Archive for February, 2020

Usurpation, Tyranny and Sailing to Algiers: How Bad Does It Have to Get? (pt. 3)

February 26, 2020

What happens, however, if the representational government and the electoral system that insures it breaks down? And how might it do so? One possibility is someone could grab the reins of power who had no right to it, most likely by fraud. That would be a usurpation.[1] A usurper is one who seizes the office and power to which another is entitled. For example, in the Kennedy vs. Nixon election it was widely believed that Nixon had won, if not for the many fraudulent votes cast in Chicago on behalf of dead Democratic voters. The Democratic political machine run by Mayor Daly was very strong and could generally deliver Chicago’s votes (and with them Illinois itself) to whomever he chose. Nixon was urged to challenge the election but chose not to, allegedly saying such a challenge would be too divisive to the nation. I tend to believe this account, so let’s accept it for the illustration’s sake if nothing else. In such a case as this, JFK could rightly be called an usurper. He wrongly took the office that another person should have had but which was stolen by fraud. However, he was not a tyrant. He may have taken power belonging to another, but he faithfully executed the office of the presidency. He did what was Constitutionally required, not going beyond it in any meaningful way and not abusing or oppressing the citizens of states that voted against him. There were arguably some abuses of power under his administration, but none that raised much ire in his lifetime. Many considered him, then and now, to be a good president, even if his initial victory was questionable. Locke would say that an usurper may rightfully be opposed, but the opposition should be done legally and politically. If the majority of the people accept the usurper, then they essentially ratify the usurpation. This could be said to have happened in JFK’s election, or perhaps in Fatah’s takeover of the West Bank after Hamas won the election for leadership of the Palestinian National Authority 2007-2008 (I am not sufficiently versed in Palestinian politics to say for certain, but that is how it was depicted in the American press).

An usurper need not be a tyrant, nor a tyrant a usurper. As Locke describes it:



As usurpation is the exercise of power, which another hath a right to; so tyranny is the exercise of power beyond right, which no body can have a right to. And this is making use of the power any one has in his hands, not for the good of those who are under it, but for his own private separate advantage. When the governor, however intitled, makes not the law, but his will, the rule; and his commands and actions are not directed to the preservation of the properties of his people, but the satisfaction of his own ambition, revenge, covetousness, or any other irregular passion.[2]




A leader or magistrate may gain office illegitimately, but fulfill the functions of a proper office-holder. The people might even choose to accept that person as legitimate. Tyranny is more serious than usurpation. A tyrant might come into the office legitimately; a king might be born to it, a president or chancellor might be elected, and so on. What matters is what the person does with the office and its power. If the governor (in the broad sense of one who has governing power) uses that power for the good of the people and according to the will of the majority as expressed in the laws which their legislature, acting as their agents, has created, then he (or she) is a proper governor. If the governor uses the powers of the office for their own personal advantage rather than seeing first to the good of the people and to their instructions, then that person is a tyrant regardless of whether he or she was duly elected. Legitimacy, in Locke’s view, ultimately derives from the will of the ruled, not merely or mainly from the propriety of the succession.

This has practical and dangerous consequences. A tyrant may be opposed by force, according to Locke. An usurper, who is not otherwise tyrannical, may not be. Suppose, just as a thought experiment with clearly no relationship to reality because it’s completely impossible, the president of the United States (a country largely founded on Locke’s philosophical theories) were elected illegitimately. This could be said to happen whenever the minority of the votes determines the presidency due to a quirk in the Electoral College, as happened with each of the last two Republican presidents; but then again, all citizens have agreed to abide by the rules laid down in the Constitution so we could say that even in this case it was no usurpation. But suppose some votes were flipped in the election by a hostile foreign power with some sort of personal relationship to one of the candidates, say one with extensive business investments in that hostile country and thus vulnerable to influence by any government threatening those investments. Suppose further that the only “investigation” of such illegality was to be carried out by the alleged usurper himself, and officials he appointed, and that the body charged with removing an unqualified president was part of the president’s faction and refused to act. However, suppose the usurper proved to be competent and restrained, and did not threaten the rights of any citizen (except for the actual winner of the election, of course, whose right to fulfill the office was denied). In that case, it arguably could be immoral to use force against the usurper. First, Locke sees force as a last resort; if there are still viable legal means, they must be pursued. Second, if the government is in fact still carrying out the laws established by the legislature which in turn was elected by the will of the majority, and is protecting the rights and property of the people, there is no need for force. Third, as Locke points out, there are great practical challenges to force. Most people, he says, are willing to put up with a lot rather than attempt radical or violent change. Even if their government is not all it should be, if it’s functioning well enough and justly enough they’ll likely tolerate it. In that case, the lone “freedom fighter,” and not the usurper, who will be seen as the dangerous rebel or lunatic. It is only if the government is truly tyrannical and is seen as such by a large group of people that widespread use of force is reasonable.[3] In this hypothetical case, the usurper is not unjustly using force against any citizen, so no one has a right to use force against him; and if anyone did, that person would be the one seen as disturbing the peace and threatening the society. On the other hand, if one’s individual rights were infringed by force, Locke says, one would have the right to forceful self-defense. For example, if police try to invade one’s home without a proper warrant empowering them to do so, one has the right to shoot them. The determining factor is whether the wrong one might suffer is urgent. If it is possible to right the wrong peacefully and legally later, then one may not use force to oppose it; but if one is threatened in a way that no later redress could correct, then one may defend oneself by whatever means are necessary and available.

[1] Locke, chapter XVII

[2] Locke, chapter XVIII, sect. 199

[3] Locke, sect. 203-09

Usurpation, Tyranny and Sailing to Algiers: How Bad Does It Have to Get? (pt. 2)

February 18, 2020


At this crucial point Locke and Rand differ, and from this division a vast gulf opens between Locke’s vision for “civil government” which was absolutely crucial for our Founding Fathers and the so-called “conservatism” dominant in American politics today. On the origin and nature of civil society, John Locke writes:



For when any number of men have, by the consent of every individual, made a community, they have thereby made that community one body, with a power to act as one body, which is only by the will and determination of the majority: for that which acts any community, being only the consent of the individuals of it, and it being necessary to that which is one body to move one way; it is necessary the body should move that way whither the greater force carries it, which is the consent of the majority: or else it is impossible it should act or continue one body, one community, which the consent of every individual that united into it, agreed that it should; and so every one is bound by that consent to be concluded by the majority.[1]




Locke’s view is a classic presentation of “social contract theory.” He asks us to imagine a group of individuals living in a “state of nature;” that is, without any politics or government. Locke believes that even without government, we would still be bound by “the laws of Reason,” which he treats as synonymous with “Nature” and “God” since God created Nature and it is human nature to be rational. Thus, unlike Thomas Hobbes, who supposed the natural inclination of humans was towards endless violence, Locke asserts that even in the hypothetical “state of nature” people would live guided by basic principles of reason and justice. Even so, without anyone to mediate between neighbors there would be disputes which would likely devolve into violence. Thus, in order to live together in larger groups in an orderly and peaceful fashion, humans create governments which in turn create laws to define acceptable behavior, magistrates to arbitrate between citizens, and to regulate the use of force if necessary to preserve justice and social order while avoiding the excesses likely with private vengeance. Essentially, each individual gives up some of that complete freedom he or she would have had to regulate their own private affairs and define relations to others, agreeing to live under the governance of a society ruled by the will of the majority. The core of this new society is the legislative body, which represents the collective will of the people. Locke believes this body should be chosen by and from among the people themselves, and that its members act as delegates to represent the wills of those who elected them. The laws made by this body would thus be the expression of the will of the people themselves. Hobbes in his Leviathan had pictured the State as an “artificial person” made up of the collection of all its members, ruled by the absolute will of its government; Locke retains something of this treatment of the commonwealth as a single being created by its members, but sees it as animated not by the will of one totalitarian king but rather by the collective will of the people themselves. Since this body is the expression of the people, and of each individual member, it has limits which Hobbes would not recognize, but also rightful powers which Rand (and other current conservative thinkers such as Robert Nozick) would reject. On the one hand, even in this democratic body animated by the will of the majority, the government must respect the essential value of each individual.[2] This puts limits on the possible “tyranny of the majority;” since in the state of nature one person would not have absolutely power over a neighbor, neither can the commonwealth claim absolute power over the lives and properties of citizens even if acting in the name of the majority. On the other hand, it can impose taxes to pay for such joint projects as the legislature has deemed necessary for the welfare of the people. Locke writes:



It is true, governments cannot be supported without great charge, and it is fit every one who enjoys his share of the protection, should pay out of his estate his proportion for the maintenance of it. But still it must be with his own consent, i.e. the consent of the majority, giving it either by themselves, or their representatives chosen by them: for if any one shall claim a power to lay and levy taxes on the people, by his own authority, and without such consent of the people, he thereby invades the fundamental law of property, and subverts the end of government: for what property have I in that, which another may by right take, when he pleases, to himself?[3]




Thomas Hobbes assumed that all humans were irrational, greedy, violent and fearful, and could live together peacefully only if beaten into submission; therefore he imagined a “social contract” whereby a group of people, rejecting the “war of each against all” of anarchy, chose to select one individual despot or a small group to bludgeon everyone else. Locke has a much more optimistic view of human nature, seeing it as ruled not only by emotions, but by feelings guided by reason; so the commonwealth he envisions neither needs to be so brutal nor should it be. But he is not so giddy with the power of Reason as Rand is; Locke knows that people are often ruled by their passions and desires, and that the “rational” interests of the individual citizens often do clash, so that in the end we need a mechanism to determine the will of the majority while we all agree to accept and live by the majority’s choice.

[1] John Locke, The Second Treatise of Civil Government (1690) chapter VIII, sect. 96

[2] Locke, chapter XI, sect. 135

[3] Locke, sect. 140

Usurpation, Tyranny and Sailing to Algiers: How Bad Does It Have to Get? (pt. 1)

February 17, 2020

Usurpation, Tyranny and Sailing to Algiers: How Bad Does It Have to Get?



….how can a man any more hinder himself from being persuaded in his own mind, which way things are going; or from casting about how to save himself, than he could from believing the captain of the ship he was in, was carrying him, and the rest of the company, to Algiers, when he found him always steering that course, though cross winds, leaks in his ship, and want of men and provisions did often force him to turn his course another way for some time, which he steadily returned to again, as soon as the wind, weather, and other circumstances would let him?


——-John Locke, Second Treatise of Civil Government, sect 210



What’s so bad about Algiers? Warm climate, lovely beaches, so what’s not to love? From the 1500s into the 1700s, Europeans were captured and enslaved in Africa, from as far north as Iceland and more often from Britain south along the Atlantic coast and throughout the Mediterranean. At a time when Europe was backwards and underpopulated compared to the Islamic world, hundreds of thousands of Europeans were captured and enslaved by pirates, by raiders, and by kidnappers, and sold in the slave markets of Algiers and other North African ports. Men were usually sent to be worked to death in the salt mines; women were more likely to become domestic servants and/or concubines. Some estimates put the total number of enslaved Europeans at a million or more. True, this is paltry compared to the numbers of Africans enslaved by Europeans, but the size and population of Africa greatly dwarfed Renaissance Europe as well. The demographic impact was locally significant, and the psychological impact far greater. At the time Locke wrote his groundbreaking work on representative democracy, the Second Treatise of Civil Government, Algiers was a destination of horror. A captain who consistently steered towards Algiers was one who endeavored to sell his passengers and maybe crew into slavery. And in such a case, says Locke, the passengers would have every right to join together to overthrow that captain and steer for a safer harbor, rather than meekly wait until they arrived at the shores of slavery to act.

Locke used this image to describe the relations between free citizens and their leaders. Citizens, he argues, do not have to wait until their government has robbed them of their freedom and livelihoods before resisting oppression. If they see that creeping despotism is threatening to reduce them to bondage, they can act to prevent it. But at what point? What is the progression of authoritarianism whereby a representative civil government morphs into something working not for the good of the people, but only for the ruled? When does the government become the enemy?

Today’s “conservatives” write and speak as if government is always the enemy, perhaps the only enemy of the people. John Locke would agree with Ayn Rand’s repeated assertion that “No human rights can exist without property rights.” And he might approve her claim that “the rational interests of men do not clash,” if that is interpreted to mean that all people live naturally under the law of Reason.[1] But he would disagree with her equation of government and criminality. For example, Rand equates Medicare with armed robbery and murder, saying the only difference is the number of victims and beneficiaries.[2] More generally, Rand argues:



Criminals are a small minority in any age or country. And the harm they have done to mankind is infinitesimal when compared to the horrors—-the bloodshed, the wars, the persecutions, the confiscations, the famines, the enslavements, the wholesale destructions—-perpetuated by mankind’s governments. Potentially, a government is the most dangerous threat to man’s rights; it holds a legal monopoly on the use of physical force against legally disarmed victims. When unlimited and unrestricted by individual rights, a government is men’s deadliest enemy.[3]




To Rand, the vast majority of governments are nothing more than gangs of robbers, to which anarchy would be preferable. The only exception she sees is pre-New Deal United States, where, she claims, individual property rights were respected and government existed only to protect those rights. Leaving aside the historical simplification (such as the omission of slavery), we can see her vision of the “moral” state: an absolute minimalist government, run on fees for services instead of taxation by force, solely existing to provide a marketplace for individuals to trade goods and services with one another without interference from criminals or invaders. There is no such thing as “the public” or “public interest;” there are only individuals.[4]

[1] Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: Penguin Group USA, 1964) p.34

[2] Rand, pp. 95-96

[3] Rand, p. 115

[4] Rand, p. 103