The Obama Administration’s official response to Egypt, once it evolved past the initial days of confused silence, has included much talk of “the will of the people.” The President used this phrase again in his remarks on Tuesday afternoon: “After his speech tonight, I spoke directly to President Mubarak. He recognizes that the status quo is not sustainable, and that a change must take place. Indeed, all of us who are privileged to serve in political positions of power do so at the will of our people.”
That’s obviously not true – a child throwing darts at a map has a pretty good chance of hitting several countries where those who serve in “political positions of power” do not care one bit about the will of the people. In fact, they’re quite prepared to tell the people what their will demands, and not shy about explaining it with truncheons and hot electric wires. Let’s give the President the benefit of the doubt, and assume he was talking about enlightened democracies, like America and (hopefully) Egypt.
Even so, “the will of the people” is a fantastically dangerous concept. It has left a lot of wreckage strewn across Europe and America. When politicians start talking about the popular will, they’re playing with a loaded gun.
The modern Western notion of popular will goes back to Rousseau, whose conception of the common man sounds strikingly similar to conventional liberal imagery today: innocent and selfless in the state of nature, resistant to the siren song of material greed, and brimming with compassion. A just government would execute the noble will of these people, and save them from the corrupting influence of civilization, which forces them to betray their true and benevolent nature.
Rousseau thought one very important way of doing this was freeing people from the evils of private property, which he saw as inherently corrupting. Minimizing private property would mean the State required less coercive force to impose the will of the people upon reluctant citizens.
This “general will” is not simply a matter of majority vote. It transcends the preferences or judgment of any given individual. All should be compelled to act in the best interests of all, no matter what any given individual or group thinks.
It’s not hard to see the echoes of this concept rolling through the American Left today. In fact, you probably thought of half a dozen examples while reading the last three paragraphs. Becoming the avatar of the general will is a sweet racket. You get to discard silly notions of restraint, imposed by incomprehensible documents flowing from the quill pens of long-dead white guys in powdered wigs. You can hector those who resist your agenda by calling upon them to “invest in America,” “pay their fair share,” and cease their resistance to “social justice.”
You can even insist your schemes are the true expression of the general will in defiance of the clear wishes of the majority – say, by defending blatantly unconstitutional, ridiculously deformed, economically devastating trillion-dollar nightmares opposed by solid majorities of the population, and challenged in court by over half the states. You can ignore court rulings you don’t like, and pretend landslide elections didn’t happen. You can draw confidence from knowing the authentic “will of the people” is expressed through wise prophets of superior moral timber, not the deafening howls of enraged citizen majorities.
This is why a just government is, inevitably, a minimal government, operating within the iron restraints of its Constitution. Rousseau was right about the importance of private property as a bulwark against authority. As the government grows larger, it does more, and it becomes increasingly difficult for dissenting citizens to resist its agenda. Surrender your right to own and control your own health care, for example, and you will be conceding much of your right to resist the ruling class and its interpretation of the “will of the people” in times to come… because in the future, many things the State wishes to do will be justified in the name of providing the health care that you don’t own any more.
The “will of the people” is an awful principle to use in defining the relationship between citizens and the State. No government action ever enjoys unanimous consent, and we don’t set government policy through a constant series of referendums, so there’s always plenty of room for ambitious politicians to declare themselves the righteous agents of the public consciousness. You hear a great deal about what the people really want, or need… and very little about what the government is permitted to do.
When the only qualification for lawful government action becomes invocation of the general will, the State grows without practical limit, until the level of dissent required to halt its actions becomes almost impossible to attain. At some point, it transitions from prohibiting harmful actions, to telling citizens what they must do… or what products they must purchase.
The idea President Obama wanted to convey to Hosni Mubarak was that legitimate heads of state serve at the pleasure of the people, in enlightened nations. It’s actually more important that they obey the fundamental laws written to restrain their actions, rather than declaring themselves oracles of the people’s will. You’ll see a sad demonstration of this truth if Egypt follows the worst, but perhaps most likely, path before it, and democratically votes in a religious tyranny.