PDF version of this essay: InDefenseOfMonarchy
The distinguishing characteristic of primitive peoples, according to Emile Durkheim, is the strength and rigidity of the conscience collective, the moral consensus of the community. This collective consciousness is above and distinct from the consciousness of each individual member of the community, and it possesses an authoritative character by its connection to the social order. The primitive man experiences the will of society as the will of a higher being, who he imagines to be God. Justice in such societies is retributive; it expresses the community’s outrage over the violation of its norms. For an atheist liberal, Professor Durkheim was quite perceptive.
It is quite true that the purpose of the state—any state, not just a primitive one—is to embody the conscience collective. This is only to repeat Cicero’s observation that a republic is distinguished from lesser forms of association by possessing a shared conception of justice. A strong conscience collective can obviously be a powerful force for encouraging just behavior and discouraging unjust behavior. However, the purpose of collective morality is not just to promote individual morality: public laws and standards have a positive moral value in themselves. For example, suppose there were two cities in which the citizens were so peaceful that no murders ever took place in either one. Now suppose that murder is prohibited by law in one polity but not the other. The society which prohibits murder would be morally superior to the society which doesn’t. In both cities, each individual respects his neighbor’s right to live, but only one citizenry collectively recognizes these rights. In the other city, each individual may be morally upstanding, but their society is still morally deficient. The opposite situation is more common: laws may have positive moral value even when they can’t be effectively enforced.
The function of government is to symbolize justice—to represent the community’s moral consensus to itself—and to execute justice by punishing the wicked. Of these two functions, it is government’s symbolic role which is the more important. It is the ability to symbolize justice that gives the state its authority over its subjects. This is the meaning of the scholastic doctrine that government derives its authority from being “established”. The very fact that, through whatever series of historical accidents, a people has come to see a governing body as the representative of justice suffices to give that body real moral authority. The source of the state’s authority is in the minds of its subjects. It is, however, in their intellects, not in their wills. The state’s authority has nothing to do with anybody’s consent; a man might wish he didn’t have to obey his government while still recognizing its legitimacy. Moreover, we should not think that a people first exists and then decides on a principle of legitimacy (a constitution). It is such a principle which makes a people to be one people and not a mere aggregate. So, for example, there is a French people, but there is no united “Caucasian people” or “people of western Illinois”. Caucasians are found among many people, and western Illinoisans recognize no authority which is not also recognized by eastern Illinoisans. Also, it’s not true that Americans created their principle of legitimacy at the Constitutional Convention. The procedural rules which we call the U.S. “Constitution” draw their authority from America’s prior sense of legitimacy. The “Constitution” had to be ratified by the thirteen states, whose authority was taken as given, and the delegates of the Convention never imagined questioning that the United States comprised these and (at the time) only these states.