Imagine that we are back in the early stages of humanity. Bob is a member of a tribe that lived back then, hunting wild animals and gathering food to live.
His tribe’s current leader is a big, burly guy who acts as chieftain. This chieftain is not a very nice guy. He got those scars on his face from systematically killing all the other vaguely intelligent, physically strong young men since the tender age of 15. Now, Bob wonders, who in the world gave this guy the position of chieftain? Why in the world is this ruthless asshole making decisions for everyone? How does he have the right to do this?
Who should be the leader?
Now, Bob, first of all the chieftain has something called sovereignty. In a nutshell, sovereignty is the right of someone to rule – that’s why a ruler is called a sovereign. Because the tribe believes in the chieftain, and the chieftain’s orders are followed, the chieftain has sovereignty. This concept of sovereignty is very important as it gives rulers – and in the present day, governments – the justification for their place as leaders of society.
Yet, Bob is asking a very important question. Who should have sovereignty? Or perhaps, more significantly, how does society decide who should have sovereignty?
In a tribal society like Bob’s, the chieftain got his position perhaps only because he was physically stronger than all the other contenders for power. Or perhaps he was the most clever – some tribes have old, wise men as their chieftain. Or maybe he was the most valuable, like how the medicine man is also sometimes in charge. And basically, the chieftain is the only one who calls all the shots.
This is called autocracy. Autocracy comes from the Greek root words “autos” (meaning self) and “kratos” (meaning power/strength). As you can probably guess, it means a political system where power is concentrated in the hands of a single individual – and this individual can basically do whatever he wants. Although you can also probably guess how this can go horribly wrong, human beings love autocracy. After the tribal chieftains, there have been kings, emperors, dictators and all sorts of rulers who fall into the category of the autocrat – and there are still autocracies in today’s world. Kind of a bad habit that human beings don’t seem to be able to break.
What does this have to do with sovereignty? The problem comes when people like Bob begin to ask questions about the legitimacy of a particular autocrat – in other words, challenging his right to rule and his sovereignty. And in human history, there have been many people like Bob. Sometimes, they say, the strongest warrior or the cleverest voodoo priest aren’t necessarily the best leaders. Or how about monarchies? Kings and queens (and like pharaohs) have sovereignty because of their divine right to rule – the notion that God chose them to be the leaders of society. As kings and queens go wrong and make bad decisions, people begin to lose faith in that system, and they start thinking about different and better ways to choose their leaders.
And here is where we have to look to the other end of the spectrum, the very opposite of autocracy – the cocnept of democracy.
Fast forward hundreds of years and you get the boisterous Roman and Greek empires, which lasted from 800 BC to approximately 400 AD. During the tribal stage people were too busy spearing each other or hunting animals that there wasn’t really much time to sit down and think about life. In the Greco-Roman empires, people were a little better off (or as they say, civilized), and clever old men were beginning to write poetry and long essays about philosophy and science. And that’s about when they carefully thought about it and decided that autocracy was fishy idea.
As opposed to autocracy, “demos” means people in Greek, and the word refers to a system of government based on people’s choice – where people as a collective whole decide who their leaders should be and what kind of policies should be implemented. Hopefully, they thought, this would be better than autocracy, where the single individual holding power might be some crazy paranoid guy who decides to start killing everyone who looks like a threat to his power (which has happened numerous times throughout history). As such, the Romans had the system of consuls and the Senate, where the 2 top officials of the country (essentially the President or Prime Minister in modern times) were elected by the people, and advised by the Senate, a group of respected and intelligent citizens. The idea of votes and elections and people being able to speak out about policy is a very democratic thing, and is still the way by which people choose their leaders in the modern world.
It was not a perfect system. Ancient Rome also had its own share of nasty conflicts and civil wars, and there’s the whole story of a guy named Julius Caesar, who tried to take over as the sole ruler of Rome (and thus an autocrat), succeeded for a while, and was dramatically assassinated by another man named Brutus. As a result he became very famous and had a play written about him – you can read up about all these if you want to.
The point is, much of history is about the conflict between autocracy and democracy, two very different political systems. But if autocracy is such a bad thing, why is it that human beings always seem to return to it?
It’s important to note that autocracy, as an idea, is not an inherently bad thing. It’s only bad because of how bad human beings can be. In fact there are probably some clear advantages to autocracy as well, given that the autocrat is a genuinely nice person. One of these advantages is speed and efficiency in decision-making. In a democracy, leaders have to waste time on all sorts of things like asking people whether they’re doing the right thing and organising elections and referendums. An autocrat can just make decisions without asking anyone anything at all. Maybe autocracy in a country isn’t the best of ideas, but the political system exists in other situations – a company, for example. Or the military.
CEOs and military commanders don’t stop to ask the people under them about what they think should be the right decision for their organisation to make. And that’s probably a good thing. In a company, things can keep moving in a fast-paced economy. In an army, it doesn’t really make sense for soldiers to vote on where they should next attack. Similarly, in a country which might be in the rare situation of having a dire need for decisive leadership and is lucky enough to have a benevolent autocrat, autocracy might be quite a good move. There are other benefits too. What if, in a democracy, one government starts a long term economic plan, but is voted out? The next government might just come in and throw everything away – and that’s bad for the country too. An autocrat would have no such problem.
Of course, these ideal circumstances are not the case most of the time. The problems of autocracy is the obvious problem of abusive, power-hungry rulers who seek to consolidate power, and lead to terrible, nightmarish societies (think Hitler, Stalin, so on). Or even if they’re not abusive or power-hungry, they’re basically just individuals – and individuals don’t always make the best political decisions. Having the views of the masses weighing in, governments become less likely to exploit their people and become more likely to make good policies, and that’s good for everyone. For most countries in the world right now, this seems to be the ideal path, and democracy is generally accepted to be a more reasonable system compared to autocracy.
And this brings us back to the concept of sovereignty. No matter the benefits and harms of either system, it still just sounds more reasonable to have a leader that people choose, rather than a leader that seems to have been arbitrarily put into position – because he was born into a particular family (kings and queens), for example. People believe in what they choose, or at least that’s what’s ideally supposed to happen, and when they believe in their leader, or have good reasons to, that creates a more civilised and stable society.