Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Consent Of The Governed

Ever since I began this blog, my son has chided me about the name I chose for this blog. In fact, he has wanted me to change it. His claim is that our government cannot really be considered "Consent of the Governed" because we do not all consent to all the laws that we live by. Interestingly enough, I had a comment a while back, to a post that was unrelated in topic to the comment, by someone who wanted to express that same sentiment.

I want to share with you his comment and my response.
Peter Namtvedt said...

This is not a comment on your most recent blog entry, but on the name of your blog and phrases reflecting it elsewhere: was there ever a real consent to this government? Is such a consent possible? What if the Declaration of Independence had worded it "unanimous consent?"

If true consent is really not feasible, what is it that makes our government legitimate and that makes us liable to obey its laws?

Peter April 14, 2007 3:39 PM

Well ... This is what I replied, in case you missed it.
Ah Peter - My son and I have had this discussion once or twice.. he thinks I should change the name of this blog..because there really cannot be total consent of the governed in a real sense ... LOL..
but read on...

I guess it could be said that the American Revolution was a consent to form this government.. the Founders, and their supporters, clearly desired something different than the form of government that they fled from. And thus, the notion of "consent" is historically contrasted to the divine right of kings, which typified the way things were run in Europe at the time. People wanted to have more of a say in government.

In any case, consent of the governed is a political theory. It is based on the idea that a government's legitimacy and moral right to use state power is, or ought to be, derived from the people or society over which that power is exercised. To that extent I think we do have some say in what our government does - being a representative form of government.

Do we all agree on all the laws we live by? Surely not..

Some say that consent is given by your desire to remain here and live under the rules we have decided to live by. Otherwise you have two choices really, leave and go live somewhere else (which people do), or try to get the laws changed. So it can be said that as long as we are free to emigrate, and we have voting rights, that consent of the governed is legitimate.

I should probably do a whole blog post on this.. theory versus reality is always interesting to explore.
So I am doing a blog post now about this. It certainly makes for interesting discussion.

There are some good websites which discuss this political theory as it relates to practice and reality. One page says this:
John Locke was a philosopher who lived in England in the late 1600’s. He is especially famous for his writings on how governments should operate. Many ideas contained in the Declaration of Independence can be traced directly to Locke’s writings.

When Thomas Jefferson stated that…governments derive (get) their power only from the consent of the governed, he was almost quoting Locke word for word. Locke believed that every individual person had a right to defend himself and his property. He also believed that people had the right to band together in groups to protect themselves more effectively. According to Locke, that’s what was happening when a majority of people in a community agreed to give up some of their individual power to a government that would protect their lives and property from criminals or other communities. The key was the idea that a vote by a majority of people was necessary for a government to take power for itself. As long as a government did only what it was given power to do, the government was on the right track. The “consent of the governed” was in the government’s hands when citizens elected officials freely, and stayed in its hands as long as those officials did their jobs in a fair and legal manner.

Did the King and Parliament of England have the “consent of the governed” in America? Well, certainly the King had never been elected. Members of Parliament in the House of Commons were elected, but not by persons who lived in the American colonies. This was what angered many Americans—they felt that they had a right to participate in making decisions that affected their lives and property. They also felt that the English government had no intention of allowing them to participate. Since the House of Commons made all laws concerning taxes, the Americans were outraged, believing that they were being taxed without their consent. “No taxation with out representation!” was the slogan used to describe their feelings.

The funny thing is that the Americans frequently taxed themselves both before and after the American Revolution. They even taxed themselves at higher rates than the English in many instances. Americans understood that taxes were necessary for governments to operate—but they expected to be involved in all decisions that affected their lives.

Basically, Locke believed three things:

1. All people have rights.

2. Governments exist to protect people’s rights and property.

3. When governments don’t do their job, the people have the right to begin a revolution and establish a new government.

So, when you have to obey someone else’s rules, you might ask yourself where the rulemakers got the right to make those rules. Do they have the consent of the governed?
Yet another website says this With regard to deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed:
The second question addressed by the Declaration's third self-evident truth is, how should government operate? The answer: by the consent of the governed. Consent means agreement or choice. The government must, in some way, have our agreement, or else it has no "just powers" over us.
Consent has two forms: consent in establishing government and consent in operating government. The first-also called the "social compact "-was well defined in the Massachusetts state constitution of 1780 as an association "by which the whole people covenants with each citizen, and each citizen with the whole people, that all shall be governed by certain laws for the common good."

After the people join together to form a government, they must also give their consent, upon a regular basis, to its operations. This second form of consent arises from the fact that the right to liberty is unalienable. One cannot rightly consent to a government that rules without going back to the people for their ongoing consent. The right to vote and freedom of speech are means necessary to ensure this second form of consent. Thus the Declaration speaks later of a people's "right of representation in the legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only." It denounces the king of Britain for keeping among us "standing armies, without the consent of our legislatures," and for "imposing taxes on us without our consent."

The Founders generally used expressions like "republican" or "popular" government for government by consent. "Democracy" is the term preferred today. The Declaration's third self-evident truth means that what we call democracy is the only fully legitimate form of government. As Jefferson wrote: "the republican is the only form of government which is not eternally at open or secret war with the rights of mankind."
The right to vote, to speak freely, to write and express one's views and to participate in government, to assemble freely and to protest are the tools which we use to contribute to how we govern ourselves. Some people also argue that the ability to leave this country is also a tool that people have also used.

When our voices are ignored, and government wrests control from us, curbs our ability to participate and debate, it then travels down the road to Tyranny, as was the case in European monarchies, as well as in Totalitarian regimes. Sometimes apathy leads us to the same place because when people do not participate, then others just move right in and take over completely.

I won't be changing the name of this blog anytime soon. I like the theory of consent of the governed, and while it may not in reality ideally or totally be realized, it is an ideal that strives to insure that everyone's voice be at least counted in making the rules and decisions which we live by, and in some way choose to accept. It also then behooves each of us to be informed of what our laws are, how they can be changed and what changes are being proposed.

I do, however, intend on reading "Restoring the Lost Constitution: The Presumption of Liberty", by Randy E. Barnett, as my son has discussed with me some of Barnett's interesting thoughts on the subject.

1 comment:

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Thanks for this post.

I really like what you said in your last paragraph, particularly the part about the difference between the ideal and the reality.

I believe that it is important to recognize that the ideal is like the never-ending journey. This is what we want it to look like, but we may never see it that way. So many people make the good the enemy of the ideal, and in so doing they distort the reality.

For example, a woman I talked to extensively in the year that the US invaded Iraq was so distraught about the fact that the United States does not always live up to the ideal, that she could not see the difference between our government and that of Saddam Hussein. She had no way of considering qualitative differences because she wanted the ideal and the perfect right now.