Dissent: The Tyrant Corollary

Mr. McArthur is right to reframe the debt debate as a question of sovereignty, rather than one of constitutionality. All governments derive their legitimacy – their right to sovereign power – from The People. (Indeed, this has been a legal axiom in the West at least since the creation of Roman law.) It follows that whatever a government’s constitutional form, and however radically that form changes over time, as long as that government represents roughly the same body politic, it is responsible for paying its debts.

Accordingly, we can hold the United States after 1787 responsible for the debts incurred under the Articles of Confederation, but not responsible for the pre-1776 debts of the British Empire. (On this point, among others, Mr. Goodwin seems to misunderstand Mr. McArthur’s argument, which does account for the different debt responsibilities of a country borne of another country’s borders.) The argument works conversely as well. A debtor to a country should meet his debt obligations even if that country changes its constitution. This is because the debtor is just as much in debt to that country’s People as the country itself. If the People, i.e. the creditors, remain roughly the same between one constitution and the next, they still deserve their interest payments.

Mr. McArthur errs, however, when he assumes that all governments necessarily embody a sovereignty deriving from the people. By definition, a tyrannical government does not. A tyranny flouts The People’s sovereignty, it operates beyond the confines of the state’s legal framework, and often enough, it disregards the commonweal for its own selfish interests. The international community recognizes North Korea, but this is a recognition out of pragmatism. Few would seriously suggest that Kim Jong Il leads a legal government operating as a legitimate representative of the North Korean people.

I accept Mr. McArthur’s basic premise, but add one corollary. When a People are held hostage by a tyrant, The People cannot be made responsible for his debts. Indeed, in the same way that an individual is not legally responsible to respect a contract entered into under coercion, a People cannot be responsible for a debt forced onto them by a tyrant.

Of course, the argument can get more nuanced. Not all tyrants act tyrannically all of the time. When a sometime tyrant incurs a debt legally, and in the interest of the commonweal, The People ought to bear responsibility for that specific debt (no matter how many times they may later change their government). Naturally, this raises several new issues. What constitutes tyrannical behaviour? How do we judge what is in the interest of the commonweal? But these are questions for another discussion.


  • Garbanzo McArthur wrote:

    Mr. Cohen: I rarely get past the cover of books, but I do recall a version of Hobbes’ Leviathan depicting a strongman who was, in fact, a composite of many small men. (Indeed, check out the image results you get for leviathan)

    The question, then: why should a tyrannical regime embody sovereignty any less than a democratic one? In neither case do citizens make an active choice to transfer their sovereignty; we simply accept the fiction that this transfer occurred. As to when a government truly embodies sovereignty, then, I propose two standards for your comment:

    1) It enjoys a monopoly on the legitimate use of force
    2) It leaves citizens better off than in the state of nature

  • Felix York wrote:

    I have to agree with Garbanzo. The very notion of “the People” is entirely fictitious, and perhaps ethically problematic (treating separate persons as one coherent body politick). Consent cannot be the basis for legitimacy, as no nation will ever have full consent from its citizens.

    Garbanzo’s two suggestions are interesting, but the first seems to lack normative grounds (unless you use a thick version of the term “legitimate,” in which case the standard is question-begging). The second obviously creates epistemic problems, since it seems possible that some people are worse off in many societies than they would be in the absence of government.

  • Count me under the skeptics, Leonardo. On what grounds can we claim that a tyrant is holding a people hostage? Can a people that democratically elects its leaders ever be held hostage?

    What if one party has redistricted a permanent political majority, independent of political opinion? In that case, would we have to waive debts until the next redistricting commission came through?

    That sovereignty derives from the people has been an axiom does not convince me that it is axiomatic (logically speaking, anyway).

  • Also, I find this statement particularly troubling: “as long as that government represents roughly the same body politic…”

    Just how rough is this calculus? This and the other standards described in your dissent (when a people are being held hostage) seem to necessarily default to a bare majority.

    On a separate note: why must we stop our debt calculus at 1776, if we are associating it with a body politic that is roughly the same? Why wouldn’t the newly-minted Americans be liable for debts incurred by the British government on their behalf (the costs of the French and Indian War, for example)? They are, after all, the same body politic. The fact that they were a colony of England seems to be a mere constitutional issue, in your telling.

  • Garbanzo McArthur wrote:

    To be fair, I don’t think Mr. Cohen means to say that a tyranny is just a really bad government. An autocratic government may be bad — it may enforce brutal, draconian laws — yet insofar as it adheres to the rule of law, it is a legitimate receptacle of sovereignty: the law is binding on all, on both the ruler and the ruled. (The same, of course, could be said for a gerrymandered electorate).

    But under tyranny, there is no rule of law: the instruments of state power simply conform themselves to the caprices of the tyrant. Such thuggishness sets the tyrant apart from the The People, precluding any truly — or even fictionally — constitutive relationship. As such, no transfer of sovereignty has occurred; and anyone foolish enough to lend to the tyrant cannot seek repayment from his helpless former subjects.

  • Mack Eason wrote:

    Leonardo et. al.

    I’m not so sure that Mr. McArthur’s point that all governments necessarily embody a sovereignty deriving from the people is so far off the mark. Or, at least, I don’t think that Mr. McArthur errs in the way you point out. As the other comments have pointed out, in the sense that a people have given implicit permission to even the most despotic regime by refraining from overthrowing it, even a tyranny such as you mention does enjoy at least some permission from the people.

    That said, I do think that this proposition falls short in application towards the edges of the sovereignty bell curve. On the one hand, there may be such a state in which the State wields so much military/industrial/informational power that it may be no longer even possible for the people to dissent. In such a state, one could hold that the State exists in spite of the people’s will. That said, even in such a state, there may be some way in which there could be a rupture in the dialogue between the state and the people (a strike, a sit-in, etc.) that would undermine even such an intrenched tyranny as North Korea.

    On the other side, I would take issue with Bill’s implicit assertion that a people that democratically elect their leaders cannot be held hostage. Although the mechanisms of a democratic state can be employed to remove an official who no longer enjoys the support of the people, such mechanisms are still imperfect and not instantaneous. The existence of lame-duck periods, the lack of better alternative candidates, and the existence of political parties all undermine any argument for the ability of any democratic to express the will of the people.

  • Mack Eason wrote:


    Bill’s first point, namely the critique to the common argument that democracy is inherently better than dictatorship (usually buttressed by reference to the Enlightenment ideal of the expression of the people, the exercise of public reason, etc.) is well taken. I am also generally skeptical of claims of the inherent value of democracy based on these grounds. In the interest of debate, however, I’d offer a different (older) justification of democracy instead.

    If we are to look at this question from an Aristotelian perspective (valuing situations that encourage individual human development, virtue or Arete), a new basis for valuing democracy over tyranny arises. Democracies at least nominally require their citizens to chose, to take part in questions of governance, and thus to have a stake in the working of the State. While Aristotle would not necessarily have agreed with the egalitarian populism that undergirds today’s conception universal suffrage (being something of an elitist himself), he certainly would have seen these activities as encouraging excellence among the populace.

    Any thoughts?

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