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There’s an old joke that goes, “The definition of a gentleman is someone who knows how to play the accordion, but doesn’t.” The same principle, when applied to political philosophy, contains much wisdom.

The definition of a governor, whether he be a president, prime minister, or king, is someone who has the power to destroy you, but doesn’t. Tyrants use the awesome force at their disposal to plunder society for their narrow self-interest. Governors restrict the use of force to some regular procedure that is predictable and non-discriminatory. This is less and less true today, as political outcomes veer between the Scylla of dehumanizing managerial bureaucracy and the Charybdis of mob rule, but the distinction is crucial nonetheless.

Thus there are two very different uses of power, but the existence of power itself is not in question. Political philosophy has understandably been fascinated with power, and especially since the Enlightenment, has attempted to rationalize it. Between theories of governance that relied on various constructs such as a ‘state of nature’ or a ‘social contract,’ much recent political philosophy has tried to justify not just the use of power in service of particular ends, but the existence and institutionalization of power itself. Even taking into account the important difference between theories that held these constructs to be accurate historical descriptions, and those that recognized their fictitiousness and used them in an as if manner, this project has produced underwhelming results. Its champion, the theory of democratic legitimacy, or legitimacy by consent, is largely fictitious. Calling ‘voluntary’ an arrangement in which a man has one one-millionth a say in electing the official, who appoints the official, who appoints the official, who actually exercises power is simply incredible, especially since he has no easy recourse to ‘opting out’ of uses of power with which he fundamentally disagrees.

Bertrand de Jouvenel

Bertrand de Jouvenel

Of course, not all political authority is rooted in domination, and not all political power is imposed from on high. Bertrand de Jouvenel, for example, recognized that authority could be consensual, not in the narrowly democratic (plebiscitarian) sense, but in that it could arise as a community’s rational response to character traits, such as intellect and will, that naturally set apart one of their members as a leader. But while existing political institutions can probably claim to have ‘organic authority’ as a part of their ancestry, it is equally likely that they carry on the legacy of conquest, wherein one group and its ‘organic authority’ (legitimate) came to dominate another (illegitimate).

Power, then, is a paradox. The domination of one group by another is clearly illegitimate, and yet human nature being what it is, domination is inescapable. We are all the heirs to impositions of power, in one form or another. Post-Enlightenment political philosophy has not offered us an escape from this paradox, so much as it has blinded us to its existence. By setting itself an unsolvable goal, serious intellectual capital has been redirected from a far more practical goal: not eliminating power, but civilizing it.

If civilizing power is the more promising avenue, it matters far less who rules than how rule is carried out. Focusing narrowly on the former turns us into presentist partisans; taking into consideration the latter helps us address the perennial problems all political regimes face. Even illiberal governance regimes had their saving graces, to which we would be blind if we focused on who to the exclusion of how. Take, for example, the institution of monarchy, specifically its Western variant during the High Middle Ages. The monarch was the apex of the aristocracy. The defining feature of the aristocracy, as it became civilized, is the abandonment of plunder and the voluntarily exercise of restraint. The strange paradox of a potential for liberality and violent excess, combined with a Stoic exercise of restraining will, has always been the goal of warrior-elites-turned-nobles. The monarch, as the chief aristocrat, thus embodied the extreme of potential violence, tempered by the extreme of self-restraint. This is the essence of law. Divine right, after all, ultimately meant not, “The king can do whatever he wants,” but, “The king, in virtue of his position, is obligated to God and his realm to rule in a specific way.” We have a word for this paradoxical combination of irresistible force constrained by extraordinary will: majesty. A king was styled, “Your Majesty,” not because of what he is, but because of what his subjects expect him to be.

kings_courtBefore anyone accuses me of medieval romanticism, I should add the standard qualifiers. Obviously not all kings ruled well. Clearly they frequently did break their trusts and plunder their subjects. But medieval monarchy, part of the extraordinary pan-European system of political checks and balances—kings countered nobles, who countered the clergy, who countered the burgers and trade guilds—was integral in creating the conditions for the growth of wealth on a previously-unimaginable scale. Power had previously bequeathed to the world sometimes-responsible rulers who facilitated a high civilization in the Islamic and Chinese Empires. But only the West, in virtue of kings’ incentives for realm stewardship, combined with the restrictions on domination afforded by the intellectual traditions of Christendom and other intermediary powers, escaped the Malthusian trap.

But ultimately this is not an essay about the virtues of monarchy. It is a warning, to make sure the practitioners of the social and human sciences are asking the right questions. My point is most certainly not that we should jettison liberal democracy and find ourselves a king. That would be making the very mistake, albeit in the opposite direction, I cautioned against above: focusing on the identity of rulers, rather than the quality of rule. Social theory, including political philosophy, bears greatest fruit when it eschews utopia and focuses on improvements in the quality of existing institutions, or in facilitating a transition to feasible alternatives. Looking for the one true theory of who ought to rule is pointless, simply because there is not, and cannot, be a right for some men to exercise dominion over others. Our responsibility is not to eliminate power, but to find ways to serve ends higher than its own appetites. Since there cannot be a right to rule, we’d best make sure that those who rule, rule well.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay is based on Mr. Salter’s scholarly paper, “Rights to the Realm: Reconsidering Western Political Development.”

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3 replies to this post
  1. This is an interesting, persuasive (and intuitively obvious) case for the reordering of our attitudes to ‘power’ and political governance. That said, I frequently think that a constitutional monarchy is potentially the best form of government. Reading this article, though, reminds me that, obviously, any monarchy is only as good as the manner of the rule by the monarch. Responsible, restrained, enlightened rule by a king or queen is clearly more important than any purported ‘divine right’ to rule by said monarch. At any rate, I have always instinctively preferred a healthy,restrained, virtuous aristocracy to the maddeningly messy, chaotic ways of a ‘democracy’; a democracy which frequently looks and plays out like a quasi-mobocracy.

  2. Since, according to the article, all rule depends on domination, how can we ensure that those who would rule over us would rule well? Other than that, the writer here gives the appearance of wanting to avoid a centralized authoritarianism as well as mob rule. But what is mob rule? Do we approach mob rule by approaching a more direct democracy? Or is mob rule the democratic counterpart of a tyrannical king?

    It seems to me that the conservative approach, I grew up being a conservative but changed, is more concerned with governance by people who become entitled to rule based on some selected set of characteristics than with how they rule because how one rules follows becoming entitled to rule. But ‘how they rule’ can be ambiguous. Here are we talking about the self-restraint of the ruler or by political structures that limit the power of the ruler?

    So in the end, this article doesn’t provide the guidance in thinking about those who rule over us as was intended. There are parts of the article that are encouraging, but other parts that are insufficiently defined. What I am sure of is that we need a political system that is more participatory so that instead of having designated rulers, we practice self-rule. Only here, self-restraint, or more specifically, caring for others in addition to those in our own group, will determine how well we rule ourselves.

  3. There is a fundamental difference between power and authority. Power is the ability to do something, authority is the right to do something. It is possible to have power without authority and it is also possible to have authority without power.

    A Tyrant is one who exercises power beyond their authority. They use their ability to do things that they do not have the right to do. Those people who live under tyranny are deprived of of the power to do the things that they have the right to do.

    The problem of both modernity and post-modernity is that they lead to the denial of Authority. When authority is denied, only naked power remains.

    The question of who, if anyone, has the right to rule is undoubtedly, difficult. And yet, much of the difficulty that surrounds the question arises from two problems. The first is that no Ruler and no system of government, no matter how perfect, or how rightful, is ever going to be free of human nature and human frailty. As a result ALL systems will end in abuse of power and over-stepping of authority. This is simply inevitable. There is no way to fix this while this world lasts. This fact is ignored at our very great peril. While we should try to limit the damage that can be done (as the author drives at) if we ever fall into the trap of aiming for utopia, we will almost certainly end in hell on earth.

    The second problem is that in our current culture we have built certain presuppositions into our worldview. We take these presuppositions to be self-evident truths when in fact, they may not be so. Two such notions are the twin concepts of the social contract and government by the consent of the governed.

    It should be noted that both ideas, at least as we know them today, did not arise until Western Civilization began to reject Divine Revelation and replace it with naturalistic reason.

    The baseline truth that all Christians must admit is that God sets up authorities. God appoints rulers and the authority that they exercise is given to them by God. As such the question of whether anyone has the right to rule must, by a Christian, be answered in the affirmative.

    Samuel Rutherford in his influential, but now oft overlooked work, Lex Rex, argues that government by consent is established in the Bible in the example of King David. Rutherford argues that David was anointed King by God, through the agency of Samuel. Yet he argues that David did not become king in fact until he was acclaimed by the people. Thus Rutherford implies that God’s anointing essentially waits upon the acclaim, or consent, of the people.

    There is a certain element of truth here, I think, which is why I would not completely discount the idea of Government by Consent, but I would definitely demand that we must have a nuanced understanding of what that means. And so we must ask, once God anointed David, were the people free to chose another King? I think the inevitable answer is no.

    David, like the Christ whom he prefigured, waited for the consent of his people. Yet they were not free to give their consent to another. It is no mistake that the imagery of David becoming King over Israel, and the imagery of Christ and his Church is nuptial imagery. The Groom waits for consent, but there is no other rightful Groom. The Bride cannot legitimately choose anyone else.

    This is the ideal of how rightful rulership has been understood in every age except the modern age. It is familial imagery.

    It is also no mistake, nor coincidence that all government originally arose out of the Family. The right to govern was always seen as a familial right. Government began with the patriarch over the family, extending out to the clan, then a tribe that was a collection of clans, then to the nation which was a collection of tribes, then to the kingdom which was, before the modern era, multi-national.

    The ideas of Kingship and Aristocracy have almost always been defined along family lines. This is why they are inherited. One of the most basic conflicts between conservative and liberal thought in the modern era has been that conservative thought favors rights of inheritance over abstract individual “rights of man”.

    One of the worst things to come out of modern liberal democracy is the idea that you don’t have a right to your family’s patrimony, because it conflicts with the abstract “right” of equality and the “right” of self-determination.

    One of the most basic and yet destructive mistakes of modern liberal democracy is the illusion addressed by the author that having a vote means you have real representation in the government, or that you give real consent to the “contract” or the government.

    For most people this accomplishes exactly the opposite. Conservative thinkers of the 18th and 19th centuries routinely spoke out against extending voting rights to universal franchise precisely because they rightly predicted that it would lead to LESS real representation in government for the majority of people.

    As a side note, one of the great ironies here is that conservative thinkers such as Edmund Burke opposed the innovations of modern liberal democracy in part because they believed it would lead to a complete domination of government by purely economic interests. He (they) were absolutely right, of course. The irony being that much of current conservatism has essentially sold it’s soul to big business in exactly the way that the original conservatives feared.

    At the end of the day if there is a real right to rule (and we know there is if we are Christians) then it cannot be based on a contract. A contract is not remotely sufficient to create such a bond. The same is true with Consent. Consent may be given and it may be removed. It is not strong enough to be binding in the way that social, legal, and governmental bonds are binding.

    It has to be something much more like covenant. You can opt in to a covenant, or you can be born in, but your membership is occasioned by a binding oath. Once sworn you cannot take it back.You can break it and bear the consequences, but you cannot simply withdraw your consent.

    Similarly the idea of the society of egalitarian individuals is a modern and destructive fiction that is totally contrary to both nature and divine revelation. The reality is that we are meant to live in structures of hierarchical authority. This is plainly evident in nature and in divine revelation. The family, the basic unit of human existence and society is hierarchical. The Church community is hierarchical.

    The ultimate example here is the Trinity itself. You cannot possibly get more equal than the Divine Persons of the Trinity. They are literally one in being and essence. They alone in all of existence are persons that literally have the exact same essence. And yet, the persons of the Trinity exist and present themselves in a hierarchical relationship.

    This clearly demonstrates that hierarchy is not born of pride, or of “lording it over” others, it is not the product of injustice or inequality. Nor is it achieved by violence. True Hierarchy is the product of Love.

    This, again, is one of the fundamental lies and misdirections of modern liberal democracy. Egalitarianism is fundamentally based on pride and selfishness while submission and hierarchy are founded firmly upon love.

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