Kingdom of Kent, Saxon England, 932 –
Newly anointed King Arthur tours his realm seeking knights for the round table at Camelot. He bore with him the decree of none other than God Himself, ordained by Heaven to rule the Angles and Saxons.
Alas, for yon head-choppy days of yore were dark times for God’s anointed to the Throne of England. For there were those who questioned the legitimacy of his claim to the Crown.
Stopping to confer with two lowly peasants in a marsh in the wilderness west of Canterbury, he demanded fealty. The peasant demanded by what right he claimed to be their king, since they didn’t vote for him.
King Arthur replied that the Lady of the Lake had bestowed upon him the great Sword Excalibur.
“Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords? That’s no basis for a form of government!”
And after explaining that they would not recognize a government that did not rule by the people for the good of the community, they went promptly back to whatever peasantly work they were doing.
Now of course a rightful king like Arthur will recoil at the thought of a commoner questioning the rightfulness of his claim to the throne as much as any government.
But if the basis is not strange women lying in ponds distributing swords, then what?
Do the people rule? If that’s our starting point, then we need to establish who the people are in the first place. If all of the people rule, we can never hope to achieve a consensus among them. When one person says we ought to do X and someone else says we ought to do Y, then there are two options. Either everyone has a sort of island of their own in which nobody can force them to submit, which is anarchy. Or we wait to take action on behalf of the government until everyone consents, and that, friend, does not happen.
If you say that government should function for the good of the community, this is really more of an end goal than a starting point. It tells us where government should lead when established, but does not tell us when it has the right to begin.
Then it begs many questions about what the good of the community is. It begs when the good of the community outweighs the rights of individuals, when the ends justify the means, or when a majority of the people may extract what they want from a minority of the people.
Do the people vote for government? If they do, then the fifty-one percent must find a justification to demand the obedience of the forty-nine percent. This is unless, of course, they govern from a position of pure force. But if pure force is the standard, we are less likely to expect fifty-one percent to govern by voting than we are to expect a small elite who controls resources and holds a tactical advantage to impose their will.
So we are left with a very unfortunate conclusion.
Government is magical. The moment when a marauding band of Saxon warlords become local chieftains, and when one local chieftain becomes the rightful King of England is more easily known after it has passed than when it is happening.
When Alfred the Great expanded the borders of Wessex, many Saxons and Danes alike must have questioned the legitimacy of his acts of force. When Her Majesty Elizabeth II of the House of Windsor reigns over the United Kingdom, the claim is less doubtful. When did this transition happen? Nobody knows.
These governments all demand that their peasants submit, some benevolently, some less than benevolently. And they are all convinced that some immaterial force gave them the moral right to rule that separates them from brute force.
Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is a dubious basis for a form of government, but perhaps no more dubious than any other.