Every government and every leader has some basis on which it claims the right to power. This is true whether the leader in question rules over a tiny village of a hundred people, or an empire that spans continents.
The principles discussed here aren’t mutually exclusive. Societies can and do draw on several of them at once, blending and overlapping the ideas. And these concepts are often left implicit, too — they don’t have to be overtly stated to exert their influence. But being aware of the various rationales can help a writer to determine what the government of their invented setting should feel like . . . and what effect that will have on the story.
Might Makes Right
This is probably the simplest form of authority. Do what I say, or I’ll hurt you. Early English kings were warlords; they spent quite a lot of time at war, because they had to constantly exert their power in order to keep it. Otherwise their underlings got uppity and thought they could be kings, too. But this model hasn’t gone away: military dictatorships rely on the same principle. And even in a democratic society, armies and police and such still play a role.
The might in question isn’t always open violence, though. Secret police are another kind of force, and simply the fear of being taken away can keep people in line. Wealth can also be a coercive force, buying people’s businesses out or ruining them financially if they get out of control. Anything that lets you threaten some kind of harm to the disobedient falls under this header.
Force-based rule is inherently precarious. If someone stronger comes along, or your own strength falters — whether physically or in terms of your control over the army — your rule can be over in the blink of an eye. And while sometimes you can tell where the challenger will come from, that isn’t always true . . . which means that a society where this type of rule prevails doesn’t have a lot of continuity or stability.
That’s the practical downside. The moral downside is that this encourages a lot of brutish behavior, and certain kinds of people — often women, children, the elderly, the infirm, ethnic outsiders, and other minorities — usually take the brunt of it. If the main source of respect is the ability to crush your enemies, the result will rarely be benevolent.
This principle is interesting because it requires the conceptual leap of power and position being a kind of property, and therefore the natural possession of one’s heirs. There are may different kinds of inheritance — those will get their own essay someday — but the general notion that rule passes down through a bloodline is the core of it.
A major benefit of heritable rule is that you can plan for the future. Barring situations where the leader either has no heir or refuses to select one, people know who will be in charge when the current ruler abdicates or dies. Coups are possible, yes . . . but the evidence of history says the overall stability of this model is pretty high, with some dynasties ruling for centuries or (in the case of Japan) over a millennium.
Of course, the downside is that leadership skill isn’t passed on genetically. An excellent ruler may have a cruel or idiotic heir. Sometimes you can get around this via legal means, disowning the usual heir and naming someone else in their place. Sometimes the answer is to build governmental structures around the heritable position that can help to mitigate the shortcomings of the actual ruler. (This is probably why the Japanese imperial house has endured for so long: for most of that time, real power rested in the hands of the shoguns, who went through all the usual changes of dynasty seen in other countries.)
And returning to the moral side, this model naturally elevates some people above others just by virtue of their birth. Last week I mentioned achieved versus ascribed status; inheritance relies on the latter to justify its existence. This can become a straitjacket, preventing society from gaining the benefits of a skilled person in charge simply because that person was born to the wrong family.
The Will of the People
This is both an ancient idea and a fairly new one. The largely egalitarian social structure of many hunter-gatherer groups falls under this header: someone achieves status through their skills, wisdom, or deeds, and people follow that person out of respect. If the leader loses their respect, they may drift away, and pretty soon he’ll be leading nobody at all.
It’s also the key concept behind democracy. We’ll do a deep dive into that form of government at some future point, but for now it will suffice to say that our modern ideas of democracy trace back to ancient Greece, and it’s spread through quite a bit of the world in the last two hundred and fifty years.
One thing to note about this model is that, in the absence of good communication — either via easy travel or communication technologies — this one doesn’t scale up very well. Try to imagine a country the size of the current United States electing its leader without the benefit of TV, radio, the internet, cars, airplanes, railroads, or even newspapers and telegraphs. It would take months to get the election results from California to Washington D.C. The Romans managed because the majority of their citizens with voting rights lived in or near Rome itself; if every random Marcus in the hinterlands could vote, I doubt that would have worked.
Especially on a large scale, rule by popular consent is also very dependent upon people agreeing to play by the same set of rules. Many modern attempts at democracies have foundered when someone refused to relinquish power and reverted to “might makes right” tactics. This approach also does not guarantee freedom, though we like to think that it does: a lot depends on whose consent is required to rule. When only a subset of the populace gets to have their voices heard, everybody else tends to get the short end of the stick.
And one more . . .
There’s another incredibly common model I haven’t touched on yet, because it’s got enough subsections within itself that it’s going to get its own essay. So tune in next week, when we’ll discuss sacred bloodlines, bonds with the land, the Mandate of Heaven, and other forms of divine right.