Crossing the Rubicon: Why it’s so hard to be a Libertarian
From LP News | Vol. 50, Issue 3 | Quarter 3, 2020
By John Mills • Washington
In 1776, Thomas Jefferson penned these famous and radical words: “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
King George III, and indeed his entire court, lawyers all over the United Kingdom, and most people around the world must have read that with puzzled bemusement. Consent of the governed? Absurd. For nearly all of recorded history, there was no “consent of the governed.” The King was appointed by God to rule over and direct his subjects who were generally acknowledged as too stupid to actually order their own lives appropriately. So, the King, along with the Clergy, directed people by force, thus demanding behavior essential to promoting peace, harmony and productive activity, all so essential to civil society. People’s obedience was commanded, or heads literally rolled. Government had zero to do with consent of the governed.
Government by consent of the governed was not an idea generally accepted or followed anywhere in the world until it was sprung on an unsuspecting populace by people like Tom Jefferson.
Now, 200 years after Jefferson penned his famous words, given its wide embrace around the world, democracy seems not only an ordinary idea, but an obviously superior theory of political organization. Only “backward” countries like, say, Saudi Arabia or North Korea have top-down, authoritarian governments which are unrelated at all to consent of the governed. Two hundred years of politics has created a paradigm shift in thinking. Jefferson’s “consent of the governed,” viewed at the time as absurd and heretical, now seems an obviously superior way to order society.
In 1848 a group of kooks and political crazies convened at Seneca Falls, New York, to promote the bizarre idea that women should be allowed to vote. Although experimented with in a few states, the ideas generally was viewed, of course, as a complete absurdity when announced. Fringe political activists like Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and other women’s rights pioneers — the suffragists — circulated petitions and lobbied Congress to pass a constitutional amendment to enfranchise women. No doubt, regular law-abiding people looked on at this heresy with the kind of puzzled bemusement which King George III himself would have assigned to the absurd notion that just government existed by consent of the governed.
Seventy years after the crazies convened at Seneca Falls, and countless hours of discussions across the dinner tables of America, and at cocktail parties across the nation, arguments for why women should be allowed to vote had changed people minds. And, thus the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified.
Today, the notion that women should be disenfranchised seems queer. And so, a whole new political paradigm is spreading around the world. Women voting is still viewed as ridiculous in places like the Vatican. Saudi Arabia and some other authoritarian countries have recently removed legal restrictions on women voting, but there remain enormous political and social pressures preventing free voting by women because so many people in these places just can’t embrace even the idea of women voting. Political paradigm shifts occur at a glacial pace.
There are many examples of such political paradigm shifts that occur when enough people’s thinking on political policy changes. The 18th Amendment, repealed by the 21st Amendment to the US Constitution, codified two important paradigm shifts in political thinking across America respecting consumption of alcoholic beverages. Today, more than eighty years after the repeal of prohibition, the idea of the g
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