Who is “the people?”
We hear the term thrown around a lot in political discussions.
“It’s the will of the people.”
“The people have spoken.”
“We the people…”
In a recent piece in the American Spectator titled Secession Is for Morons, actor and former Nixon/Ford speechwriter Ben Stein reveals the deep flaws in this nebulous concept of “the people,” especially when it comes to one group imposing its will on others through government action.
In his article, Stein sets off to prove secession is a “silly idea,” and drives home his point recounting the history of southern secession and the ensuing Civil War.
“But the will of the people is that we stay together as a union. And it was that will, greatly compounded by the wish of many to end slavery, that led to the bloodiest war in U.S. history: the war between the states or, as it’s better known, The Civil War. More than 600,000 men died to keep the union together and to free the slaves.”
Tom Woods does a fantastic job in episode 796 of his podcast highlighting the moral bankruptcy in asserting the “will of the people” justified the deaths of 600,000 souls, and explaining that the war itself had little to do with slavery. But I take issue with Stein on an even more fundamental level.
Stein asserts it was the “will of the people” that America stay together as a union. But clearly that wasn’t the will of the people in South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Florida, Arkansas, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia. They expressed their will for disunion in the act of secession.
Now, you might be able to make the case that maintaining the union was the will of the majority of people in the whole United States. But why does the will of “the people” of the whole United States supersede the will of “the people” of South Carolina? Or Virginia? Or the Confederate States as a whole? Is it sheer numbers of people? If so, does that mean the will of “the people” of the world supersede the will of “the people” of the United States?*
Stein talks about “the will of the people” as justification for a war to maintain the Union, but even if you only consider “the people” living in the North, support for the war was not universal. By the same token, there were pockets of unionism in the South. Clearly, the “will of the people” didn’t exist in any meaningful, universal sense anyplace during the Civil War.
And it doesn’t exist today.
A group can’t possesses a will. Only individuals have a will. Those who assert the “will of the people” really mean the will of the majority within whatever arbitrarily contrived grouping they cobble together to suit their purposes.
Stein’s comment unveils a truth. This concept of “the people” is nothing more than a political construct. Those in power, and vying for power, use the “will of the people” to wrap their actions in moral legitimacy. But does the existence of a majority consensus within an artificially constructed group really provide any kind of moral authority?
When I was a kid, I often appealed to such popular will to justify my actions.
“But mom! Everybody’s doing it!
Without fail, she would reply, “If everybody was jumping off a cliff, would you do it?”
Those immersed in the political process seem to have forgotten the lesson my mother sought to teach. The existence of a majority opinion doesn’t make it morally or ethically right. It merely makes it popular.
* Some assert the American constitutional system vests political sovereignty in the people of the United States as a whole, superseding the will of the people of any individual state. Even if you accept the concept of political society generally, this is a bastardization of the constitutional system. You can read about that HERE.
Originally published at GodArchy.org