“Of the best rulers,
The people only know that they exist;
The next best they love and praise
The next they fear;
And the next they revile.
When they do not command the people’s faith,
Some will lose faith in them,
And then they resort to oaths!
But of the best when their task is accomplished,
their work done,
The people all remark, 'We have done it ourselves.'”
Lao-Tzu (6th century B.C.), Chinese philosopher. The Wisdom of Laotse; chapter 17, edited and translated by Lin Yutang; 1948.
Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), Letter to Edmund Randolph, 1799; The Complete Writings of Thomas Jefferson; Memorial Edition, volume 10, page 126; 1904
When you are framing your arguments for a progressive future for the United States, it is vital that you do not assume that everyone understands the terms that you use in the exact same way that you do, or even have a similar starting point in the discussion.
For myself, I have always looked to Thomas Jefferson, and the Declaration of Independence, as two of my touchstones in political philosophy. Jefferson's statement in the Declaration that, “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed,” is the founding statement for my own view of the relationship between human beings and the state.
The state, which is also called a nation or country, is an artificial human construct that a group or groups of human beings and human communities use as a framework for mutual support and shared responsibility with one another. The relationship between these human beings has, in some manner, been formalized by written law, binding oath, tradition, or some combination of the three.
The formal relationship that exists between the individual, his family, and the larger community or state to which they belong, and its many diverse members, is called government.
All forms of government have two primary components: authority and power.
Of governmental authority there are two types: legitimate and illegitimate.
Legitimate authority results from adherence to the boundaries, written or customary, explicit or implicit, of the state and its government's underlying social contract with the People. This social contract may take the form of a constitution, a set of written laws and legal decisions that form the basis for a consistent legal framework, a system of customs and oral traditions, or some combination of these three forms. Adherence to these boundaries allows the People of a nation to believe in the general benevolence and rightness of their government, which further strengthens the social contract.
Illegitimate authority results when legitimate authority is overthrown, usurped, exceeded, or ignored; especially—though not solely—in those cases involving conquest, self-aggrandizement, self-enrichment, misappropriation of power (especially if the transgressors are socially or economically prominent), expediency, or some combination thereof, by an individual or group whose actions are contrary to law or tradition.
This contradicts Mao Zedong when he said (paraphrasing Trotsky) that all power comes from the barrel of a gun. If this were true, then all governments would arise from criminal or other immoral enterprises. Despite what some anarchists believe, all governments do not arise from these black origins.
Power—as well as authority, which defines the limitations of that power— comes from the belief of the people of a state in the existence of the government's power, and is directly proportional to the number of people who believe that power exists. For example, if tomorrow everyone in the United States woke up believing I was rightful king of the United States of America, then I would be the king of the United States—and abdicate immediately, no fool I.