A Reminder about the Ground of Political Authority

The suddenness with which a long-standing dictatorship was overthrown in Tunisia, and destabilized in Egypt, serves as a reminder about the true foundations of obedience to the state. As Max Weber aptly defined it, the state is that agency which holds a monopoly on the legitimate use of force over a given territorial area. This definition gives the impression that the government’s hold over people derives from its capacity to coerce them. But as the events in Tunisia and Egypt demonstrate, it’s not that simple.

David Hume provides the classic account of the sources of political compliance. It is to be found in an essay entitled, “On the First Principles of Government”, which begins with this astute observation:

Nothing appears more surprizing to those, who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye, than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few; and the implicit submission, with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers. 

The reason why this deference is so surprising, Hume points out, is that the individuals that hold the reins of power are vastly outnumbered by those they oversee. As such, the ruled have force on their side vis-à-vis their rulers. All the ruled need to do is combine in order to oust the rulers. This is basically what happened in Tunisia and what is currently transpiring in Egypt.

True, with the army and police on side, a dictator can hold on to power for quite awhile on fear alone. Yet even in this case, as Hume observes, the dictator will be outnumbered by the army and police. The latter groups, at least, will have to obey the dictator for reasons other than the prospect of coercion.

So what is this other factor? Opinion. Hume breaks this opinion down into that of interest and right. Simply put, people will obey the government to the extent they believe it serves their interests to do so and its authority is morally supported. Once such an opinion no longer holds, as it obviously has not for awhile in Tunisia and Egypt, the government’s days are numbered.

The lesson for us: the way to political change is through public opinion.

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