Consent of the governed

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In political philosophy, the phrase consent of the governed refers to the idea that a government's legitimacy and moral right to use state power is justified and lawful only when consented to by the people or society over which that political power is exercised. This theory of consent is historically contrasted to the divine right of kings and had often been invoked against the legitimacy of colonialism. Article 21 of the United Nations' 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that "The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government".


Perhaps the earliest utterance of consent of the governed appears in the writings of Scottish Catholic priest and Franciscan friar Duns Scotus, who proposed this in his work Ordinatio in the 1290s. Scotus's lengthy writing in theology have largely overshadowed this notable contribution that he made to early political theory. It is believed these writings influenced Declaration of Arbroath in 1320 [1]

In his 1937 book A History of Political Theory, George Sabine collected the views of many political theorists on consent of the governed. He notes the idea mentioned in 1433 by Nicholas of Cusa in De Concordantia Catholica. In 1579 an influential Huguenot tract Vindiciae contra tyrannos was published which Sabine paraphrases: "The people lay down the conditions which the king is bound to fulfill. Hence they are bound to obedience only conditionally, namely, upon receiving the protection of just and lawful government…the power of the ruler is delegated by the people and continues only with their consent."[2]: 381  In England, the Levellers also held to this principle of government.

John Milton wrote

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.[2]: 510 [3]

Similarly, Sabine notes the position of John Locke in Essay concerning Human Understanding:

[Civic power] can have no right except as this is derived from the individual right of each man to protect himself and his property. The legislative and executive power used by government to protect property is nothing except the natural power of each man resigned into the hands of the community…and it is justified merely because it is a better way of protecting natural right than the self-help to which each man is naturally entitled.[2]: 532 

However, with David Hume a contrary voice is heard. Sabine interprets Hume's skepticism by noting

The political world over, absolute governments which do not even do lip-service to the fiction of consent are more common than free governments, and their subjects rarely question their right except when tyranny becomes too oppressive.[2]: 603 

Sabine revived the concept from its status as a political myth after Hume, by referring to Thomas Hill Green. Green wrote that government required "will not force" for administration. As put by Sabine,[2]: 731 

Even the most powerful and the most despotic government cannot hold a society together by sheer force; to that extent there was a limited truth to the old belief that governments are produced by consent.

Consent of the governed, within the social liberalism of T. H. Green, was also described by Paul Harris:

The conditions for the existence of a political society have less to do with force and fear of coercion than with the members' mutual recognition of a good common to themselves and others, although it may not be consciously expressed as such. Thus for the conditions for any civil combination to disappear through resistance to a despotic government or disobedience to law would require such a disastrous upheaval as to be unlikely in all but the most extreme circumstances in which we might agree with Green that the price would be too high to pay, yet sufficiently rare to allow us to acknowledge that there would ordinarily be a moral duty to act to overthrow any state that did not pursue the common good.[4]

In the United States[edit]

"Consent of the governed" is a phrase found in the United States Declaration of Independence.

Using thinking similar to that of John Locke, the founders of the United States believed in a state built upon the consent of "free and equal" citizens; a state otherwise conceived would lack legitimacy and Rational-legal authority. This was expressed, among other places, in the 2nd paragraph of the Declaration of Independence (emphasis added):[5]

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.

And in the earlier Virginia Declaration of Rights, especially Section 6, quoted below, founding father George Mason wrote:

That elections of members to serve as representatives of the people, in assembly, ought to be free; and that all men, having sufficient evidence of permanent common interest with, the attachment to, the community, have the right of suffrage, and cannot be taxed or deprived of their property for public uses without their own consent, or that of their representatives so elected, nor bound by any law to which they have not, in like manner, assented, for the public good."[6]

Although the Continental Congress at the outset of the American Revolution had no explicit legal authority to govern,[7] it was delegated by the states with all the functions of a national government, such as appointing ambassadors, signing treaties, raising armies, appointing generals, obtaining loans from Europe, issuing paper money (called "Continentals"), and disbursing funds. The Congress had no authority to levy taxes, and was required to request money, supplies, and troops from the states to support the war effort. Individual states frequently ignored these requests. According to the Cyclopædia of Political Science. New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co., 1899, commenting on the source of the Congress' power:

The appointment of the delegates to both these congresses was generally by popular conventions, though in some instances by state assemblies. But in neither case can the appointing body be considered the original depositary of the power by which the delegates acted; for the conventions were either self-appointed "committees of safety" or hastily assembled popular gatherings, including but a small fraction of the population to be represented, and the state assemblies had no right to surrender to another body one atom of the power which had been granted to them, or to create a new power which should govern the people without their will. The source of the powers of congress is to be sought solely in the acquiescence of the people, without which every congressional resolution, with or without the benediction of popular conventions or state legislatures, would have been a mere brutum fulmen; and, as the congress unquestionably exercised national powers, operating over the whole country, the conclusion is inevitable that the will of the whole people is the source of national government in the United States, even from its first imperfect appearance in the second continental congress...

Types of consent[edit]

Unanimous consent[edit]

A key question is whether the unanimous consent of the governed is required; if so, this would imply the right of secession for those who do not want to be governed by a particular collective. All democratic governments today allow decisions to be made even over the dissent of a minority of voters which, in some theorists' view, calls into question whether said governments can rightfully claim, in all circumstances, to act with the consent of the governed.[8]

Hypothetical consent[edit]

The theory of hypothetical consent of the governed holds that one's obligation to obey government depends on whether the government is such that one ought to consent to it, or whether the people, if placed in a state of nature without government, would agree to said government.[9] This theory has been rejected by some scholars[who?], who argue that since government itself can commit aggression, creating a government to safeguard the people from aggression would be similar to the people, if given the choice of what animals to be attacked by, trading "polecats and foxes for a lion", a trade that they would not make.[10]

Overt versus tacit consent[edit]

Another division that is sometimes made is between overt consent and tacit consent. Overt consent, to be valid, would require voluntariness, a specific act on the part of the consenters, a particular act consented to, and specific agents who perform this action. Immigrating into a particular jurisdiction is sometimes regarded as an overt act indicating consent to be ruled by that jurisdiction's government. Not all who are ruled by a particular government have immigrated to that jurisdiction, however; some were born there; however others argue that the power to emigrate from (i.e. leave) a jurisdiction implies such consent omission.

Engineered consent[edit]

According to the propagandist Edward Bernays when discussing public relations techniques that were described in his essay and book The Engineering of Consent (1955), the public may be manipulated by its subconscious desires to render votes to a political candidate. Consent thus obtained undermines the legitimacy of government. Bernays claimed that "the basic principle involved is simple but important: If the opinions of the public are to control the government, these opinions must not be controlled by the government."[11]

Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky in their book, Manufacturing Consent (1988), advanced a propaganda model for the news media in the United States[12] in which coverage of current events was skewed by corporations and the state in order to manufacture the consent of the governed.

Literal consent[edit]

The theory of literal consent holds the logical position that valid consent must denote final authority belonging to the people, rather than elected officials, therefore this implies that the people have the absolute sovereign power to overrule their government at any time via popular vote (or as stated in the Declaration of Independence, "the right of the People to alter or abolish" their government). Without this unfettered power, theorists hold that true consent cannot exist and that any government is therefore despotism via governing the people by force without their actual consent.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ From the Arbroath declaration to Scottish enlightenment. University Press of America. 2004. pp. 206–207.
  2. ^ a b c d e George Sabine (1937) A History of Political Theory, Holt, Rinehart and Winston
  3. ^ John Milton Works V: 10
  4. ^ Paul Harris (1982) "Green’s theory of political obligation and disobedience", pp 127 to 142 in The Philosophy of T. H. Green, Andrew Vincent editor, Gower Publishing, ISBN 0-566-05104-4
  5. ^[full citation needed]
  6. ^ Virginia Declaration of Rights
  7. ^ Bancroft, Ch. 34, p.353 (online)
  8. ^ Cassinelli, C. W. (1959). "The 'Consent' of the Governed". Political Research Quarterly. 12 (2): 391–409. doi:10.1177/106591295901200202. S2CID 154712817.
  9. ^ Pitkin, Hanna (1966). "Obligation and Consent—II". The American Political Science Review. 60 (1): 39–52. doi:10.2307/1953805. JSTOR 1953805.
  10. ^ Bookman, John T. (1984). "Locke's Contract: Would People consent to It?". American Journal of Economics and Sociology. 43 (3): 357–68. doi:10.1111/j.1536-7150.1984.tb01750.x.
  11. ^ John C. Livingston & Robert G. Thompson (1966) The Consent of the Governed, 2nd edition, page 457, Collier Macmillan
  12. ^ Edward S. Herman & Noam Chomsky (1988) Manufacturing Consent, Pantheon Books

Further reading[edit]