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The Myth of the Consent of the Governed

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | May 15, 2014

Recently I came across an effort to demonstrate the immorality of slavery based on natural rights. The text read as follows: “No feeling can justify the enslavement of another human being, because a human being has the inalienable right to consent in his rule. This, of course, is the problem with slavery.” But in fact this is not the problem of slavery, which consists in the moral impossibility of one person owning another, which would be immoral even with consent.

I won’t mention the author or the book, because the mistake is so minor in the context of the whole, that I don’t wish to cast aspersions. But this mistake is based on what is essentially a modern prejudice that legitimate government arises from the consent of the governed. This myth was an important theoretical foundation for the historical transition from monarchy to more representative forms of government in the course of European history. It plays well when overthrowing a tyrant; it quickly wears thin in modern democracies.

In the Catholic view, it is not the consent of the governed but the exigencies of the common good which provide the justification for government generally, but (as I have written elsewhere, e.g., Governing Politics) the so-called “legitimacy” of any particular government arises from a broad range of practical and prudential factors which, if these factors undergo a radical enough shift, will result in that same government’s “illegitimacy”. Such judgments ought to be tied closely to shared perceptions of the common good, but we should not kid ourselves that this is always the case.

In any case, nobody has ever recognized a right of an individual citizen to declare that he will not consent to the authority of Government X. St. Paul was far closer to the mark when he wrote the following:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of him who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay all of them their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. [Rom 13:1-8]

Note St. Paul’s emphasis on duty. He understood that governments arise by very mysterious and apparently accidental processes which can be fully understood only in the light of Divine Providence. He makes a strong moral and pragmatic argument, rooted in the common good (for the ruler “is God’s servant for your good”), for obeying the government we have, except insofar as it commands us to sin. For this reason, it also takes a very strong argument, based firmly on the common good, to undertake a rebellion.

To be sure, the Catholic principle of subsidiarity teaches that governance in each matter should be exercised at the lowest possible level, because men and women, by virtue of their dignity as persons, should participate as much as possible in the solutions to their own problems. But this simply underlines an important characteristic of the common good; it does not say anything about the right of each individual to consent to being ruled. Increasingly, the myth of consent is used to justify a great many sins which profoundly detract from the common good.

Ultimately, Christian politics is mostly a matter of giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s (Mt 22:21). The myth of the consent of the governed has become yet another point of socio-political confusion—not to mention propaganda—that Catholics need to avoid.

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - May. 18, 2014 8:42 AM ET USA

    I was not trying to formulate Catholic doctrine! My only claims were that Catholic social teaching roots the justification for government in the common good, not in an individual right to consent (which has never been honored anywhere in the history of the world); and that St. Paul was closer to the truth than this. I should add that I am not aware that the US founding documents are sources of Divine Revelation; one could just as easily point to our Civil War as proof that consent doesn't enter into the American concept of government. And please note that I allowed for rebellion based on a strong argument from the common good. (What other moral justification could there possibly be?) Finally, American conservatives very much need to stop calling everything they disagree with "socialism". Words do have meanings, after all.

  • Posted by: ZIP5DO@aol.com - May. 16, 2014 8:59 PM ET USA

    This is the psuedo-socialist propaganda of the left. It is an opinion and not a mandatory belief of doctrine of our faith. Either you have not read our own Declaration of Independence and Constitution or you choose to ignore it like Obama. Yes government is given power by we the governed for the common good. Yet when that government or any government abuses their power to enslave the people or destroy their faith and freedom, we the governed have a right and duty to replace it.

  • Posted by: bruno.cicconi7491 - May. 16, 2014 6:24 PM ET USA

    One cannot help reading the Contractualists and find an excessive naiveté. The consent of a the governed is a fiction employed to justify government on non-providential terms, and I suspect that even the likes of Hobbes and Locke knew it, for they were not dumb fellows.

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