The Divine Right of Kings versus the Tyranny of the People

patriarchaGerry T. Neal

“A Jacobite, Sir, believes in the divine right of Kings…That cannot be said of a Whig; for Whiggism is a negation of all principle.”

– Dr. Samuel Johnson

In the minds of many, perhaps most people, today, the concepts of “democracy” and “freedom” are inseparable. This is undoubtedly the result of the United States becoming the pre-eminent power in the West. Democracy and liberty have been linked in the American psyche since the Declaration of Independence. In the famous preamble to that document, Thomas Jefferson wrote that it is to secure the “unalienable rights” of men, to “Life, Liberty, and pursuit of Happiness”, that “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”.

This is what Edmund Burke (who had defended the rights of the American colonists in King George’s parliament) would call an “armed doctrine”. Its only purpose is to stir up the masses and turn them into an instrument of destruction against the established authority. It is also palpable nonsense.

Human authority can be divided into two basic types, the natural and the usurped. While natural authority, being vested in fallen and imperfect men, can be abused, usurped authority is the gateway to tyranny. Indeed, the Greek term tyrannos originally referred to one who had seized power by force. It came to refer to rulers who abused their people because an abusive rule is what is usually to be expected from a usurper.

Natural authority is never derived from the “consent of the governed”. The most basic natural authority in society, is the authority of parents in the family. Parents are not elected by their children. Parents do not hold authority over their children because their children have voluntarily contracted, or otherwise consented, to being under their authority. Parental authority is natural, derived from the very nature of the institution of the family, and reinforced by millennia of prescription and precedent.

The liberal doctrine that government derives its legitimacy from consent, has gotten the cart before the horse. Whereas unnatural authority must always rely upon force to obtain obedience, natural authority, exercised justly, can inspire voluntary, consensual obedience.

Sir Robert Filmer, in Patriarcha: The Natural Right of Kings, a tract published in 1680, several years after its author’s death, argued for monarchy as the natural form of human government. The first kings, he reasoned, were fathers, whose households grew to become the first nations, and who passed their patriarchal authority down to their firstborn sons.

While liberals and progressives believe that Filmer’s arguments were overthrown by John Locke in his Two Treatises his understanding of the origin and nature of the authority of kings is closer to reality than the Social Contract theory of society that Locke had bought into.

According to the Social Contract theory, men originally existed in a “state of nature” as sovereign individuals. They then came together, and voluntarily formed a contract, whereby they relinquished a portion of their sovereignty to a new entity, the state, forming society. Thomas Hobbes, an earlier Social Contract theorist, argued that this was done out of necessity, because men in the state of nature were savages who needed the Leviathan of the state to keep them from destroying each other in the “war of all against all”. Hobbes, at least, understood human nature enough to know what a world of sovereign individuals would look like.

Both Hobbes and Locke were wrong, however, in believing individualism to be man’s natural state, and society to be the artificial creation of individuals contracting with one another. Society is man’s natural state because the family, which is the building block of society, society in miniature, is prior to the individual. It is the individual, isolated and alienated from society, who is unnatural.

Contemporary libertarians honor Locke as a hero. They believe his concept of the sovereign individual to be the foundation of personal liberty. His theories, however, led to the rise of modern democracy, which contrary to popular opinion, is no friend of personal liberty.

The next great Social Contract theorist after Locke was Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau believed that the people, collectively, were sovereign, and that the democratically established State, would be the instrument through which the “General Will” of the people would be expressed. Dissent from the “General Will”, was not to be tolerated in Rousseau’s vision of the New Order. Rousseau’s ideas became the foundation, both of modern democracy, and of totalitarianism.

The first group of people to seriously attempt to put Rousseau’s ideas into action, were the French Revolutionaries, who overthrew their king and established a Republic, where power vacillated between rival groups of Revolutionaries, who treated their opponents brutally in what has come to be known as the “Reign of Terror”. Ultimately, the power fell into the hands of the usurper Napoleon, who sought to subject all of Europe to his will, before finally being stopped.

The next group would be the Communists.

Then, in 1933, a dictator arose in Germany who enjoyed tremendous popular support. If there was ever a man who represented the “General Will” of his people, it was Adolf Hitler. I say this, not to blame the Germans as a people for the crimes of Hitler and his party, but to illustrate a point. Democracy and dictatorship are not mutually exclusive. Historically, dictators have enjoyed and depended upon, the support of their people. Indeed, dictatorship, is the natural, logical, and ultimate manifestation of democracy.

There is a world of difference, however, between a dictator, and a king.

Lord Acton said that “power corrupts”, but it would be more accurate to say that it is the pursuit of power, rather than the possession of it, that corrupts. Kings inherit their authority. They do not seize it, the way military tyrants do, nor do they seek it through bribery and deception, the way democratically elected politicians do.

A king can be good or bad, depending upon how he exercises his authority. History is full of examples of both. Finding a good politician, however, is like finding a needle in a haystack. Politicians are by definition people who seek power – they are therefore the last people in the world that should be allowed to exercise it (as Douglas Adams pointed out, in one of his novels). A politician’s power is usurped. A king’s authority is natural.

Today, democracy is everywhere present in the Western world, even in countries like ours that are still presided over by a monarch. The British/Canadian system of parliamentary monarchy predates liberalism by centuries, and has naturally developed to be the closest thing in reality to the mixed constitution Aristotle wrote about in theory, the world has ever known. It is the best political tradition in the entire world. Since the rise of Enlightenment liberalism, however, the constitution has become unbalanced, the democratic element has become too strong, and the monarch is treated as a mere figurehead by most politicians.

This is unhealthy. It should also be noted that freedom has not been increased thereby. Indeed, as the Commons have become more and more powerful, in the UK and Canada, they have seen fit to extend legislation to cover areas of life that no medieval king would ever have intruded into. Further, they have created huge departments of government officials, whose job is to invade our private lives, and boss us around in our homes, our businesses, and our families.

Democracy and freedom are not the same thing.

God save our Queen.

Published on Throne, Altar, Liberty, 7 May 2010.