Philosophy of Democratic Government / by Yves R. Simon

The Coach-Driver Theory

There is a way out. The difficulty can be explained away. It would vanish if it were possible to show that a man is never bound in conscience to obey another man. There is a theory according to which civil obedience is but an appearance and an illusion. If only traditional violences and superstitions were checked, the illusion would disappear and social relations would reveal their true nature, to the great benefit of all. Then it would become clear that the claim of man to be obeyed by his neighbor is in all cases unwarranted and deceitful. We obey ourselves alone. I really obey myself alone, and this is all that society needs and wants me to do. In society I remain as free as in solitude. Great caution must be used in giving this theory a name. No doubt Rousseau has written, about freedom and civil obedience, things which mean that, in the state as he conceives it, citizens are their own masters and obey but themselves. The theory we are in the process of describing represents an aspect of Rousseau's political philosophy; but to describe it, with no qualification, as Rousseau's theory of sovereignty might involve a risk of oversimplification.

This theory holds that the government is the servant of the people; but the same view is accepted in extremely diverse systems of political thought. It holds, further, that the men in power are delegated by the people, that they are given definite missions by the people, and that in the fulfilment of their missions they remain strictly subordinated to the people that delegated them. Thus the governing person is a leader entirely under the control of those whom he leads. Authority belongs not to the leaders but to the led. Or perhaps it should be said that real leadership, the one which is inseparable from authority, belongs not to the government but to the governed. In so far as the governing person is considered a leader, his is a leadership without authority. Because he is, in a way, leader, he seems to have the power of directing judgments and wills, of binding consciences -- in short, he seems to exercise authority. Such appearance is commonly exploited by tyranny. In truth, however, authority remains in the hands of the governed, since it is only by virtue of their will and of the missions given to persons of their own choice that the government exercises leadership.

To call this the "theory of the sovereignty of the people" involves intolerable confusion, for the same expression can be used, and is used very commonly, to designate a widely different philosophy of civil authority. There is, in the theory under consideration, something distinctive and unique which ought not to be missed by the expression meant to designate it; it is the statement that obedience of man to man, in political society at least, is mere illusion and violence, that the citizen ought to obey himself alone, and that the leadership exercised by the governing personnel involves no authority. The expression "sovereignty of the people" does not bring forth this essential element of the theory. A proper name for it is suggested by Paul-Louis Courier, a liberal, a rebel in the petty bourgeois style, a Voltairean, a humanist in perpetual revolt against church and state. He wrote that in a liberal state of affairs the government is like a coach-driver, hired and paid by those whom he drives.{1} The coach-driver leads his patrons indeed, but only where they want to go and by the ways of their own choice. The theory which reduces the role of the government to that of a leader without authority could appropriately be called "the coach-driver theory." Merely to assert that sovereignty belongs to the people is not precise enough; for it is not obvious, it is not even certain, that the sovereignty of the people suppresses obedience. By likening the government to a coach-driver, doubts are eliminated. Primitives traveling in a civilized country -- as they used to do in eighteenth-century fiction -- would perhaps believe that the driver of the coach is the real master and takes the persons on the back seat where he pleases; a similar illusion has been exploited by men in power throughout the history of mankind. It is only of late that the spell has been broken and that the governing personnel have been identified for what they are: purely instrumental characters whose duty it is, even when they shout orders, to fulfil the orders given them by the governed.

In the work of Rousseau the coach-driver theory is so supplemented as not to disclose too shockingly its paradoxical simplicity. Yet Rousseau has probably done more than anyone else to spead the ideal of an organization capable of doing away with the ethical substance of authority and obedience.{2} Persons concerned with real liberty soon recognized that the sovereignty of the people, as it appears to the readers of Rousseau, supplied tyranny with a new vindication of unprecedented efficaciousness. Rousseau and his admirers were perhaps less interested in what actually happens in social practice than in the purely interior and entirely spiritual process of interpreting relations among men. If a disciple of Rousseau has to choose between an unpleasant situation imposed upon him without any consent of his own and a pleasant situation to be accepted voluntarily out of a sense of obedience, he chooses the former as more consonant with his notion of liberty. The coach-driver theory exercised great influence upon the French Revolution, upon French democracy throughout its history, and upon all democratic movements inspired by French examples. It did not play a decisive part in the early ages of American democracy; the concept of natural law was then too strong to allow the voluntarism of such a theory to unfold its consequences and reveal its principle. From the time of Andrew Jackson on, the coach-driver theory has been an ideological factor of some importance in American history. It never won in America the same position of unquestioned supremacy that it did in several Latin countries.

This theory flatters an instinct of disobedience from which no human heart is entirely free. When this instinct is uninhibited, it may lead to anarchism. But if it is kept under control by an interest in good manners and a sense of respectability, it finds a fitting outlet in the coach-driver theory. Further, this theory draws considerable power from its apparent ability to explain a number of phenomena pertaining to regular democratic practice. Think, in the first place, of the direct government of the people by themselves as practiced, for instance, in New England towns and in some Swiss cantons. Although such government without a distinct personnel is seldom possible, it is reasonably held to constitute the fundamental pattern of democratic government. The archetype of democracy is a government without a distinct governing personnel, without any representative assembly. No representation is needed: the people gather, and they are the government. But, without using any distinct governing personnel, democracy may use agents. The people's assembly may appoint managers who are not really men in authority; they are merely instruments, and authority remains entirely in the hands of the people. Such agents, managers, or secretaries employed by the people's assembly receive orders and do not -- in spite, perhaps, of certain appearances -- give orders of their own. They can be properly likened to coach-drivers who take the orders of their patrons and lead them where they want to go. Against this background of direct democracy let us consider a democratic organization such as ours, with a distinct governing personnel, elected legislative assemblies, and an elected president. Outwardly, at least, there are resemblances between this governing personnel and the managers hired, after the fashion of a coach-driver, by direct democracy. We elect our representatives on the basis of their programs. By doing so, do we not order them to lead us where we want to go, that is, to the objective described in the program of our choice and through the ways recommended by the program that we have chosen? When new elections are held, we express either our satisfaction by re-electing our representative or our dissatisfaction by voting for his opponent; it looks very much like hiring again, or refusing to rehire, an instrumental character according as he has fulfilled properly, or failed to fulfil, the orders that he was given. A number of less fundamental but very significant democratic practices seem to be properly accounted for by the coach-driver theory. Think of the many means of pressure used by the electorate, between election periods, in order to have their will carried out. To write to your congressman that you want him to support a certain measure is perfectly intelligible if your congressman is, like the secretaries and managers of a direct democracy, a pure instrument that has no orders to give but only orders to take.

In order to test the coach-driver theory of sovereignty, we shall consider the case in which it seems to work most plainly and from which it derives most of its energy and prestige, viz., the case of a small community practicing direct, nonrepresentative government. Here are a few hundred farmers. Consider them, first, while they are not in session. Each of them, a private citizen, toils in his own field and minds his own business. When the assembly convenes, these men undergo a qualitative change. One hour ago they were scattered in their fields. Right now they have gathered for purposes of public business; they are no longer a collection of private citizens minding their own affairs, they are the people minding common affairs. It is crucially important to understand the qualitative nature of the change. Between these few hundred farmers scattered in their fields, busy with their own private affairs, and the same farmers gathered in an assembly in charge of the community's affairs, the qualitative difference is just as great as between the President of the United States and any of us United States citizens.

The best way to understand this qualitative difference is to consider the basic problem of civil obedience in relation to an assembly inclusive of all the people. The coach-driver theory serves the ideal of a situation such that each should remain, in society, as independent as in natural solitude and obey but himself. Does such a situation obtain in direct democracy? Apparently it does. These men who issue rules for common action by majority vote do not obey anybody except themselves. Suppose, first, for the sake of clarity, that the vote is unanimous; then everybody can say that the law is his own law and that, by obeying it, he obeys only himself. Suppose, then, that there is no unanimity but that I am among the majority; again I can, apparently, boast that the law which I shall obey is my own law and that, by obeying it, I obey only myself. But what happens when I am in the minority? Here lies the real test, and from the interpretation of my situation as member of a minority I shall infer conclusions concerning the proper interpretation of my situation as member of a majority or of a unanimous assembly.

Suppose that throughout a long period I was among the majority. What am I going to do the day I find myself in the minority? I may refuse to obey the law that I did not approve and declare myself a rebel; but then it will be clear that I have always been a rebel. A conspicuous rebel as member of a minority, I was already a rebel when I was member of a majority or of a unanimous assembly, since, even then, I was determined to disobey whenever I should happen to disagree. I never was a law-abiding citizen; I never abided by the law, except by accident. This makes it plain that the coach-driver theory does not supply a satisfactory explanation for the basic facts of political behavior even under the circumstances which would be most favorable to its operation, if such a theory ever could work. In a direct democracy where, by hypothesis, there is no distinct governing personnel, distinct persons are not governors but mere agents, purely instrumental characters. There is no question of obeying them, except possibly in incidental fashion, in the way in which the police chief would obey his subordinates in the enforcement of a traffic regulation that he made and that he can change. Such purely instrumental characters do not hold authority, but the fact that authority is not held by any distinct persons does not mean that it is not held by anybody. As shown in the first chapter of this book, the requirements of the concept of authority are entirely fulfilled in the case of a community governing itself directly, without any distinct governing personnel. Authority is not lacking; it resides in the community. The few hundred farmers meeting in assembly are, as a body, essentially distinct from what they were before they assembled and will be as soon as they return private citizenship. Meeting in assembly, they are the government, and to this government each of them, on returning to citizenship, owes obedience, regardless of what happened to him as a member of the people's assembly. Whether he belonged to a unanimous assembly, to the majority, or to a minority is entirely incidental. The thing that matters is that he is bound by the law that the people, acting as their own government, passed. Whether he voted for or against it makes absolutely no difference; he is subjected to it and ought to abide by it. This is the only way to interpret the fundamental data of political life so far as law and obligation are concerned. The coach-driver theory renders these data unintelligible by reversing relations between the essential and the casual. A citizen is considered law-abiding if, and only if, he considers his obligation independent from his personal opinion. If the law was passed in spite of his wish, his duty to abide by it may be unpleasant, but it is just as clear as if he had voted for it. In the coach-driver theory, on the contrary, my personal consent to the law is essential. I feel obligated to abide by the law if, and only if, I wanted the law to be what it is. Clearly, I abide by the law not on account of its essence as law but because of my incidental approval of it. If the coach-driver theory should ever be received in a spirit of strict consistency, society would soon be destroyed by secession. But this theory does not need to be applied with strict consistency in order to be effective. What generally happens is that the dissenter performs the acts prescribed by the law which he disapproves, but in a purely utilitarian fashion, merely in order to spare himself and others the inconveniences following upon the breaking of the law. Thus outward anarchy and the violent disruption of society are avoided. External order is not delivered up to the fortuitousness of unanimity. But the inner dispositions of minds and hearts toward the law are subjected to such fortuitousness; this weakens dangerously the unity of society and corrupts the character of political life by substituting a law of utility and force for the law of voluntary co-operation whenever I happen not to be in the majority. In a direct democracy as well as in any other organization the nature of society demands that man should obey man. The artifice calculated to do away with obedience threatens directly the principle of authority in its most essential functions, as expounded in the first part of this book. There we saw that the need for government is so rooted in the nature of society that government would be needed even in the ideal case of a society made only of enlightened and virtuous people. If government, as distinct from unanimity, is made necessary by the very nature of things, the obligation to obey has its roots in the nature of things, in the very nature of man and of human society. It is completely independent of my casual belonging to the majority or the minority. This is why the coach-driver theory is unlikely to be very popular where there is a strong belief in a law of nature independent of the whims of man.

Back to our initial question, let us remark, again, that there is something paradoxical about one man's having the power to bind the conscience of another man. Of course, a man cannot do such a thing. God alone can. And God can bind a man to obey another man. This he did by the creation of the human species, which is naturally social and political; for the necessity of government and obedience follows from the nature of community life.{3}

{1} Paul-Louis Courier, Lettres au rédacteur du Censeur, Lettre X, 10 mars 1820 (OEuvres [Paris: Firmin Didor, 1845], pp. 62-63). This letter is concerned with the freedom of the press; the writer describes in humorous fashion the evils that its adversaries expect of it: "If this abuse [i.e., the freedom of the press] should endure, every undertaking of the court would be controlled beforehand, examined, judged, criticized, estimated. The public would consider all business as their own; everything would arouse their contemptible interest; they would check the records of the treasurer, supervise the police, and scoff at the diplomatic service. In one word, the nation would manage the government after the fashion of a coach-driver whom we hire and who is supposed to lead us, not where he wants, not how he wants, but where we intend to go and by the way that we find convenient. This is a thing horrible to imagine, contrary to the divine right and the capitularies."

{2} J.-J. Rousseau, The Social Contract ("Everyman's Library" [New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1930]), Book I, chap. vi: "The problem is to find a form of association which will defend and protect with the whole common force the person and goods of each associate, and in which each, while uniting himself with all, may still obey himself alone, and remain as free as before." Book II, chap. i. "I hold then that Sovereignty, being nothing less than the exercise of the general will, can never be alienated, and that the sovereign, who is no less than a collective being, cannot be represented except by himself: the power indeed may be transmitted, but not the will." Better than any of the political writings of Rousseau, the Émile shows that the all-important thing is to substitute submission to impersonal forces for obedience to persons. See Augustin Cochin, La Crice de l'histoire révolutionnaire (Paris: Champion, 1909), p. 49: "Such is the precise and new meaning of the 'war against the tyrants' declared by the Revolution. It does not promise freedom in the ordinary sense of the word, i.e., independence, but in the sense in which Rousseau understands this word, viz., anarchy, deliverance from all personal authority, whether that of the lord to whom respect is due or that of the demagogue who exercises fascination. If one is obedient, it will never be to a man but always to an impersonal being, the general will" (italics mine).

{3} Leo XIII, Diuturnum ("On Civil Government") (1881), trans. presented by Joseph Husslein, S.J., in Social Wellsprings: Fourteen Epochal Documents by Pope Leo XIII (Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing Co., 1940), p. 52: "But now, a society can neither exist nor be conceived in which there is no one to govern the wills of individuals, in such a way as to make, as it were, one will out of many, and to impell them rightly and orderly to the common good; therefore God has willed that in a civil society there should be some to rule the multitude. . . . But no man has in himself or of himself the power of constraining the free will of others by fetters of authority of this kind. This power resides solely in God, the Creator and Legislator of all things; and it is necessary that those who exercise it should do it as having received it from God."

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