In my previous two posts (“John Locke and Primal Authority” and “Government by the People“), I have claimed that God is the origin of all legitimate political power. A person may be appointed by God to rule on the earth, or in the absence of such ruler we can delegate to a designated person the limited authorities God has distributed to us equally. Although these individually-given powers are limited, they are enough to maintain a peaceful (if not perfect) society, if they are delegated properly to virtuous leaders. The important thing to remember is that each of these two systems place ultimate sovereignty in a Supreme Being; all legitimate governments must ultimately be able to trace their authority to Him.
Some historical traditions deny the existence of any Supreme Being, and thus look elsewhere than God for the fountain of political authority. One philosophy holds that a group of people can collectively claim political sovereignty. Political scientist Donald Lutz explains, “To speak of popular sovereignty is to place ultimate authority in the people.”1 From this perspective, a group of people as a collective entity may claim the same sovereign powers once thought to be reserved for God’s divinely chosen servants.
A pure democracy is a system in which the majority voice of the people is given political sovereignty. Everybody contributes, but in the end it is the largest portion of the people that have the final say. Because sovereignty ultimately rests in the majority voice of the people, in a pure democracy there are no inherent moral limits to the power and authority of the majority voice of the people. For example, in a pure democracy, although I do not have the authority to take my neighbor’s property without his consent, if I get enough people to agree with me, then I could; that is because, in this philosophy, ultimate sovereignty rests in the majority voice of the people. My roommate once quipped that in a pure democracy, if 51% of the people wanted to gouge out the eyes of the other 49%, they could2; and despite all protestations that such an act is morally wrong, it must be remembered that sovereignty rests in the majority voice, and thus the majority voice is the measure of right and wrong. Or, as Protagoras said (who I quoted in the first post in this series), “man is the measure of all things.” There is no appeal, because the majority voice is sovereign. All appeals to moral or divine law are appeals to a higher authority than man, and thus such appeals are not legitimate in the democratic philosophy.
Let’s consider an example that shows how the philosophy of popular sovereignty differs from a system in which a Supreme Being is considered the source of all political power. The ultimate authority to govern does not reside in the people, but in the God who gave the people certain privileges to act. It is because we as a people are not the ultimate authority and because we are not sovereign that we as a people and our representative government are necessarily limited in its legitimate powers. As an individual, I do not have the authority or right to take property from my neighbor without his consent (except in self-defense or enforcement of criminal law); in a system that places sovereignty in a Supreme Being, only He can authorize that action. Therefore, in that system, I could also never authorize my agent—the government—to perform that act for me. The powers of government are inherently limited.
Here is where things get subtle: what if the group of people in our hypothetical democracy collectively decided, by majority voice, that there are certain rights that shall not be infringed, despite what future assemblies may vote? Well, a pure democracy could certainly put limits on itself, and the collective voice of the people could grant certain rights. However, because sovereignty rests in the people, these self-limitations are just that: self-limitations, and can therefore be changed by the people. This very subtle difference makes it vitally important that we recognize the source of political sovereignty as God Himself. Ezra Taft Benson explains:
Let us … consider the origin of those freedoms we have come to know are human rights. There are only two possible sources. Rights are either God-given as part of the Divine Plan, or they are granted by government as part of the political plan. Reason, necessity, tradition, and religious convictions all lead me to accept the divine origin of these rights. If we accept the premise that human rights are granted by government, then we must be willing to accept the corollary that they can be denied by government. I, for one, shall never accept that premise. As the French political economist, Frederick Bastiat, phrased it so succinctly, “Life, liberty, and property do not exist because men have made laws. On the contrary, it was the fact that life, liberty, and property existed beforehand that caused men to make laws in the first place.”3
Thus we see that the philosophical foundations of democracy and popular sovereignty differ from a system in which God is the ultimate sovereign (where any government leader not directly ordained by God or His representative must be inherently limited in his or her power). Of course, our nation contains elements of democracy; our representatives are chosen democratically and are our agents in the government. Consent of the people is therefore a very important feature of our nation’s government and its founding principles. There is nothing wrong with this, and is in fact required for a legitimate representative government; the essential difference, I believe, between legitimate government and democracy is where it places ultimate sovereignty.
1. Donald Lutz, Popular Consent and Popular Control: Whig Political Theory in the Early State Constitutions (Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1980), p. 38.
2. Dustin Steinacker, personal conversation.
3. Ezra Taft Benson, “The Proper Role of Government,” accessed 1 Jul. 2008, http://www.ldshea.org/pages/left_sidebar/Const%20proper_role_of_government.htm.