The Consent of the Powerful

“For this reason, all government without the consent of the governed is the very definition of slavery” – Jonathan Swift

A few years back I took a tour of the Confederate White House in Richmond VA. This was not because of some great love for the Confederacy, but I am fond of history, I was in Virginia, and the Confederate White House is much easier to tour than the actual White House. (It’s much smaller too.) It was a fun tour and the museum was fantastic (they had Robert E. Lee’s sword … really cool).

At one point in the tour we entered the office of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. Over his desk there was a picture of George Washington. The tour guide noted that the Confederates, and especially Davis, saw their conflict as a continuance of the Revolution and the drive for self-determination. (It’s why I will joke with some of my northern friends that the war was “the Second Revolution – the one we lost.” It is just a joke though.)

This came to mind a few days ago as I was writing a post ahead of the South Carolina primary. Given that South Carolina is often referred to as a “hotbed of secessionism” I thought it appropriate to pull in a Jefferson Davis quote. As I was perusing them, I caught this one: “[Our situation] illustrates the American idea that governments rest on the consent of the governed, and that it is the right of the people to alter or abolish them whenever they become destructive of the ends for which they were established.” And another: “If the Confederacy fails, there should be written on its tombstone: Died of a Theory.” And another: “All we ask is to be let alone.”

Now, there is certainly an aspect of truth in Davis’ statements (all good lies have a little bit of truth in them). Yes, the Confederacy wanted to be left alone. (This happens quite often in “majority rule” scenarios – the minority will claim that all they want is to be left alone. When the shoe is on the other foot though, they have no troubles enforcing their will.) They wanted to be left alone (in part) because they didn’t get their way on expansion of slavery into the territories.

What I find most disingenuous about the Davis position is the reliance on “consent of the governed.” We see consent of the governed expressed most simply in the right to vote. Now, I don’t care too much for majority rule as it can be quite oppressive. I prefer a strict adherence to individual rights. But despite its imperfections, majority rule would at least be consistent with consent of the governed in some limited sense. That is, if all the people agreed to live by majority rule, and they each get a vote, then we have consent. This, of course, is the problem with the Confederacy – not everybody who was governed by the majority had a right to participate in the majority. The slaves could not vote, though they were certainly impacted by the government. For that matter, women could not vote either. Nor could anyone under the voting age.  All these people were subject to the government but could not participate in consent.

Thus, the rule of government in Davis’ mind rested not on the consent of the governed, but on the consent of the powerful.

As you can tell from my list, we have only partially resolved the issue. Minorities and women can vote in America, but people under the age of 18 cannot. Their future wages (i.e. the exchange of their life for money) have been promised away by those who can vote … and have been promised to those who can vote. Consent of the powerful.

(Am I saying that my five-year-old should be able to vote? Well, if he can have his life promised away without his consent, then I suppose giving him the right to vote would be better than the current situation.)

In a smaller sense, consider the impact of the Federal Reserve for that matter. Its decisions are unaccountable to any voter feedback in our democracy – but they impact everybody’s bank account. The decisions are clearly there to support the banking system, not the people … consent of the powerful.

The list could go on. Heck, the talk coming out of Europe is a move even further away from democracy and toward more power in the hand of an unelected bureaucracy – you know, to “fix” the problems caused by “freedom”. Consent of the powerful.

The comment section is open (as always) – feel free to add your own examples.



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