4.4.2 Yves Simon on ‘Authority in Democracy’


Reading for Module B, 4.4.2:

Excerpt from Yves Simon, Philosophy of Democratic Government (University of Chicago Press, 1951), chapter III, pp. 178-181, from section headed ‘Authority in Democracy’

When the concept of temporal government is realized with all its implications, the transmission theory of sovereignty holds, regardless of whether government is democratic, aristocratic, monarchical, or mixed. It implies that the governed consent to the government which is theirs, but it does not imply that this consent is necessarily exercised in the democratic procedure of election. The constitutional powers of the British king and those of the French president are similar in several respects: the French president is elected by the people, though indirectly; the British king is designated by heredity; both enjoy the consent of the majority. In the case of the president, this consent is expressed by election; in the case of the king, without any election. Notice that the popular consent given to the British king without any voting procedure is at least as genuine, sincere, profound, and unmistakably established as the consent given, through election, to the French president. The transmission theory implies that the power which primarily belongs to the people and has been transmitted by it to a distinct governing personnel can be withdrawn from unworthy rulers. We saw how firmly Cajetan maintains that the church is unlike the state so far as deposition of the unworthy ruler is concerned. According to Cajetan, the deposition of the unworthy king by the people constitutes the exercise of a power superior to that of the king, and there is no power superior to that of the pope, except that of Christ himself; so that the deposition of the heretical pope has to be accounted for in a way essentially different from the way in which the deposition of the unworthy king is accounted for. Thus, whether the regime is democratic or not, the transmission theory holds that the people, after having transmitted power and having placed itself in a position of mandatory obedience, retains a power greater than the power transmitted; this power is to be exercised when, and only when, the governing personnel are gravely unfaithful to their task. Consider, for the sake of clarity, the case of a monarchy according to the old pattern, i.e., that of a monarchy associated with few, if any, democratic elements; according to the transmission theory, the people enjoys, in such a system, a power greater than that of the king; what difference and what relation are there between this power of the people in a nondemocratic state and the power of democratic control?

The transmission theory holds that the people still possesses, after transmission has been effected, a power greater than that of the governing personnel; yet, in an aristocratic or monarchical regime this power cannot be lawfully exercised except in extreme cases: this is not democratic control, which is periodically exercised without there being anything abnormal or extraordinary about the circumstances. The British can vote Mr. Churchill out of power without even implying that they are dissatisfied with his record; they may merely mean that, after the war has been won, they intend to turn to tasks for which another administration is better qualified. The common right of deposition, which the transmission theory grants to every politically organized people, cannot be lawfully exercised without extraordinary circumstances, without dire and immediate threat to the common good. Thus, between the two, the difference is obvious. It can be illustrated by a comparison with the laws concerning the ownership of earthly goods. Anyone, no matter how destitute, may become lawful owner of a loaf of bread in case of extreme necessity. Yet there is a great difference, with regard to the use of wealth, between the man who can acquire it by regular means, i.e., by paying for it, and the man who can acquire it only in extraordinary circumstances and through the extraordinary privileges of extreme necessity. The people who transmitted power within democratic forms exercise, whenever election time comes, a power which may be likened to that of the regular owner over his regularly possessed goods. The people who transmitted power to a hereditary king and depose their ruler on account of high treason or some extraordinary mismanagement exercise a right that can be likened to that of anyone to make use of earthly goods, in an extreme emergency, to preserve his life or that of those who belong to him.

No matter how clear the difference between the common right of deposition and the democratic right of control, it is hardly possible to give much thought to the former without inclining toward the establishment of the latter. If people envisage the removal of their ruler as a contingency likely to occur in not extremely rare cases, they are logically inclined to promote institutions that can handle the procedure of deposition in nonrevolutionary fashion; such institutions, almost inevitably, turn out to be the beginning of democratic control. But what are the peoples who fail to realize that the removal rulers is a thing necessary in not exceedingly rare cases? Such peoples are those among whom a mythical representation of the governing personnel prevails, as in traditional Japan and also in nontraditional countries where many persons have come to believe that the genius of history is embodied in a definite party. Since there can be no question of deposing the genius of history, there is no use contemplating circumstances under which it might be necessary to get rid of such a party. Let the conclusion be that the concept of popular control inherent in the transmission theory and inseparable from it favors the promotion of democracy, although it is not distinctly democratic and finds application in every fully political system.

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