Philosophy of Democratic Government / by Yves R. Simon

Chapter III

Authority in Democracy

THE subject of sovereignty is one that every treatise or textbook of political science, no matter how elementary, has to discuss. Consequently, the state of the question in our academic and scholarly circles is particularly bad. With problems of extreme difficulty, the worst that can happen is that hasty and mediocre writers should feel obliged to contribute treatments for the satisfaction of not very exacting and not very industrious readers. True, the case of common teaching would not be so bad if great books had not set an example of uncertainty. This is not due entirely to the difficulties of the question; it is also due to the confusing influence of historical circumstances. The discussion of sovereignty often arouses passions which make a philosophic treatment impossible and substitute for it -- most of the time surreptitiously -- vindications of existing conditions or exhortations for the bringing-about of a new state of affairs. The writings of King James contain the ideology of British absolutism. More shockingly, Bossuet burdened posterity with a theory in which it is easy to recognize the ideology of the great historical movement which culminated in the monarchy of Louis XIV. Late eighteenth-century theories of sovereignty express the struggles fought by the American people against the British Crown or by the French bourgeoisie against king, nobility, and established church. The impression left by the literature on sovereignty is gloomy: distortion due to practical concerns can be feared almost everywhere.

Such factors of confusion make it particularly important to state the problem in simple and clear terms. The common experience of civil societies shows that men obey other men. Disobedience is not infrequent, but it is impressively outweighed by obedience in any society that has not reached the last stages of disintegration. We have to interpret this great fact of political obedience. On what ground do some men claim a right to be obeyed? What are the reasons why they are not always disobeyed? Many would answer that they do not want to go to jail or to be shot down, and some theorists would maintain that fear and self-interest account sufficiently for the fact of obedience in civil society. Any human experience, any knowledge of history, evidences the shallowness of this explanation. The relationship which obtained between the police and the bootleggers in the era of prohibition exemplifies a situation in which fear and self-interest alone motivate obedience. Such a situation does not characterize civil society, it means the end of it. Things take place in civil relations, not exceptionally but regularly, as if some men had the power of binding the consciences of other men. The factual behavior of men in society testifies to the regular operation of an ethical motive of obedience. Not only in persons of lofty morality but also in those classified as average citizens there is a certain awareness of being obliged to obey public powers, at least a vague feeling that, things being what they are, men commonly considered as the agents of society have a right to give orders within the limits of their legally formulated functions. Now the proposition that a man can bind the conscience of another man raises a very great difficulty: far from being obvious, it is altogether devoid of verisimilitude. This is the very essence of the problem which we propose to examine; on the one hand, it seems to be impossible to account for social life without assuming that man can bind the conscience of his neighbor; on the other hand, it is not easy to see how a man can ever enjoy such power.

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