One of the most remarkable things John Locke says in his 2d Treatise on Government: Of Civil Government, in Chapter XIX, “Of the Dissolution of Government,” sections 219 to 221, is that the people may erect their own government either when the previous government has descended into anarchy, or when it has betrayed the people’s trust. He argues that the people have an inherent right to
… a settled [government], and a fair and impartial execution of the laws made by it.
(Here I have translated the noun “legislative” as “government.”) Besides anarchy, the people, he says, have a right to erect a new government when the previous government betrays its trust:
The legislative acts against the trust reposed in them, when they endeavour to invade the property of the subject, and to make themselves, or any part of the community, masters, or arbitrary disposers of the lives, liberties, or fortunes of the people.
If the people have this right, it is appropriate to make it possible for the people to exercise this right in a relatively low cost way. Democracy is one of the simplest—and in practice the most effective known way of lowering the cost of the people to exercise their right to erect a new government when the old one descends into anarchy or betrays the trust given to it.
Democracy in the real world is far from perfect. But it has this treat virtue: if the vast majority of people hate the government, then the government falls. Otherwise it is not a true democracy.
Even democracies in form that are not true democracies because the elections are rigged, still have some benefit in paying homage to the principle that if a government is horrible, the people get to replace it. And having a tradition of elections in form has, I believe, a positive effect on the likelihood of possible futures in which makes elections take full force. For example, who should be the successor in a dictatorship or semidictatorship is not always clear. Sometimes that question of succession will end up being resolved an election even though the elections before that were sham elections.
Moreover, in our world of 2019, elections have become a time when the rest of the world is watching. That is valuable.
If an autocracy really is looking after the welfare of the people (as most claim but do not do), then John Locke’s principle does not require democracy. But if an autocracy really is looking after the welfare of the people better than anyone else or any other organization would, it should be able to win an election. So if an autocracy is actually legitimate, there would be no harm to having a democracy instead, with the erstwhile autocrats being converted into election victors. (I don’t think John Locke would have any truck with the notion that the people are not good judges of their own welfare.) This way of looking at things does, however, suggest that one should not diss autocrats who genuinely govern putting the people’s welfare first and with high competence, then at some point institute elections and win them fairly.
In relation to these powerful ideas, it is well worth reading John Locke’s own words:
219. There is one way more whereby such a government may be dissolved, and that is, when he who has the supreme executive power neglects and abandons that charge, so that the laws already made can no longer be put in execution. This is demonstratively to reduce all to anarchy, and so effectually to dissolve the government: for laws not being made for themselves, but to be, by their execution, the bonds of the society, to keep every part of the body politic in its due place and function; when that totally ceases, the government visibly ceases, and the people become a confused multitude, without order or connexion. Where there is no longer the administration of justice, for the securing of men’s rights, nor any remaining power within the community to direct the force, or provide for the necessities of the public, there certainly is no government left. Where the laws cannot be executed, it is all one as if there were no laws; and a government without laws is, I suppose, a mystery in politics, unconceivable to human capacity, and inconsistent with human society.
§. 220. In these and the like cases, when the government is dissolved, the people are at liberty to provide for themselves, by erecting a new legislative, differing from the other, by the change of persons, or form, or both, as they shall find it most for their safety and good: for the society can never, by the fault of another, lose the native and original right it has to preserve itself, which can only be done by a settled legislative, and a fair and impartial execution of the laws made by it. But the state of mankind is not so miserable that they are not capable of using this remedy, till it be too late to look for any. To tell people they may provide for themselves, by erecting a new legislative, when by oppression, artifice, or being delivered over to a foreign power, their old one is gone, is only to tell them, they may expect relief when it is too late, and the evil is past cure. This is in effect no more than to bid them first be slaves, and then to take care of their liberty; and when their chains are on, tell them, they may act like freemen. This, if barely so, is rather mockery than relief; and men can never be secure from tyranny, if there be no means to escape it till they are perfectly under it: and therefore it is that they have not only a right to get out of it, but to prevent it.
§. 221. There is therefore, secondly, another way whereby governments are dissolved,and that is, when the legislative, or the prince, either of them, act contrary to their trust.
First, The legislative acts against the trust reposed in them, when they endeavour to invade the property of the subject, and to make themselves, or any part of the community, masters, or arbitrary disposers of the lives, liberties, or fortunes of the people.
For links to other John Locke posts, see these John Locke aggregator posts: