Jeffrey Thayne

In my post “John Locke and Primal Authority,” I quoted Joseph Fielding Smith and John Locke, who both claimed that no person on the earth has any authority to rule over other people except that which is given them by God. In this post, I would like to explain how a representative government, such as the United States of America, can claim legitimate authority to govern.

John Locke believed that no person on the earth can claim authority from God to rule with monarchical power. He also believed that each person has certain rights, privileges which he or she can exercise absent any divinely appointed ruler. Locke’s writings resist compression or summary, and his ideas contain many nuances and subtleties; however, I will present what I believe to be the basic concept of his writings, even if my presentation does him injustice.

Basically, he believed that each person has a right to defend his or her life from attack or assault, preserve his or her property from theft or trespass, and use force to do so. He or she may punish those who trespass against his or her life and property in such a way as to deter future offenses from them or others. He or she may demand reparation for trespasses and secure that reparation through force. These are just a few of the rights John Locke believes that all mankind possesses equally, independent of any civil authority. Nobody, said Locke, has a right to trespass against another person’s life or property, except in inflicting punishment or seeking reparation for a trespass against them.1

For these reasons, Locke believed that certain powers of government are, in a sense, embedded in the people; that is, in the exercise of their God-given rights, a group of people can set up a limited form of government. The power to form a militia to defend a city or nation and the power to employ police to punish crime and enforce criminal law, for example, are powers that the people possess, independent of any divinely appointed ruler. They can also hire people to perform these tasks on their behalf. Ezra Taft Benson explains:

It is obvious that a government is nothing more or less than a relatively small group of citizens who have been hired, in a sense, by the rest of us to perform certain functions and discharge certain responsibilities which have been authorized. It stands to reason that the government itself has no innate power or privilege to do anything. Its only source of authority and power is from the people who have created it. This is made clear in the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States, which reads: “WE THE PEOPLE… do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

The important thing to keep in mind is that the people who have created their government can give to that government only such powers as they, themselves, have in the first place. Obviously, they cannot give that which they do not possess. So, the question boils down to this. What powers properly belong to each and every person in the absence of and prior to the establishment of any organized governmental form?2

Benson also explains that this type of government is necessarily limited:

There is one simple test. Do I as an individual have a right to use force upon my neighbor to accomplish this goal? If I do have such a right, then I may delegate that power to my government to exercise on my behalf. If I do not have that right as an individual, then I cannot delegate it to government, and I cannot ask my government to perform the act for me.2

Thus, according to Benson, a government can claim legitimate authority to govern if, and only if, those who participate in the government do not exceed the powers the people themselves already possess. Those powers are given to each person by God upon their entrance into this world. Thus, I believe that a limited representative government can claim its authority from God, via the people. Benson’s claim that “the government itself has no innate power or privilege to do anything” reflects Joseph Fielding Smith’s claim that no man can rule without divine authority.

This framework, however, invites us to reconsider some of our assumptions about our government. It is sometimes believed that the government has power to do anything, as long as the majority voice of the people authorizes it (except those actions specifically forbidden by the Bill of Rights). This idea is commonly called democracy. In a future post, I will discuss the nature of democracy, and how its fundamental assumptions differ a little from those laid out by Joseph Fielding Smith and Ezra Taft Benson.


1. John Locke, Two Treatises on Government,, accessed 26 Jun. 2008,
2. Ezra Taft Benson, The Proper Role of Government, accessed 1 Jul. 2008,