Politics & Policy

The Wane of Government by Consent

Demonstration in Ferguson, Mo., August 19, 2014 (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Ferguson shows us what happens when people distrust their leaders.

The mathematics of civil disobedience has always been pretty straightforward: As Mohandas Gandhi pointed out to the raj, 100,000 government officials cannot control 350 million citizens if the citizens do not cooperate. There are not enough police in St. Louis County to control the people who do not wish to be controlled by the police in St. Louis County, as least as currently constituted. There are two ways to govern: By consent or by terror. In the United States, we govern by consent.


We spend altogether too much time talking about sentiment, e.g., polling Americans about whether they feel that the laws of economics apply in any given situation, as though their feelings were relevant to it. But there are occasions upon which sentiment must be considered, and considered seriously. One is the matter of public confidence in institutions, and the other is in the very serious business of consent.

On the matter of confidence, it is difficult to fault the critics of the Ferguson and St. Louis County police authorities. They do not give a very strong impression of competence, and the relationship between police and community appears to be adversarial on both sides. The police have been less than forthcoming, and their release of information has been self-serving. Ferguson already was a relatively high-crime area and economically depressed, meaning, almost by definition, that local institutions were failing to do their jobs. There are looters, adventurers, and opportunists, of course, but the fact is that people in the town of Ferguson, Mo., could be at home watching television or updating their Facebook pages but instead are protesting the performance of their local government. That is not an insignificant fact.

Race of course is a factor. When the nation’s attention was drawn to Ferguson, journalists began to ask: Why does this largely black town have such a predominantly white government and white police department? The question was put forward as though the issue of race were self-evidently relevant and as though the situation in Ferguson were self-evidently unjust. It is a fact that people are less inclined to cooperate socially with people who are less like themselves and that racial and linguistic diversity can hamper the provision of public goods.

From the practice of slavery to the ideology of black nationalism, there always has been a strong current in black–white relations that is fundamentally adversarial, and the two races interact in some ways as though each were foreign to the other. To some extent, each defines itself in opposition to the other. Maybe there is no real reason why a black man in Ferguson should feel alienated by having a white mayor, any more than white Americans should feel alienated by having a black president. But the fact is that people do often feel that way, and that it is not limited to malignant racists. Even among people of good will, race often is an extra wrinkle that complicates relationships. And when one party in the relationship has guns, badges, and a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, that tension is intensified.

To consider Gandhi’s thinking again, he argued that any people would be more contented under a bad government of its own than under the good government of an alien people. (I have heard older Indians, in despair at their government, contest that sentiment.) One cannot help but detect a trace of that thinking in, for instance, the black-power politics of Detroit: The city’s government may be feckless and corrupt, but it is black, and that matters. (Though Detroit currently has a white mayor.) Ferguson’s government and police are overwhelmingly white in a town that isn’t. Maybe that should not matter, but it does. Though I should emphasize here that even if Gandhi’s notion applies and that the blacks and whites of Ferguson think of themselves as essentially alien peoples, the comparison fails in an important way: The black residents of Ferguson are not wondering what to do about a good white-dominated government, but what to do about a bad one.

When the people of Ferguson complain that their police and their government are dysfunctional, what evidence should be presented against them? The town’s prosperity? Its safe streets?

We have seen withdrawals of consent before, and we will see more in the future. From cracked Texas secessionists and Cliven Bundy to the people throwing rocks at police in Ferguson, such gestures are rarely altogether admirable, but that does not make them necessarily illegitimate. (I must confess that I’d have more sympathy with the protesters in Ferguson if they were setting fire to tax offices rather than convenience stores.) (Not that I’m endorsing setting fire to tax offices.) (At this time.) And there are real reasons to consider the question of consent: From local politicians legally looting their communities to federal government that uses the IRS as a weapon of politics, there are real objections to be made. In practical terms, we have a government that interferes with our lives and livelihoods far more than did the one our Founders threw off.

Which is not a call for revolution — it’s a call for rebalancing, for reestablishing exactly who works for whom. As I wrote in the matter of the Nevada standoff:

There are of course questions of prudence and proportion to be answered here, and though I note that he uses the very strong phrase “lawless government,” I sympathize with Rich Lowry’s desire that both sides should follow the law. . . . The thing that conservatives seek to conserve is the American order, which (1) insists that we are to be governed by laws rather than by men and (2) was born in a violent revolution. Russell Kirk described the conservative ideal as “ordered liberty,” and that is indeed what we must aim for — keeping in mind that it is order that serves liberty, not the other way around. And it is the government that exists at the sufferance of the people, including such irascible ones as Cliven Bundy, not the other way around.

Including the people in Ferguson, too. (Cliven Bundy and the Ferguson protesters have more in common than you’d think. “The Constitution of the United States of America clearly affirms the right of every American citizen to bear arms. And as Americans, we will not give up a single right guaranteed under the Constitution.” Cliven Bundy? Wayne LaPierre? Nope.)

If not only blacks and whites but all sorts of distinct groups see political power as a form of rivalrous consumption, and it may be the case that they do, then we should expect more and deeper ethnic, linguistic, religious, and economic fissures, and more intense conflicts associated with them, as the size of government grows and power is consolidated at the federal level. On the other hand, if you want peace, then you should press for localism, federalism, the devolution of powers, strong property rights and constitutional protections of other individual rights, and, above all, limited government — because limited government means less to fight over in the political realm. That will not solve every problem — nothing solves every problem — and it wouldn’t necessarily have prevented the problems in Ferguson. But it will help forestall some much more significant challenges in the future.

If a town of 21,000 cannot be governed without consent, what of a country of 300 million?

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review.

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