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

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

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