There’s an old joke that goes, “The definition of a gentleman is someone who knows how to play the accordion, but doesn’t.” The same principle, when applied to political philosophy, contains much wisdom.
The definition of a governor, whether he be a president, prime minister, or king, is someone who has the power to destroy you, but doesn’t. Tyrants use the awesome force at their disposal to plunder society for their narrow self-interest. Governors restrict the use of force to some regular procedure that is predictable and non-discriminatory. This is less and less true today, as political outcomes veer between the Scylla of dehumanizing managerial bureaucracy and the Charybdis of mob rule, but the distinction is crucial nonetheless.
Thus there are two very different uses of power, but the existence of power itself is not in question. Political philosophy has understandably been fascinated with power, and especially since the Enlightenment, has attempted to rationalize it. Between theories of governance that relied on various constructs such as a ‘state of nature’ or a ‘social contract,’ much recent political philosophy has tried to justify not just the use of power in service of particular ends, but the existence and institutionalization of power itself. Even taking into account the important difference between theories that held these constructs to be accurate historical descriptions, and those that recognized their fictitiousness and used them in an as if manner, this project has produced underwhelming results. Its champion, the theory of democratic legitimacy, or legitimacy by consent, is largely fictitious. Calling ‘voluntary’ an arrangement in which a man has one one-millionth a say in electing the official, who appoints the official, who appoints the official, who actually exercises power is simply incredible, especially since he has no easy recourse to ‘opting out’ of uses of power with which he fundamentally disagrees.
Of course, not all political authority is rooted in domination, and not all political power is imposed from on high. Bertrand de Jouvenel, for example, recognized that authority could be consensual, not in the narrowly democratic (plebiscitarian) sense, but in that it could arise as a community’s rational response to character traits, such as intellect and will, that naturally set apart one of their members as a leader. But while existing political institutions can probably claim to have ‘organic authority’ as a part of their ancestry, it is equally likely that they carry on the legacy of conquest, wherein one group and its ‘organic authority’ (legitimate) came to dominate another (illegitimate).
Power, then, is a paradox. The domination of one group by another is clearly illegitimate, and yet human nature being what it is, domination is inescapable. We are all the heirs to impositions of power, in one form or another. Post-Enlightenment political philosophy has not offered us an escape from this paradox, so much as it has blinded us to its existence. By setting itself an unsolvable goal, serious intellectual capital has been redirected from a far more practical goal: not eliminating power, but civilizing it.
If civilizing power is the more promising avenue, it matters far less who rules than how rule is carried out. Focusing narrowly on the former turns us into presentist partisans; taking into consideration the latter helps us address the perennial problems all political regimes face. Even illiberal governance regimes had their saving graces, to which we would be blind if we focused on who to the exclusion of how. Take, for example, the institution of monarchy, specifically its Western variant during the High Middle Ages. The monarch was the apex of the aristocracy. The defining feature of the aristocracy, as it became civilized, is the abandonment of plunder and the voluntarily exercise of restraint. The strange paradox of a potential for liberality and violent excess, combined with a Stoic exercise of restraining will, has always been the goal of warrior-elites-turned-nobles. The monarch, as the chief aristocrat, thus embodied the extreme of potential violence, tempered by the extreme of self-restraint. This is the essence of law. Divine right, after all, ultimately meant not, “The king can do whatever he wants,” but, “The king, in virtue of his position, is obligated to God and his realm to rule in a specific way.” We have a word for this paradoxical combination of irresistible force constrained by extraordinary will: majesty. A king was styled, “Your Majesty,” not because of what he is, but because of what his subjects expect him to be.
Before anyone accuses me of medieval romanticism, I should add the standard qualifiers. Obviously not all kings ruled well. Clearly they frequently did break their trusts and plunder their subjects. But medieval monarchy, part of the extraordinary pan-European system of political checks and balances—kings countered nobles, who countered the clergy, who countered the burgers and trade guilds—was integral in creating the conditions for the growth of wealth on a previously-unimaginable scale. Power had previously bequeathed to the world sometimes-responsible rulers who facilitated a high civilization in the Islamic and Chinese Empires. But only the West, in virtue of kings’ incentives for realm stewardship, combined with the restrictions on domination afforded by the intellectual traditions of Christendom and other intermediary powers, escaped the Malthusian trap.
But ultimately this is not an essay about the virtues of monarchy. It is a warning, to make sure the practitioners of the social and human sciences are asking the right questions. My point is most certainly not that we should jettison liberal democracy and find ourselves a king. That would be making the very mistake, albeit in the opposite direction, I cautioned against above: focusing on the identity of rulers, rather than the quality of rule. Social theory, including political philosophy, bears greatest fruit when it eschews utopia and focuses on improvements in the quality of existing institutions, or in facilitating a transition to feasible alternatives. Looking for the one true theory of who ought to rule is pointless, simply because there is not, and cannot, be a right for some men to exercise dominion over others. Our responsibility is not to eliminate power, but to find ways to serve ends higher than its own appetites. Since there cannot be a right to rule, we’d best make sure that those who rule, rule well.
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This essay is based on Mr. Salter’s scholarly paper, “Rights to the Realm: Reconsidering Western Political Development.”