This Saturday just past, voters in three state electorates went to the polls in by-elections. Where I live in Blacktown Council, we also had a by-election for a councillor in one ward, following the death of a sitting councillor. This was one of the smallest ballot papers that I have ever seen, as it only had four candidates. I still don't know who won the by-election but I do know that this was so small that the Liberal Party didn't bother fielding a candidate and in an outrage of Australian democracy, the polling station where I went to didn't even have a sausage sizzle.
Democracy as it is executed in Australia involves turning up at a polling station once every so often and marking a ballot paper with preferences as to who you prefer to represent you and very rarely answering a yes/no question if a referendum is taking place. Voting is compulsory, which I personally think is absolutely necessary and yet beautiful at the same time, but democracy and voting are only the means through which the will of the people are expressed and not whether they agree with the system or not.
Therein lies a disconnect. Democracy insofar as much it is practiced, is only the means by which the selection of who will govern is determined. Democracy of itself is not specifically governance. Governance has to do with the exercise of power and power has the same definition here as it does in the realm of physics; that is that power is the ability to do work and act. It is also no coincidence I think that the exercise of power within parliament is enacted through instruments which are also called Acts. This being true, the issue then becomes to what degree do parliaments and by extension does the state have the ability to act on behalf of the people. In virtually every arena where you have someone acting on behalf of someone else, consent for one party to act on behalf of the other is required; in cases where contact is direct, then asking for, deriving and receiving consent should be incredibly obvious to determine but where the two parties involved are the people and the state, this becomes very nebulous very quickly.
The idea of what right that the state or indeed the state personified in the person of the monarch, very much came to a head when the people decided that King Charles I should lose his. At about the same time that Oliver Cromwell was installing himself as Lord Protector Of England, people like John Locke were thinking about this from an ontological standpoint. What were things like power, consent and governance actually about and who should get to define them?
The power of kings and magistrates is nothing else, but what is only derivative, transferred and committed to them in trust from the people, to the common good of them all, in whom the power yet remains fundamentally, and cannot be taken from them, without a violation of their natural birthright.
- John Milton, The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, 1649
This idea that the power of kings and by extension the state, was derived from the people, was a new idea and would have stood in stark contrast to the prevailing winds of thought that said that kings derived their authority from God. The divine right of kings was the prevailing "self-evident" truth of the day and to challenge that was itself dangerous.
It was so dangerous in fact that left to ferment on the other side of an ocean for 130 years, it would result in an outright rejection of the right of kings to rule at all. When the thirteen American colonies finally decided to throw off the monarchy, the language used was not that of the idea of the rejection of the state but a specific rejection of the person of the monarch. The Declaration Of Independence repeats the form of "He has" done such and such and after the whole shooting match was over, the solution wasn't an outright rejection of the state but the creation of a new state.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
- Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson (mostly), 4th July 1776
Nevertheless, the idea of consent being given and revoked is an interesting concept. In order to give consent to anything, the person giving consent has to have a large amount of agency in order for this to be possible. The problem with an individual's relationship with the state is that they have no agency whatsoever to give that consent. When someone is born they have no choice and no agency at all; they are immediately under the authority of both their parents and the state, even though they have no possible way of agreeing to such an arrangement. However, it isn't as if one magically gains any agency once someone grows up either. Adults are always still under the authority of the state and it isn't as if they ever gain any ability to withdraw their consent from the governors who rule over them. At best they have the ability to change the set of people who occupy those positions but withdrawing consent only comes in one of two flavours: treason or revolution.
A person who unilaterally decides that they want to revoke their consent form those that govern them, finds pretty swiftly that this is a futile effort. From an administrative standpoint the state simply doesn't care and will continue to act as it did previously, exercising rule over the individual. This either ends up with the individual being treated as a curiosity but still ultimately under the rule of the state, such as Prince Leonard of Hutt River Province, or if they decide to use force, then criminal proceedings will follow.
In the case of the Declaration Of Independence, which is where that phrase is used at its most cutting, the revolution which followed only succeeded because of bigger army diplomacy and what resulted was another state, which people born after the revolution again didn't gain any magical ability to withdraw their consent from. Unless Jefferson meant for a perpetual cycle of revolution, through force or disruption, then the phrase although poetic is mostly nonsensical.
Taken to its logical conclusion, does that mean that if consent can never truly be given to the state, then we should get rid of the state? Extreme laissez-faire capitalists might argue that no state intervention in anything would produce a set of conditions where markets would decide everything and the economy would naturally find the most efficient set of positions as market forces heaved and thrusted. The only problem with such a society is that it would be a truly horrible and nasty place. In the words of Thomas Hobbes' 1651 work Leviathan, life would be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short".
This is where we reach the end of the discussion for the purposes of this blog post. I don't think for a second that my marking of four numbers on a sheet of paper once every few years or so, can be taken to mean anything like consent but rather everything else that we do as a peaceable society can be. If you want to look for the governed giving their consent to the state, you'll have to look but do it quietly. Every time that you don't see Town Halls being burned, or courthouses being razed; every time that parliaments go about their business with all of their shouting and carry on, look up into the galleries and watch as people silently give their consent. The consent of the governed is created and given every single day as people go about their lives in peace because at the heart of consent is permission for something to happen or and agreement to do a thing. In practical terms, the consent of the governed is created through a silence procedure it would seem; except when the public speaks.