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The Rulers Paradox

Where does the government get its authority?

*By L.K. Samuels

For political wonks, the "Rulers' Paradox" defies modern assumptions about how a democratic society operates. Under John Locke's "consent of the governed" axiom, authorities in high places receive their power from the citizenry under the auspices of participatory democracy. The people, via the election process, transfer their authority to governing officials, who serve in the best interest of society. This transfer of authority - power and privileges -- resembles the power-of-attorney that bestows the fiduciary authorization to act on another person's behalf in legal or business matters.

But what if officials in a democratic government organize death squads to assassinate international leaders? Where did such authority (to commit murder) come from? What if a freely elected government decides to take property away from their citizens through eminent domain, incarcerates the accused without due process or /habeas corpus, /tortures suspects, kidnaps troublemakers, or wiretaps citizens' phone lines? Where and how did a representative government acquire authority to perform such coercive acts?

    If ordinary citizens could assassinate, steal, imprison, torture, kidnap and wiretap without incrimination, then government could have a legal privilege to transfer that authority over to its democratic arsenal of policy-making weaponry. However, in most countries, the public does not have such intrusive rights. And if citizens attempted to do what governments often have done, they would be arrested and jailed. John Locke underscored this point in /A Treatise Concerning Civil Government/, writing: "The people cannot delegate to government the power to do anything which would be unlawful for them to do themselves." Nonetheless, governments routinely exercise such abuse of authority on a grand scale, although the old aphorism asserts that no elected leader should be above the law.

But this paradox plummets deeper into the rabbit hole. It is no secret that government officials acknowledge to their colleagues that the people, for the most part, cannot be trusted to do the right thing. If this were not the case, legislators would immediately abstain from passing thousands of meddlesome and nanny-like laws, confident that people are good and decent. And yet, the ironic twist is inescapable. If people are unfit to choose the right thing, then the government agencies administered by people must also be unqualified. Thomas Jefferson noted this conundrum when he wrote: "Sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others?"

(Note: the Rulers' Paradox is my invention, formulated to highlight the contradictions in how power is abused in democratic nations).
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