign of Charles I and more specifically to his reluctance to call Parliament to serve as the legislative/appropriative body of the kingdom. One of these, Henry Parker, was concerned with the fact that the king fled to Scotland, leaving Parliament sitting in Westminster. In his Observations upon some of his Majesty's late answers and expresses, written in 1642, he posits that Parliament sits as the grand council of the nation and is instrumental in advising the king and performing one of the essential functions of government: a conduit between the people and the state. While, according to the like of Bodin and Filmer, Parliament was to serve as the magnification of the king's power, it can be seen in Parker's thinking that a different mode of government was coming to light. One where the legislature was not the king (the idea of the king as lex loquens, or "the law speaking," as expressed by Charles's predecessor King James I), but was the proper duty of the Parliament with the king retaining the executive function.

What relevance does this have for us? Consider these questions:
  • Is our system of government inherently flawed? Is it for any of the reasons given by Bodin or Filmer?
  • Does a contract exist between the governed and the governors? If so, explain how this is.
  • Parker argued further that the Parliament could act in the king's stead. Is this a usurpation of power or a practical move for expediency?
  • What do you make of Filmer's argument concerning consent?
  • If we live in a society that does NOT have a contractual base of power, from whence does sovereignty descend? For these men, it was from God. What of a "secular society" such as our own?
  • Are these just dead English/Swiss/Frenchmen whose ideas died when liberal democracy became the "norm?" Were they, in other words, swept into the old dustbin when John Locke came around (remember Locke was reacting to Filmer in the Two Treatises of Government)?
  • To really extend the argument, did our society eventually arrive at the best form of government? Was Francis Fukuyama right?

Think on that, whydon'cha?

Further Reading

If these subjects interest you (and why wouldn't they), why not read these other great works?

  • Philip Hunton, A Treatise of Monarchie. Another English Civil War-era pamphleteer, he argues that limited monarchy is the only way to protect people from evil, deluded rulers.
  • Samuel Rutherford, Lex Rex. More reasons, from a 1644 pamphlet, on limiting the unchecked power of the king.

There will be more to come on this topic, including Hobbes (and why I disagree with him), Locke (and why I agree with him) and more roots of our current situation.

Ignore it at your peril.

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