Legitimacy: Between the Prince and the Dragon
I’ve been reading the blog of John C. Wright with a combination of bemusement, horror, and disbelief.
But of the various peculiar claims he has made there, this one is perhaps the most problematic:
We can say in the abstract that any prince (or government officer of any form) who uses the power entrusted to him for the general welfare or public defense, to right wrongs, help the weak, and establish justice, operates legitimately, even if specific decisions are wrong. A court of law can be legitimate, for example, and be imperfect, if it sentences an innocent man.
This seems to assume much that our usage of the term doesn’t require, and leave out much that we commonly mean, when we talk about a ‘legitimate government’.
I propose another definition: a government is legitimate when it exercises the power lent to it as those who lent that power expected it to do so.
When it ceases to act according to the expectations of a person who loans it power, it ceases to be legitimate relative to them. The question never arises when dealing with people who do not lend the government power at all, because it’s not meaningful in that context.
When Andrew Jackson defied the ruling of the Supreme Court that the United States of America was not entitled to seize the land and property of the Cherokee Indians, and ordered that the Army drive them off those lands and take them on a deathmarch to the Indian Territories… the soldiers who obeyed the President rather than the Court made his actions legitimate. They legitimized them. What the Indians thought made no difference whatsoever. What other citizens thought made no difference. The soldiers were the ones who had to choose whether to follow through as they were commanded, or not. They decided how much ‘power’ Andrew Jackson actually had. And they chose.
(Which is one of the reasons why I support the destruction of the United States Government… but I digress.)
Was the government legitimate in the minds of those who set up the system? Of those who voted in Jackson? Of those on the Supreme Court? It’s a different question — with a different answer — for each one of those groups.