Wherever, therefore, any number of men so unite into one society, as to quit every one his executive power of the law of nature, and to resign it to the public, there, and there only, is a political, or civil society. And this is done wherever any number of men, in the state of nature, enter into society to make one people one body politic, under one supreme government, or else when any one joins himself to, and incorporates with, any government already made. For hereby he authorizes the society, or, which is all one, the legislative thereof, to make laws for him, as the public good of the society shall require, to the execution whereof his own assistance (as to his own decrees) is due. And this puts men out of a state of nature into that of a commonwealth. . . (Second Treatise on Government, § 89)Where the ruler or group charged with the rule is carrying out its mandate to conform to the natural moral law and promote the common good, the consent of the governed, after the initial establishment, is assumed to have been given automatically. No single individuals or groups, acting on their own authority, can decide that the current government is illegitimate, and work for its overthrow or go into rebellion. This would be merely to participate in criminal acts, contrary to the common good.
When, however, the government is engaged in egregious violation of the natural moral law, or is acting directly contrary to the common good in an obvious and material fashion, there may then be just cause to revoke the grant of political sovereignty made to the present government, and vest it in another group or form of government. As Aquinas states, "If any society of people have the right of choosing a king for itself, it is not unjust if he be deposed by the same, or if his power be curbed, when by a royal tyranny he abuses his power." (De Regimine Principum ("On the Rule of Princes"), Book I, Chapter vi) This was echoed by John Locke in the 19th chapter of his Second Treatise on Civil Government, "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." As Locke continued,
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. . . .What I have said here concerning the legislative in general, holds true also concerning the supreme executor, who having a double trust put in him, both to have a part in the legislative and the supreme execution of the law, acts against both when he goes about to set up his own arbitrary will as the law of the society. He acts also contrary to his trust when he either employs the force, treasure, and offices of the society, to corrupt the representatives, and gain them to his purposes; or openly pre-engages the electors, and prescribes to their choice such whom he has by solicitations, threats, promises, or otherwise won to his designs, and employs them to bring in such, who have promised beforehand what to vote and what to enact. (Second Treatise on Government, §§ 221-222)Anyone familiar with the Declaration of Independence of the United States, as well as the Virginia Declaration of Rights, adopted nearly a month earlier, will recognize the basis and justification of the English colonies in America joining together and repudiating the governance of the King of Great Britain by revoking the grant of sovereignty:
Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new government. . . .Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes.(See also the Virginia Declaration of Rights, June 12, 1776, "When government fails to confer common benefit, a majority of the people have a right to change it." Also Bellarmine, De Laicis, Ch. VI, "For legitimate reason [the people] can change the government to an aristocracy or a democracy or vice versa. . . . It depends upon the consent of men to place over themselves a king, consul, or magistrate.")
What are the conditions that justify a change in government? First, oppression must be habitual, tyrannical, and intolerable. Second, other remedies must have failed, legal and peaceful means must have been ineffective. Third, there must be reasonable probability of success. As Aquinas says, "If indeed a tyranny is not excessive, it is better to bear it for a time, than, by acting against the tyrant, to be involved in many perils, which are worse than tyranny. For it may happen that they who rise against a tyrant do not prevail against him; and so the tyrant, being incensed, rages the more violently." (De Regimine Principum, Book I., Ch. vi) Fourth, and finally, the revolt ought to be approved by the majority and by the best men of the land.
Although the work of Bellarmine, Locke, and Sidney in some measure discredited divine right theory, it left two problems in place. One, Bellarmine, due to his insertion of the collective, inadvertently gave ultimate power to the State — although that was clearly not his intention. The State, as Father Heinrich Pesch, S.J., was to note later, is presumed to be the mediate, that is, the indirect cause of individual welfare. This is chiefly through the State's care of the general welfare. In extraordinary cases, however, and on a temporary basis, the State is justified taking over direct care of individual welfare.
In the nature of things, however, the State inevitably moves to take over control of as much of everything as possible by becoming the immediate cause of individual welfare. To paraphrase the old saying, give the State an inch, and it will take a mile. All rights, even life, liberty, and property, become interpreted as "prudential matter," to be exercised or even granted solely at the discretion of the State. As far as the bottom line goes, this was not an improvement over basing the natural moral law on the Will — and falls into the "law is will" category by default.
Two, if we go the other way and base our understanding of sovereignty on the "state of nature" argument, we secure recognition of humanity's individual inalienable natural (that is, absolute) rights . . . but we tend to lose sight of the fact that no right is or can be absolute in its exercise. The nature of the human person and of society itself demands that the exercise of all rights be defined in a way that not only respects the human dignity of the individual right holder, but of all others in society, as well as the common good itself. Unfortunately, when we base our argument on the assumption of a state of nature, we tend to define possession of natural rights correctly as absolute, but also (and incorrectly) include the exercise of rights as absolute as well.
Thus, by claiming that all rights come from the State, the collectivist puts the State in the place of God. By claiming absolute exercise of rights, the individualist usurps the place of God.
The situation was not, however, hopeless — only confused. We will start to look at how these problems were resolved in the next posting in this series.