printer-friendly version

What Makes a Government Legitimate?

by John Spritzler

December 16, 2012


Why do good people obey bad laws? Why do ordinary people obey the Federal government's laws that benefit the haves at the expense of the have-nots? All of the laws regarding the rights of employers are laws that ordinary working class people obey to their detriment, not to their advantage. Laws give employers the right to claim personal private ownership of what is rightfully public property--vast tracts of land, and industrial machinery, factories, office buildings and so forth that were produced by the labor of countless working people with the indispensable assistance of even more countless working people (such as the farmers who fed them and the teachers who taught them.) Laws prohibit some workers from going on strike. Laws prohibit workers from engaging in sympathy strikes in support of other workers on strike. Laws require people to pay taxes that the government uses to pay back the interest and principle on loans by banks and billionaires whom the government should have taxed, not borrowed from.

Laws are responsible for the enormous economic inequality in the United States and for all of the ways ordinary people are harmed by policies designed to make them accept this inequality. For example, laws mandating high stakes standardized testing of our school children--testing that is a form of child abuse and that is designed to ensure that large numbers will fail no matter how well students learn their lessons--were imposed by the Federal government at the behest of Big Business for the purpose of making many working class children blame themselves instead of our unequal social system for their relegation to low-paying jobs or unemployment. Parents and teachers and students have never supported these laws and so many other bad laws like them, but we obey them. Why?

The Hierarchy Principle is Why People Obey

One of the main reasons people obey bad laws today, perhaps a more compelling reason even than fear of imprisonment for breaking the law, is that they accept, for quite understandable reasons, the "hierarchy" principle. This is the principle that one is morally obliged to obey the government if it has a legitimate right to rule. People who deny that there is any basis for a government claiming the legitimate right to rule, those who say they are only obliged to obey laws they agree with but not laws they disagree with, such people are rightly viewed as dangerous anti-social individuals because of their refusal to abide by the hierarchy principle.

But what gives a government a legitimate right ro rule? How governments have claimed legitimacy has varied over time and in different parts of the world. In the past kings claimed legitimacy from "God's will," the so-called "Divine right of kings." In most of the world today governments claim legitimacy on the grounds that they were voted in by a fair election. Regardless of the particular basis for a government's legitimacy, there is something to be said for the "hierarchy" principle. Without the hierarchy principle there would be no basis on which to enforce good laws, like the one requiring people to drive on the right hand side of the road. Society has a right to enforce good laws even if some disagree that they are good. Didn't people have the right to tell the slave owners in America in the 19th century that they no longer owned their slaves and had to set them free, even though the slave owners insisted on their right to own slaves? Clearly a good society cannot be based on letting anybody break the law who deems the law a bad law!

Hierarchy Yes, But With a Different Basis of Legitimacy

But there is a dilemma. On the one hand society needs government by the hierarchy principle. On the other hand, the hierarchy principle causes good people to obey bad laws. The solution to this dilemma lies in seeing that the problem is not the hierarchy principle itself, but rather the particular bases of legitimacy used by current and past governments. The solution, therefore, is to keep the hierarchy principle but radically change the basis of legitimacy of a government, as spelled out in Thinking about Revolution, which advocates "voluntary federation." Voluntary federation says, "Yes, the hierarchy principle should apply, but the basis of a government's legitimacy needs to be radically different from what we are accustomed to, so as to greatly reduce (if not eliminate entirely) the problem of people feeling morally obliged to obey bad laws." In voluntary federation the basis of legitimacy of a government is two-fold: 1) the lawmakers are people who support the good principles of equality and mutual aid (let's call such people "good" people, and those who oppose these principles "bad" people, for short), and 2) all adults who will be obliged to obey the laws may, if they support the principles of equality and mutual aid, participate in the meetings that make the laws, as full equals of all the other lawmakers. Everybody is presumed to support the principles of equality and mutual aid unless they make it abundantly clear that they don't, in which case those who do support these principles are within their rights to remove the ones who don't from any role as a lawmaker. Elections no longer play any role in determining the legitimacy of a government; the lawmakers are no longer elected.

This two-fold basis of legitimacy is very different from the current "elected by a majority" basis. It implies that only governments that are local can make laws, because it is not realistically possible for the second condition of legitimacy (that all who must obey the laws and who support the good principles of equality and mutual aid may participate equally in making the laws) to work except on a local scale. Because only local governments can make and enforce (under the hierarchy principle) laws, it follows that individuals in Washington D.C. can make proposals that local governments may accept (by making appropriate laws) or reject as they wish, but they cannot make laws that everybody is morally obliged to obey.

While social order on a local scale is achieved by the hierarchy principle, social order on a larger scale is achieved by the voluntary federation principle: local governments send delegates to meet with delegates from other local governments for the purpose of crafting proposals (as opposed to laws) for the local governments to implement jointly if they wish (meaning that back and forth negotiating takes place to try to reach a widely shared agreement among local governments.) Regional bodies of delegates in turn send delegates to meet with delegates from other regions, etc., up to even bodies consisting of delegates from all over the planet, in order to craft proposals for cooperation and coordination on as large a scale as people wish.

Voluntary Federation Does What We Want Governments to Do, Better

Voluntary federation is more capable of preventing bad people from doing bad things than any Federal government in Washington D.C. ruling hierarchically, and at the same time it is far less prone to making people obey bad laws. Firstly, the voluntary federation local governments are far less likely than the Federal government in Washington D.C. to be controlled by bad people making bad laws (the main reason the Federal government doesn't prevent bad people from doing bad things in the first place). Why? Because the very legitimacy of the voluntary federation government requires all lawmakers to support the good principles of equality and mutual aid. In contrast, the legitimacy of the Federal government has nothing to do with support for these principles, the very principles that distinguish good from bad laws.

Secondly, when laws are made by meetings open to full and equal participation by all the good-principled people who will have to obey the laws, then it is far less likely that laws will be passed that the good people who have to obey them will consider to be bad laws. Today's politicians, in contrast, make laws in virtual secrecy behind closed doors, under the influence of lobbyists for Big Money who use all sorts of methods to bribe politicians to do their bidding. Ordinary people have to obey these laws but they are excluded from the actual process of writing them. No wonder so many bad laws are now the law of the land! With voluntary federation the people who are left out of the process but who must nonetheless obey the laws are the bad people who want society to be unequal and who disagree with the principle of mutual aid--people like our current wealthy, privileged and powerful billionaire elite. These people may not approve of the laws and yet will be made to obey them, which is right and proper.

Thirdly, voluntary federation enables the local governments to act in unison, even, when necessary, to organize military forces to enforce good laws against the wishes of bad people who don't like those laws. There is nothing weak about voluntary federation. In fact, voluntary federation is particularly strong because it unifies only people who support the principles of equality and mutual aid, and is not weakened by internal disagreement over whether or not to support these principles. Slave owners in the 19th century United States would have had a much harder time remaining slave owners if there had been voluntary federation as described here! Wealthy and privileged elites will no longer be able to persuade working class people that they have to obey anti-working class laws by claiming the Federal government has a legitimate right to rule because it was elected.

Voluntary federation is the way for good people to unite and thereby prevail over bad people. It's that simple.

This article may be copied and posted on other websites. Please include all hyperlinks.