Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Remembering the Difference Between Power and Right

"Prior to any political institution whatever, men are qualified by a great diversity of talents, by a different tone of the soul, and ardour of the passions, to act a variety of parts.  Bring them together, each will find his place.  They censure or applaud in a body; they consult and deliberate in more select parties; they take or give an ascendant as individuals; and numbers are by this means fitted to act in company, and to preserve their communities, before any formal distribution of office is made.  We are formed to act in this manner; and if we have any doubts with relation to the rights of government in general, we owe our perplexity more to the subtilties of the speculative, than to any uncertainty in the feelings of the heart.

"Involved in the resolutions of our company, we move with the crowd before we have determined the rule by which its will is collected.  We follow a leader, before we have settled the ground of his pretensions, or adjusted the form of his election; and it is not till after mankind have committed many errors in the capacities of magistrate and subject, that they think of making government itself a subject of rules.

"If, therefore, in considering the variety of forms under which societies subsist, the casuist is pleased to inquire, what title one man, or any number of men, have to control his actions? he may be answered, none at all, provided that his actions have no effect to the prejudice of his fellow creatures; but if they have, the rights of defence, and the obligation to repress the commission of wrongs, belong to collective bodies, as well as to individuals.

"Many rude nations, having no formal tribunals for the judgment of crimes, assemble, when alarmed by any flagrant offence, and take their measures with the criminal as they would with an enemy.  But will this consideration, which confirms the title to sovereignty, where it is exercised by the society in its collective capacity, or by those to whom the powers of the whole are committed, likewise support the claim to dominion, wherever it is casually lodged, or even where it is only maintained by force?  This question may be sufficiently answered, by observing, that a right to do justice, and to do good, is competent to every individual, or order of men; and that the exercise of this right has no limits but in the defect of power.  Whoever, therefore, has power, may employ it to this extent; and no previous convention is required to justify his conduct.

"But a right to do wrong, or to commit injustice, is an abuse of language, and a contradiction in terms.  It is no more competent to the collective body of a people, than it is to any single usurper.  When we admit such a prerogative in the case of any sovereign, we can only mean to express the extent of his power, and the force with which he is enabled to execute his pleasure.  Such a prerogative is assumed by the leader of banditti at the head of his gang, or by a despotic prince at the head of his troops.  When the sword is presented by either, the traveller or the inhabitant may submit from a sense of necessity or fear; but he lies under no obligation from a motive of duty or justice."

- Adam Ferguson, from "An Essay on the History of Civil Society"

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