The legitimacy of governments


Hence we must be very clear on these concepts and terminologies and not allow the politicians to twist and misinterpret things to suit their very narrow agenda of attaining or retaining political power while using us as that stepping stone to power.


Raja Petra Kamarudin

Throughout the ages, since before the birth of Jesus Christ, philosophers and theologians have contemplated and argued the subject of the legitimacy of governments to rule over us. Even as recent as a few months ago in May last year Malaysians were engaged in a hot debate as to whether Barisan Nasional is the moral, legitimate or legal government of Malaysia.

Christian philosopher/theologian Thomas Aquinas argues in favour of the State of Nature, which means a country or society without any government or a State of Anarchy. Now, when I say ‘anarchy’ here we must not confuse this with anarchy in the modern sense, which means a state of lawlessness, because even in a State of Anarchy there are laws. And these would be the Laws of Nature or Natural Laws.

By the way, Aquinas also argues that we can ‘prove’ that God exists on grounds that we exist. If God did not exist then we would not exist. This is the same as the watch argument.

Say you are taking a walk and you see something shining on the road. You bend down to pick it up and discover that it is a watch, something intricate with a complicated mechanism.

Someone must have made this watch. The watch could not have created itself. Hence there is a creator to this watch. Using that same argument, we could not have created ourselves. Someone or something must have created us. Hence we have a creator and this creator is God.

Some philosophers argue that we are all born as equals, our God-given right. So why should someone rule over us and tell us what we can and cannot do? There are already Natural Laws so we do not any other laws.

People like James, the brother of Jesus, who took over the leadership of the Nazarene movement after Jesus was said to have ascended to heaven, regarded Natural Laws as being Mosaic Law, which God gave Moses on Mount Sinai. Hence James and his followers rejected the authority of Rome and the laws of Rome.

Furthermore, James argued, the Kingdom of God meant a Jewish State here on earth that applied God’s laws. This is the same argument that Muslims use in justifying the Islamic State with God’s laws as the law of the land.

Paul, however, rejected this notion. Paul argued that the Kingdom of God is not of this world but a Kingdom in the Afterlife. And in his Letter to the Romans (Chapter 2) Paul’s idea of ‘Natural Law’ was in sharp contrast to the Mosaic Law that James propagated.

This created a serious conflict between James and Paul resulting in Paul being summoned for ‘trial’ and eventually being declared a heretic and a deviant. Because of this ‘fatwah’, Paul eventually left Jerusalem and went to Rome where he then went into conflict with Peter, who was then in Rome. Peter agreed with James and publicly admonished Paul.

Hence, even just 50 years or so after Jesus, the church was in dispute and split over the concept of the State of Nature and Natural Laws. Paul accepted Roman authority while James and Peter did not. And because of this dissent, Rome withdrew Jerusalem’s autonomy and brought it under direct Roman rule.

The church of James and Peter was eventually literally wiped out by Rome and in time Paul’s version of Christianity emerged dominant, mainly because it suited the Romans that a Rome-friendly version of Christianity be allowed to flourish over one that was hostile towards Rome.

According to Locke, the State of Nature means a state of perfect and complete liberty where we live our life as we see fit and with no interference from others. People are equal to one another with no one ruling over us and telling us what we can and cannot do. Hence if we need to be ruled over this needs to be justified.

Locke further argued that the Law of Nature means God’s law. And this would also mean we are guided by the religious moral code in the interest of the pursuit of happiness. Hence the starting point would be: would it be moral and will we be happy if we adopt another or better state than the State of Nature?

Modern philosophers (meaning since 500 years or so ago) argued against the State of Nature mainly because this would be a Theological State (with God’s laws) or a State of Anarchy with no laws. And humans, by nature, would not behave unless they are ruled, with laws controlling how they should behave. Furthermore, a state must be by majority consent and not the will of the minority over the majority.

But then this raised the question of what we mean by consent. There would be express consent, tacit consent, and hypothetical consent.

In express consent you indicate your consent to be ruled over. This could be done by way of holding elections and you vote in favour of having a government or in favour of a particular government ruling over you.

But what happens if the government you did not vote for wins the election?

That would also be by your consent because your act of participating in the election means you consent to whoever wins to form the government. Hence even if the one you did not vote for wins that would mean you have consented to it.

Tacit consent means you did not participate in the election but by remaining silent you have agreed to accept any government that ends up ruling over you. This is based on the concept of silence means consent.

Hypothetical consent would be the assumption that it would be impossible for you to have a happy and safe life without any government so you must surely agree that it is better to have a government than having no government at all.

In all three situations we work on the assumption that having a government is better than not having a government as laws are needed to keep you safe and happy and you cannot have laws unless someone makes these laws and enforces these laws and punishes those who break these laws.

Hence, in arguing the issue of the legitimacy of a certain government, it is not enough we just talk about the ballot box. The ballot box is merely the process we adopt in achieving our objective of coming to the conclusion on who should rule over us.

Legitimacies or otherwise of governments goes deeper than that. It has to start with do we even need a government and if so why? And if we decide we do need a government then this government needs to be justified. We must first answer the question are we better off with a government than without a government?

There also has to be a Social Contract between the ruler and the ruled. The theory of social contract addresses the issue of society’s needs and the legitimacy of the authority of the state over society.

Locke said that by consenting to make one body politic under one government, this obligates us to submit to the will of the majority. Hence everyone has consented.

And when we talk about ‘majority’ here we are not talking about majority votes. We are talking about the majority who have agreed on how we choose the government and the form of government that we adopt.

Hence we must be very clear on these concepts and terminologies and not allow the politicians to twist and misinterpret things to suit their very narrow agenda of attaining or retaining political power while using us as that stepping stone to power.