Where Power Lies

Urban riots in London over the past few days have led to wondering about their context and the fundamental nature of government and the governed.  Paul Campos from the excellent Lawyers, Guns, & Money blog I think isn’t explicit enough about the implications of the quotation of the 18th Century William Paley:

And although, when we suppose a vast empire in absolute subjection to one person, and that one depressed beneath the level of his species by infirmities, or vice, we suppose perhaps an extreme case: yet in all cases, even in the most popular forms of civil government, the physical strength resides in the governed. In what manner opinion thus prevails over strength, or how power, which naturally belongs to superior force, is maintained in opposition to it; in other words, by what motives the many are induced to submit to the few, becomes an inquiry which lies at the root of almost every political speculation. It removes, indeed, but does not resolve, the difficulty, to say that civil governments are now-a-days almost universally upholden by standing armies; for, the question still returns; How are these armies themselves kept in subjection, or made to obey the commands, and carry on the designs, of the prince or state which employs them?

Modern governments, assuming that they maintain control the military, retain physical strength over their populations. The end of Gangs of New York *spoiler alert* makes the violence capable of an industrial era government-directed military explicit */spoiler*. Everything then depends on the willingness of the armed forces to carry out the orders of the regime. Thompson’s 2001 piece “To Shoot or Not to Shoot” [jstor] comparing the 1989 experiences in China and Eastern Europe is an excellent if inconclusive treatment of this question.

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