The consent of the governed

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at:, or follow me on Twitter.

from the Declaration of Independence.

I hate Thomas Jefferson for several reasons. Not just because he is a rapist pedophile, although that doesn’t win him much admiration, does it? I also hate him because of his intellectual laziness and incoherence. Consider these words:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed

Which is it? Only one of these can be true:

1.) to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men

2.) deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed

To put this in old-fashioned terms, either governments exist to defend liberal notions of human rights, or governments exist to represent the will of their majorities, but they can’t do both.

There are only 2 ways to read Jefferson:

1.) he never thought about the contradiction and therefore he is intellectually lazy (and therefore should be ignored)

2.) there is no contradiction in his writing because when he writes “to secure these rights” he is only talking about the rights of the majority

I’m inclined towards option #2, at least in part because of the emphasis on the “The People” in his other writing.

In the West we have a liberal political tradition that goes back 2,500 years. Starting with Thucydides and Plato, and carrying forward to modern day giants like Rawls, we’ve had an endless number of deep thinkers who remind us that democracies tend to set up dictatorships of the majority, and those dictatorships show no respect for the human rights of the minorities. In modern times we have tried to address this (the dictatorship of the majority) through a system of “checks and balances” with limited success.

Some people seem to think that their is a vast gap between Jefferson’s private actions (he was a rapist) and his public words (which some people regard as beautiful). But I don’t see any contradiction at all. His words suggest that governments should defer to the majority, and he had read the whole classical liberal canon, so he was well aware of the many, many writers who had pointed out that majorities show little respect for the rights of minorities. And then he raped a 15 year old girl repeatedly, until she got pregnant. So there is no contradiction between his private actions and his public words — they both tend in the same direction. They both seem to aim at protecting certain privileges for the majority, at the expense of minorities.

All of this is brought to mind by the election of Trump. I’ve seen many Trump supporters quoting Jefferson in recent days. They know a friend when they see one.

Anyone who thinks that a government can be justified by the consent of its governed is inevitably going to defend some sick, outrageous, immoral crimes against humanity. Because sometimes the majority will want to do sick, outrageous, immoral things to minorities.

Morally, governments can only be justified on the basis of how well they defend everyone’s human rights. Sometimes democracy is a tool that aids in that effort, other times democracy undercuts the effort. Democracy should never be an end in itself, it is only a tool to be used to help establish a liberal order. If we could have a dictator who enforced a perfectly liberal regime, then of course we should crave that. The dream of an Enlightened Monarch was something the philosophes argued for during the Enlightment. History teaches us that it is difficult to get a dictatorship to be liberal (whether that dictatorship is of one person or the majority of the public) which is why we introduce such ideas as “checks and balances” — in particular, an independent judiciary.

I was taught all of this as a teenager in high school. So in some sense this should be common sense. But, sadly, the schools in the USA undercut the message by holding up slave owners like Jefferson and Washington as heroes. And men like Benjamin Franklin get fairly little attention, even though he spent his whole life fighting against slavery. So if politics are a confused mess in the USA, surely part of that is because of the confused mess of ideas we heap on students, and we heap a confused mess of ideas on them because politics was a confused mess a generation ago — and so the sickness in the system reproduces itself from one generation to the next.

All of this seems obvious enough, but the election of Trump makes it clear that the whites in the USA would be happy to have an illiberal society, so long as most of the suffering is doled out to non-whites.

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