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Democracy and Legitimacy

December 5th, 2006 by Matt

The founding statement of liberal political theory, John Locke’s Two Treaties of Civil Government, opens with the following statement:

Reader, thou hast here the beginning and end of a discourse concerning government; what fate has otherwise disposed of the papers that should have filled up the middle, and were more than all the rest, it is not worth while to tell thee. These, which remain, I hope are sufficient to establish the throne of our great restorer, our present King William; to make good his title, in the consent of the people, which being the only one of all lawful governments, he has more fully and clearly, than any prince in Christendom; and to justify to the world the people of England, whose love of their just and natural rights, with their resolution to preserve them, saved the nation when it was on the very brink of slavery and ruin.

Locke states his purpose in writing is to defend a military coup. Locke goes on to argue that a government derives its powers from the consent of the government for the purpose of protecting the rights of its citizens. Specifically a citizen’s right to life, liberty and property. He argues that if a government turns against these rights the people can justly overthrow it.

The US declaration of independence reiterates this claim.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from
the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.

Two of the founding documents for liberal democracy maintain that a government can be legitimately overthrown if it uses its powers to infringe, as opposed to protect, the rights of its citizens. In some instances, the military have a duty to do this; often the military have sworn duty to defend the rights of its citizens with force. If the government begins to threaten these rights then this duty means the military have a duty to resist the government with force. This is not some crackpot, novel idea, it is part of our liberal heritage, it is also incidentally part of our Christian heritage. Aquinas argued in a similar vein, as did numerous Puritan writers such as Mornay, Rutherford, Milton, Buchanan.

I say this because at 7:30 PM tonight on Campbell live a military coup was announced in Fiji. The immediate reaction from every commentator I saw was one of disgust because a democratically elected government had been overthrown. Now I am not saying I agree with the coup, I am quite willing to concede that the Military are acting unjustly. However, the mere fact that the government of Fiji was democratically elected does not mean its wrong to over throw them with a coup. If the government uses its power to punish the guilty with proportionate and humane punishments and they defend the rights of the innocent against aggression then I agree it is unjust to over throw them. But if the government of Fiji has used its power to deprive innocent people of there rights and to acquit those guilty of crimes then in certain circumstances the military are within their rights in staging a coup. The fact that the government was lawfully elected is irrelevant.

When commentators in the media claim that a coup is wrong because the government is elected. They are in essence promoting the tyranny of the majority. They are suggesting that we have a duty of unqualified obedience to any leader which 51% of our peers support on election day, regardless of what this government does or orders us to do. They are deifying the majority and placing a democratic government in the place of God.

A state’s legitimacy depends on what it does, not on how many people support it or how popular it is the year of an election. If upholds the law of God and the rights this law confers upon us it is worthy of support. If it turns against these, it is not. God and God alone is the only person worthy of unqualified obedience.

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