The question that I wish to address today is simply this: Under what circumstances, if any, is it legitimate for people(individuals, not the nonexistent abstract concept of ‘the people’) to rise up and overthrow the government that currently rules them?
First, to dispatch the argument that the government in America does not rule us, it serves us, which may be leveled against the wording of the question. First of all, the government in theory does serve ‘the people’ in the abstract, but it is not bound to any individual or group of individuals. It does not serve me, nor does it serve you, dear reader. Rather, it sets the rules by which you must live, or suffer the consequences. You do not own the U.S. Government. At best, if you are over 18 and registered to vote, you own a share in the US Government. How big of a share? Well, with your vote, you control approximately 1/169,000,000th of ‘your’ Government. That’s approximately 0.00000005917%. If you are not registered to vote, or are under 18, you have no control of your Government whatsoever.
So who really controls the Government? The rich political elite and the demagogues who promise everyone what they want when they want it without anyone having to pay for anything.
So having dispatched that argument, let me state a question that I will not be addressing, but which may easily be confused with my question, I will not be asking when ‘the people’ may rebel. There is no such thing as ‘the people’, except as an abstract cultural or geographical grouping. ‘The people’ is completely incapable of making decisions or policies, or of establishing or overthrowing a government. It has no rights, no will, no consciousness, and no relevance to this discussion. Individuals, on the other hand, do have rights, wills, consciousness, and the ability to make decisions. So the question is: Who may rebel against the government, when, and why?
To answer this question, we must first establish what government is. I will define government as the body and system by which the rules that govern a group of people are set and enforced. By this reasoning there is no fundamental difference between the US Government, the British Queen-in-Parliament, and a condominium association.
Some may object to this comparison on the basis that a condominium association is voluntary, while a state is compulsory. But this is flawed reasoning. Unless the state forbids its citizens to leave, which most do not, one may choose no longer to be part of that state and subject to its laws. And the argument that there is nowhere to go except another state does not hold, because we could conceive of a situation where all possible residences were controlled by condominium associations, but those associations would still be fundamentally the same thing that they are now.
So then we must ask: whence do governments derive their just powers? The traditional American viewpoint is that they derive those powers from ‘the consent of the governed’. But this cannot be an explicit or individual consent, for most citizens of the U.S.A. have never been asked whether they consent to be governed, nor could any citizen refuse to be governed while remaining in US territory. No, it must be an implicit and collective consent. But this is a nonsensical concept, because ‘the governed’ as a collective are not monolithic or united. As I said before, there is no such thing as ‘the people’, only individuals.
So whence do governments derive their just powers? I would argue that they ought to be derived from property rights. For example, condominium associations do not pop up out of thin air; condominium owners establish them, and when they do, they sign over certain rights in exchange for certain protections. If I own a condominium and my neighbors wish to establish such an organization, I certainly have the right to refuse to join it. However, if I join it, and then sell my condominium, I have sold a reduced interest in that condo. If, for instance, I originally had the right to paint my condo any color I wanted, but then signed away that right to the condominium association, whoever buys the condo from me does not receive that right, because I don’t have it to sell to him. So he would not be justified in leaving the condo association(and breaking contract) simply because it did not allow him to paint his condo fluorescent green, because that is not a right he possesses. The condo association does not need his consent to operate; it has the right to operate, within certain limits, because of the actions of the original owners, regardless of what later owners may think or want.
This brings up the question: Does a government need the consent of all landowners in its domain to establish itself? In some circumstances, I would say yes. But generally I would say no. I think that a government could establish itself in a place where there is no functioning government, but there was before, by the same principles that allow anyone to appropriate unclaimed land, though the claim of the new government would have to be relinquished if the original government’s owners or their heirs came forward and claimed the government.
This of course relies on the theory that I accept for determining property: that the oldest claim is best and if restitution is to be made for illegitimate gain, it must be made to specific individuals with documented claims to be the heirs of the original victims. This would largely rule out, for example, a restoration of the Saxon kings in modern Britain.
Thus if, for example, the government in an area collapsed and that area fell into anarchy, the great men of that time and place might set up a government and organize it how they wished; that would be legitimate, but that government would not have the right to assume to itself powers and rights not granted to the original government, as those rights remained with the property owners and had never lapsed.
I also would not be unsympathetic to the claimed rights of one who conquers a primitive and lawless people and establishes a just order, especially if he is one of them to begin with, but he must respect the rights of others to their own property, as well as their more fundamental rights.
So now that we have an idea of how legitimate government starts, we can address our main question: When can we overthrow or disobey the government?
Well, if the government itself grants or acknowledges a right to disobey or overthrow it, perhaps through a constitutional clause as in Article I, section 1 of the Constitution of Oregon, then we have that right. Are there any other times?
Yes, I would say there are. We must be careful here. Governments do have rights, and we must not disregard those rights simply because we feel like it. But individuals have rights too, and it’s worth establishing what those rights are.
I would argue that there are certain rights all individuals possess. These are bound up in the concept of self-ownership. Basically, a man has a property in himself. He is entitled to life because he owns himself, and those who would kill him would deprive him of that property. He has the right to sell his labor to anyone with whom he can agree a price, because that labor is part of his right of self-ownership.
But there are also rights which all individuals have the capacity, in some sense, to acquire, but not all individuals necessarily possess. For instance, if I own a house, I have the right to force you out of it. If I do not own the house, I do not have that right. It is no violation of my property rights that I cannot force you out of my neighbor’s house. Nor is it a violation that I cannot force you out of my own house, if I contracted that right away or gained ownership of the house with the understanding that I would not have that right. Further, I can set any condition I want, normally, on your entry to my house, but it may be that I have made a contract stipulating that I may not set certain conditions; in such a case, I must abide by my contract.
Yet there are times when it is morally licit to deprive another of his property without his consent. For instance, if I own a gun, you ordinarily have no right to take it by force. But, if I threaten your life with it, then you do have the right to use whatever force is necessary to restrain me from violating your rights. However, if you take my gun, and I am no longer a threat to you, you may not then kill me, or take my house away. You do not have carte blanche to use whatever force you desire, but must stop when you have neutralized the threat.
So this brings us to my answer to the initial question: If the government is violating a right that is legitimately yours, you have the right to disobey it and rebel against it to the extent necessary to secure that right. This may also be done on the behalf of others. If abolishing the government is necessary to secure your rights, then you may do it. But, if the government acts within its legitimate authority, even if you don’t like what it’s doing, then you may not rebel against it.
Example #1: The government tries to take your house without just compensation. This is a violation of your property rights. You need not submit.
Example #2: The government takes your house, but provides just compensation. This is an exercise of the government’s property right of eminent domain. It is a legitimate exercise of power(unless the government’s charter or constitution imposes further restrictions) and you have no right to resist.
This principle, I believe, can be applied to any situation where rebellion is considered. You may rebel to the extent that it is necessary to rebel to protect a just right. Note well, however, that you may not have all the rights you think you have. For example, let us imagine a kingdom called Royalia. I buy property in Royalia. Now I might think it is theft for the King of Royalia to tax my property, but it may not be so. Let us imagine that the first King of Royalia was King because he owned all the land. Let us also imagine that he granted land to others with the understanding that he would be allowed to tax them. Then when I buy this land, I buy an interest in the land limited by the right of the King to taxation. Thus, I have no right not to be taxed, and may not rebel simply because I am taxed.
You’ll notice I used an imaginary kingdom. In the real world, it is often not this clear. For instance, is modern British property taxation justified by the terms of Crown grants from William the Conqueror? I don’t honestly know, and to determine that would be a great endeavour and, while a worthy one, also one beside the point and beyond the scope of this essay, the point of which is solely to establish a general principle.
My opinions here are somewhat tentative and open to change, if good reasons to change are articulated. In view of that fact, I would appreciate comments, questions, concerns, and criticisms of this little essay, and I remain ever
Your Humble Servant
Samuel C Starrett