Who Authorizes the Authorities?
By Butler D. Shaffer
I began my class one day with an apparently simple question: Does the U.S. Constitution have legitimacy? As a follow-up question, I asked: By what right does one group of men get together and impose upon others a particular system of government?
These questions, of course, do not apply only to the American political system, but can be asked, with equal force, of every government that has ever existed. By what right did the Bolsheviks, or the Catholic Church, or William the Conqueror, or Genghis Khan, or any other group or individual, assume the authority to make and enforce laws upon other men and women?
Having been educated in traditional schools, most of my students answered with the kind of conditioned responses that it has been the purpose of traditional education to provide: “We all got together and agreed to this form of government,” they declared.
Even though the fallacy of such explanations of governmental origins were quickly dispelled by asking the students to tell me the place and date at which they attended this “meeting” with “everybody else” to establish a government, I have no doubt that all of them truly believed that the American government was formed out of the common consent of all Americans.
I forged ahead with my questions: “If we all have inalienable rights, how can some men vote to take away the rights of others?” “How does the fact that ten men may choose to join together for their common protection impose upon the eleventh man any obligation to go along with them?”
True to their public school upbringings, my students tried to take comfort in the process of voting.: “If they majority are in favor of something, that makes it right,” a number of them agreed.
“But what makes the will of the majority sacrosanct?” I asked.
I went on. “Suppose three muggers confront you on the street and say, ‘We want your money. But don’t worry — we’re going to let you vote on whether or not you should give it to us.’ If this group votes three-to-one in favor of taking your money, does this legitimize its actions?”
A few of my students saw the obvious analogy to government, but for others the characterization of government as nothing more than sanctified theft and violence was too unsettling. One student tried to rehabilitate the democratic process with the weak plea that “It has to involve more than just a few people,” while another felt obliged to defend democracy and voting at all costs, as something in the nature of an ultimate principle.
“Majority rule is just the way our government is set up,” he argued, not seeing that he had succeeded in arguing himself into one big circle.
“But that’s what I’m asking you to explain.” I went on: “ How does this — or any other — system of government acquire the legitimacy to impose such processes upon those who do not choose to be bound by it?”
The discussion ended with a number of my students resorting to the traditional method of all totalitarian systems and ideas: “If you don’t like it, you should leave the country,” they shouted.
When the discussion was over, one of my students stated that this had been a very “unsettling” and “uncomfortable” experience. “It was my purpose to make you uncomfortable,” I replied, “ for only in facing hard, uncomfortable questions will we be able to overcome the dependencies on authority that we have accepted for our lives.”
I remarked upon how institutions not only cause most of the social conflict in the world today, but absolutely require conflict in order to maintain their power over our lives. Government, in particular, generates and manages conflict and, in the process, solidifies its base of power over us.
“But what is the answer to this?” a number of them asked. “What alternatives are there for us?” I told them that since the problem of government involves our self-induced dependencies on authority figures, for me to give you my answer is simply to substitute me as your new authority.
The social problems of our world are occasioned by our consciousness. They are the problem of how we think — about ourselves, others, and our responsibilities for our own behavior and our own conclusions. “The answer,” I concluded, “ is that you must figure out your own answers.”
That has always been the source of the human dilemma. Because we have come to enjoy the luxury of having other people make judgments and decisions for us, we are terribly uncomfortable when someone comes along and challenges our complacency.
We enjoy triviality — a fact that has spawned mindless television programming, gossip magazines, and a general banality in what used to be the art of serious conversation — and eschew fundamental inquires. But if life is to have any meaning, if we are ever to overcome the viciousness and vulgarity that are destroying the quality of human life, we must get ourselves in the habit of asking the sorts of questions we have been trained not to ask.
Butler Shaffer teaches at Southwest University School of Law. He is the author of Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival.