Usurpation, Tyranny and Sailing to Algiers: How Bad Does It Have to Get? (pt. 4)

Now let’s take it one step further. The fundamental defining characteristic of a citizen is to play a part in making the laws that govern the society. This is recognized at least as far back as Aristotle, and it is a foundation of Locke’s understanding of the social contract. Suppose the usurper decides to use the powers of the office to pervert the next election, in order to hold onto power. In fact, let’s not even ask whether the office-holder is a usurper; that is irrelevant. Anyone who attempts to prevent a person from voting is robbing that person of the fundamental right of a citizen, and the fundamental right of a human being. Individual freedom is the fundamental inalienable right. I may freely delegate someone to represent me in the assembly or congress or parliament, to act on my behalf and with the other delegates to make laws in my best interests; Locke says that that is not surrendering my freedom but rather giving it expression in the society. On the other hand, even if I have other freedoms, without the right to participate in the making of the laws under which I live, I am not a citizen at all, but at best living in a state of nature, with no essential relationship to this government, free to disobey or oppose it as I see fit.

What makes the apparently non-violent and inconspicuous crime of vote-tampering so serious, more serious perhaps than graft or DUI manslaughter (to name two crimes by famous politicians)? To understand, we must return to Locke’s understanding of the origins and nature of government.[1] In a state of anarchy, people would live as their natural affections drew them and their reason guided them. Thus, we could have a society without a government, existing and interacting as individual and small family groups. But to have any relationship broader than that, we must agree to live together under shared laws and leadership, which (if it is to be legitimate) must be formed by the people and serve to express their collective will. Naturally, if the society that is the foundation of the government and for which it exists is itself destroyed, the government is dissolved. For example, if an invader uproots the community and destroys all the institutions binding people together, destroys homes and separates families, and leaves only scattered individuals, there is no government left and everyone is left back in the state of nature to try to rebuild a new society. Locke says little about this, saying history shows us enough examples that he need not belabor the point; also, it really isn’t his main interest. Locke is concerned with how the government itself might delegitimize itself, overturn itself, and become the enemy of the people and society it was supposed to protect. As we have seen, not every usurper is a destroyer of government. In fact, not every tyrant is a complete destroyer of government. A king or magistrate who abuses his or her power, but not to the point of utterly destroying the institutions of government themselves, may not destroy the government. This seems to be why Locke’s description of tyranny includes some limits on the right of forceful resistance: enough to resist the act of tyranny, but not more.

Some actions by a government, however, would so totally overturn the basis of civil government as to constitute war against the people themselves, effectively putting them back into a state of nature wherein they are entitled to create a new commonwealth on their own and to defend it against their former government as any citizen would against a foreign invader. The first of such actions is “when the legislative is altered.”[2] Locke “imagines” a government with three branches: a judicial, a federal and a legislative. The judicial consists of magistrates and judges and courts for interpreting and applying the law. The federal is the overall unifying head, which Locke suggests could be a king ruling for life but whose powers are limited by laws and traditions so that he is as much subject as master of the other two branches. The legislative is the branch which most directly expresses the will of the people. This is the body that is made up by representatives of the people, chosen by them and from among them, who gather together to consider the needs of the society and to create laws which all will live by. It is this legislative power that is the expression of the free will of each individual drawn together into one collective will, the will of the majority. When the legislative is altered, either by replacing the elected legislators with others chosen not by the people but by some other power (likely the king), or when laws are made without the consent of the legislature or those laws that are made are not enforced, then the will of the people is thwarted, the power they created to bind them into one commonwealth is broken, and they are in fact returned to their state of nature. At that point they cease to be citizens at all, but are merely bound servants to their overlords. In addition to such circumstances as a tyrant simply replacing the laws with his or her own will, replacing the legislators with the tyrant’s own stooges or simply leaving the legislature be but depriving it of the ability to act, the government effectively dissolves when it contrives to hand the nation over to the sovereignty of a foreign power (for example, the perception that Mary Tudor sought to hand the country over to Spain).[3]

Locke lumps all these possible corruptions together as “changing the legislative,” because they represent some sort of nullification of the people’s right to choose their lawmakers and/or the laws they live under. In addition, Locke discusses the possibility that the legislature itself could turn tyrant. Since the people form a government to protect their lives, their liberty and their property, a government that arbitrarily deprives them of these has failed to fulfill the purpose for which it was founded in the first place. This is so whether the legislature corrupted itself through greed or ambition, or was corrupted by the executive either by force, threat, bribery or some other means. If the government itself should not only fail to fulfill its duties to the citizens but even act against the very duties with which it was entrusted, Locke says, the people are free from all responsibility to that government and may establish whatever new government they believe will serve them better.[4] In such a case, they are not “rebels” against their government; Locke argues that it is the government which has declared war on the people and is in rebellion against their authority.[5]

So Locke recognizes a range of ways in which representative democracy can break down, and gradations of appropriate response when it does. In a usurpation, the people might not respond at all; they could choose to accept the usurper and in doing so provide his or her office with the legitimacy it requires: a mandate from the majority. Likewise, in cases of petty abuses (such as spending part of the office supplies budget on the premium coffee the mayor prefers rather than the generic freeze-dried which the city council approved) people might look the other way, or impose some sort of discipline, but no one could reasonably think violence or even arrest was justified. In such cases neither the continuation of the commonwealth nor the inalienable rights of the citizens are at stake. When the abuse of prerogative matures into tyranny, people may resist. If the police lack a proper warrant to enter your home, Locke says, you can resist their attempts to do so as you would any robber. Even in such cases, Locke requires a calibrated response; just as you can’t shoot a neighbor who’s holding your property if you can reasonably expect to regain it by legal means, so too you cannot use force if you have legal recourse against governmental abuse or overreach. So long as the courts are functioning, and the threatened injury not irreversible, the commonwealth is still more or less functional and problems may be resolved more reasonably. “Reason” is a key concept for Locke. He is rather optimistic about the abilities of common sense; he knows people are motivated by passions and desires, but he also believes they can obtain the knowledge and exercise the self-restraint they need to make reasonable choices, usually. And where the law of Reason has not been totally overthrown, that should be our first resort.

Even in cases of real tyranny, Locke says, people will not immediately rush for their flintlocks and bayonets. Locke knows that what he is writing has radical implications. His father served in the Parliamentarian army during the English Civil War, which led to the beheading of King Charles I and six years of Puritan dictatorship, eventually settling down to a constitutional monarchy with strict limits on royal power. He was well aware of the earlier arguments of Thomas Hobbes and the current views of many conservative critics, that anything less than absolute monarchy would degenerate into civil war and anarchy. But Locke, with his faith in common sense, argued that people are in fact unlikely to resort to violence over every little injustice.[6]  People are naturally inclined to seek peace for themselves, and to put up with a lot if they’re used to it or they fear radical resistance could make it worse. They are unlikely to react much if the injustice doesn’t threaten them, but concerns only one or a small number of people. But, if there is a pattern of injustices, and people see that their rights and liberties, the fruits of their labors and even their lives are endangered, and that things seem likely to only get worse over time, then they most likely will rise up against their oppressors. The only difference is that Locke believes they would be justified, since the true purpose of government is the welfare of the people and its legitimacy comes from their mandate alone; an absolute monarchy would condemn the people as rebels and sinners, but still be just as likely to face forceful and even violent resistance after prolonged and habitual misrule.

[1] Locke, chapter XIX, sect. 211

[2] Locke, sect. 212

[3] Locke, sect. 213-18

[4] Locke, sect. 220

[5] Locke, sect. 227

[6] Locke, sect. 224-230

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