John Locke: Government by the Consent of the Governed Often Began Out of Respect for Someone Trusted to Govern

Even when everyone feels in their bones that legitimate government must be by the consent of the governed, it is only the experience of misrule that leads to formal constitutions or bylaws, written or not. In my experience now in two different Economics Departments—at the University of Michigan and the University of Colorado Boulder—I have seen how willing professors are to have streamlined decision-making if they agree with the policies decided on. Passionate objections about procedure almost always arise out of substantive disagreements with what was decided. 

In  Sections 111-112 and the associated not in his 2d Treatise on Government: “Of Civil Government” (in Chapter VIII, "Of the Beginning of Political Societies"), John Locke writes of how willing people are to have a monarch when they trust and look up to that monarch:

§. 111. But though the golden age (before vain ambition, and amor sceleratis habendi, evil concupiscence, had corrupted men’s minds into a mistake of true power and honour) had more virtue, and consequently better governors, as well as less vicious subjects; and there was then no stretching prerogative on the one side, to oppress the people; nor consequently on the other, any dispute about privilege, to lessen or restrain the power of the magistrate, and so no contest betwixt rulers and people about governors or government: yet, when ambition and luxury in future ages [see Note 1 below] would retain and increase the power, without doing the business for which it was given; and aided by flattery, taught princes to have distinct and separate interests from their people, men found it necessary to examine more carefully the original and rights of government; and to find out ways to restrain the exorbitances, and prevent the abuses of that power, which they having intrusted in another’s hands only for their own good, they found was made use of to hurt them.

  §. 112. Thus we may see how probable it is, that people that were naturally free, and by their own consent either submitted to the government of their father, or united together out of different families to make a government, should generally put the rule into one man’s hands, and chuse to be under the conduct of a single person, without so much as by express conditions limiting or regulating his power, which they thought safe enough in his honesty and prudence; though they never dreamed of monarchy being Jure Divino, which we never heard of among mankind, till it was revealed to us by the divinity of this last age; nor ever allowed paternal power to have a right to dominion, or to be the foundation of all government. And thus much may suffice to shew, that as far as we have any light from history, we have reason to conclude, that all peaceful beginnings of government have been laid in the consent of the people. I say peaceful, because I shall have occasion in another place to speak of conquest, which some esteem a way of beginning of governments.

Note 1. At first, when some certain kind of regiment was once approved, it may be nothing was then farther thought upon for the manner of governing, but all permitted unto their wisdom and discretion which were to rule, till by experience they found this for all parts very inconvenient, so as the thing which they had devised for a remedy, did indeed but increase the sore which it should have cured. They saw, that to live by one man’s will, became the cause of all men’s misery. This constrained them to come unto laws wherein all men might see their duty beforehand, and know the penalties of transgressing them. Hooker’s Eccl. Pol. l. i. sect. 10.

As I think of the history of bad kings and queens, I marvel at the motivations that drive people to become bad rulers. But I believe Lord Acton's adage

Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

I have not held a lot of administrative power in my life, nor do I think, relative to the overall distribution, I am all that power-hungry. But during my stint as Associate Chair for Administration at the University of Michigan I noticed on at least one occasion the temptation to exercise power badly, out of pique. It struck me because it seemed so alien to my self-image. But position creates potential for corruption, in small cases as well as big ones. 


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