Hong Kong riot police stand guard inside the city's Causeway Bay subway station on September 15, 2019. Photo: Isaac Lawrence / AFP

Protests continue in Hong Kong even though the extradition bill that sparked them has been withdrawn. It remains to be seen when normalcy will return. Whatever the goal of the protests, the deeper problem affecting Hong Kong, and much of the world, is a battle between two strongly divergent viewpoints, one that sees government power as legitimate simply because the government has the power, and the other that views government power as legitimate only when it is exercised with the consent of the governed. It is not a question of democracy, since democracy can be as tyrannical toward a minority as any other form of government.

President Xi Jinping holds a simple, rational position: Hong Kong is part of China and those living in Hong Kong must submit to Chinese law. The consent of the people of Hong Kong is irrelevant. China wishes to enforce its law in a territory that it considers its own. The law may be repugnant to people who love liberty, but the Chinese government is socialist, and therefore liberty carries little or no weight.

In the United States, at least as founded, the situation is different: Consent of the governed is a fundamental regulative principle. Indeed, for Abraham Lincoln, this principle was the main support of the republic. In 1854, he stated, “What I do say is, that no man is good enough to govern another man, without that other’s consent. I say this is the leading principle – the sheet anchor of American republicanism.” For Lincoln, those who reject that principle, as do many of the politicians of today, and those of the Confederacy in his day, violate the guiding principle of the nation.

In the same speech, Lincoln stated, “When the white man governs himself, that is self-government; but when he governs himself and also governs another man, that is more than self-government – that is Despotism.” Put simply, slavery was wrong because it did not have the consent of the governed (the slaves). There had to be a reason that slavery was politically wrong, and that reason had to be intrinsic to the American system.

Lincoln was not in the slightest overstating his case. He cited the Declaration of Independence, in which Thomas Jefferson wrote that to secure the rights endowed to us by our Creator, “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” As understood by the American Founders, the legitimacy of government power rests on the consent of the governed. This does not mean that each individual must consent to each act of the government, but that the government, with or without majority support, must not impose its will in a significant way on a group without its consent (except in extreme circumstances such as war).

In his “Second Treatise of Government,” John Locke stated, “Men being, as has been said, by nature, all free, equal and independent, no one can be put out of this estate, and subjected to the political power of another, without his own consent.” In 1689, this was a radical principle, and it was later adopted by the fledgling American republic. It was not adopted by the French or Russian revolutions. Their legitimacy lay in terror, a regression to man’s most primitive instincts; indeed, naked power is the essence of government under monarchs, military dictators, theological oligarchies, and socialists. How else could such governments retain power when they ignore the consent of the governed?

Locke, Jefferson and Lincoln grounded the principle of consent in God. As Locke put it, man is the “workmanship of one omnipotent, and infinitely wise maker.” They saw man as having dignity bestowed on him by his Creator. Was the principle in part theological? Yes, it understood God as, in Locke’s words, desiring man to be free from the harm of government “in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.”

Consent is a regulative principle in that it does not specify this or that law, but rather governs the way in which we see law, and the relationship of citizens to the law. Consent is not an economic principle. Socialism has produced great economic, industrial and scientific benefits. Today we see the miracle of China during the last 30 years in all of these domains; in the first half of the 20th century we witnessed the accomplishments of socialism in the Soviet Union under the Communists and, before World War II, in Germany under the National Socialists. Both views of government, with or without consent, can succeed or fail economically.

The criticism that successful socialism requires the suppression of free speech and the imprisoning of dissidents is irrelevant. These qualities are inherent to the system and contribute to its success. How many millions wept upon the death of Josef Stalin? He was loved, not because he had failed, but because he had succeeded. If China surpasses the United States in engineering, it will do because it understands its system and maximizes its output within that system – a standard engineering optimization method.

The protesters in Hong Kong are not merely demonstrating against some specific laws. They do not consent to a law imposed upon them, but the Chinese system does not recognize a need to have the consent of the governed. Hence their protest only makes sense from the perspective that they are attacking the very foundations upon which the government rests. This is not an act within the political system; rather, it is a revolutionary demand – now, as it was in 1776. Demanding that the general secretary of the Communist Party require their consent is no different than for Locke or Jefferson to make the same demand of the English king. In this regard, socialism and monarchy differ very little, if at all.

Having said this, were the protesters in Hong Kong to frame their position in terms of the principle of consent, it appears that there would still remain a significant difference between them and Locke, Jefferson and Lincoln. The latter three had metaphysical ground for the principle: for them, man being the workmanship of God. The political principle flowed from a universal beyond the political. From what universal does it flow today, be we citizens of Hong Kong, London, Washington or Paris?

Edward R Dougherty

Edward Dougherty is distinguished professor of engineering at Texas A&M University.

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