The Consent of the Governed

Government legitimacy derived from the consent of the governed.  What a magnificent, simple and revolutionary idea.  Down through the ages despots, dictators, emperors and tyrants behaved as if they were not – like their subjects – flesh and blood.  In Egypt, the Pharaohs forced the population to worship them as gods.  Roman emperors paraded around in luxury and arrogance, making life and death decisions for others.  The kings of old, and feudal lords of the middle ages treated their peasants as slaves to carry out their bidding.  Some even practiced the “right of first night”, a humiliating act denying the men even the right to their wives.  The fascist dictators decided that certain segments of their populations didn’t deserve to live, and extinguished them in an orgy of blood.  And the communists, not content with the simple taking of life, attempted to rob the people of their humanity – desperate to convert them into drones working for the collective good of others, never for their own happiness.  All these methods of social organization had one thing in common – they attempted to take away man’s individuality.  They all claimed, using religion or philosophy or ideology, that man existed instead for some other purpose – for some other good than their own inalienable happiness. 

Then slowly groups of enlightened thinkers, emerging in an explosion of light into the renaissance, proposed the idea that each individual human should – nay must – be at the center of their own world.  Slowly this idea took hold.  Principles such as the progressive, inalienable, irreversible and un-renouncable nature of individual human rights – among these property, speech, life, and justice – made the enlightened nations of the world increasingly prosperous.  Born of this prosperity, people who were able at long last to look up from their backbreaking toil realized that they were no less human than those that claimed to be their betters.  Revolutions ensued.  Yet the shedding of blood, for the sake of retribution, retaliation, and revolution is never right – the French learned this.  They realized they could not exert their own fundamental rights by withdrawing those same rights from others – this left them no better than those they had vanquished.  

No, the children of the enlightened thinkers realized that they must find a new way.  Nouveau oppression over the formerly oppressed through endless revolution and domination produced only an unending cycle of violence, blood, death and poverty.  They built the idea of democracy, taken from the Greeks and Romans of old and modified to represent their new understanding of the inalienability of the individual rights of all humanity.  As they discussed and organized, they ran headlong into that one, most important principle – legitimacy of government is derived from the consent of the governed.  James Madison, the most important of our framers, best laid out what this meant:  individuals must be protected from the tyranny of an individual and the tyranny of the majority.  This was only possible through a set of hard, unalterable human rights protected by supra-human institutions – and the Bill of Rights was born.

I think about this as I watch our world in 2011.  A few months ago I wrote a blog called, “Wishing for Boredom.”  A while later an astute reader responded to my blog with the simple comment, “what do you say now, Mr. Expert?”  He (or she) was right.  But I’m glad I was wrong.  I watch the turmoil in the Middle East where a new set of actors, emerging from colonization and then dictatorship, are asking the same questions that the American founding fathers asked.  I wonder what their answers will be, will they chose the path of revolution for retribution and herald another generation of dictators?  Or will they chose the path of progressive, inalienable, irreversible and un-renouncable human rights:  will they set in place their own Bill of Rights and the necessary institutions to protect them? 

I look as well down south, where an increasing group of countries is warping the idea of rights to fit their own authoritarian plan – intent upon again wresting the individual from its pre-eminent place at the center of society.  Their motto, Fatherland, Socialism or Death is propped up by a beleaguered, abused and manipulated mass into what they prefer to call “legitimacy derived from the permanent majority.”  Rejecting and reversing Madison’s vision, they are attempting through their “permanent majority” to enslave everybody in society to their nouveau dictators, and to each other.  This new experiment in eons old governance will not work – we have come too far.  But it has already cost too many people’s lives, a generation of youth, and the fleecing of more than a trillion dollars.  

Francis Fukuyama once wrote about “the end of history.”  Whatever his point initially was, and whether he was right or wrong, I took something very different from this message.  While there will never be an end of political history, and the play between dictatorship and freedom is – unfortunately – unending, there is one way in which history has finished.  Thanks to our great men, thinkers and dreamers from Madison to the civil rights leaders, the principles of irreversible, inalienable, progressive and un-renouncable individual rights will never be re-written.  In this sense, with the individual firmly at the center of legitimate governance and clinging to a hard nucleus of irreversable rights, history has indeed closed this debate.  Now it befalls to us – who come after – to defend these principles with our lives.  As a great man also once said, “the price for liberty is eternal vigilance.” 



About Joel D. Hirst

Joel D. Hirst is a novelist and a playwright. His most recently released work is "Dreams of the Defeated: A Play in Two Acts" about a political prisoner in a dystopian regime. His novels include "I, Charles, From the Camps" about the life of a young man in the African camps and "Lords of Misrule" about the making and unmaking of a jihadist in the Sahara. "The Lieutenant of San Porfirio" and its sequel "The Burning of San Porfirio" are about the rise and fall of socialist Venezuela (with magic).
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