We Are Not the People

"We The People."

Such are the first three words to the preamble of the United States Constitution, and possibly the three most influential and powerful words in the American political lexicon.

Those three words defined a new world, a world in which the entire people, and not merely a single monarch, would be sovereign over the nation. Those three words described how that nation would be different from all other nation-states and empires that had come before it. The whole of the people shall be sovereign. The government shall be responsible to them. The nation shall belong to them, and they shall be the masters. The government exists to serve "the people," and not command them.

It was a powerful idea, and I suspect had it not found itself articulated in both the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution, the idea would have been expressed somewhere else. (Some version of it would still have torn France apart in the 1780s and 1790s.) It has moved men to take to the streets, to rebel, to topple governments, behead monarchs, demand parliaments, and expel colonizers. Even more than its sometime twin democracy, some version of popular sovereignty — "We the People" — has animated most revolutionary political movements of the 19th and 20th century. In fact, more than electoral democracy itself, popular sovereignty may eventually become America’s great ideological legacy to the world.

Which is truly a pity. Because it’s an illusion. Worse than that, it’s a bright shining lie — one of the most dangerous and destructive lies of the last 250 years. It is simply impossible for "the people" to be meaningfully sovereign over anything.

Allow me to illustrate. Suppose for a moment I own a single share of international oil giant ExxonMobil (which settled at $63.98 Tuesday afternoon). There are roughly 6 billion shares of ExMob outstanding, for a total market capitalization of $387 billion. I don’t own ExxonMobil shares — I don’t own any shares in anything right now, actually — but let’s say that I do.

What exactly do I own? Do I own a one-six-billionth piece of ExMob? That would be one way to look at it, that I own one very tiny piece, a miniscule fraction of a great big company. Put together enough of those tiny pieces, make a big enough piece, and I could conceivably control the company. But I also own a share, a share which itself represents that fraction of the company but is also complete and whole in and of itself. It may seem both obvious and a foolish matter of semantics when I say the best way to look at it is that I own one share of ExMob, and not a one-six-billionth fraction of it. And I don’t really own a piece of the company, I own a share in the company. They are not quite the same thing. I cannot point to property ExMob owns, find my square inch or two of tank farm on the Texas Gulf coast or some shiny pipeline joint at one of the Qatar natural gas projects, point to it, and say "that’s mine." It doesn’t work that way.

In fact, if I try to walk on to ExMob property without being invited, I will likely be invited to leave. Or manhandled and tossed off. Or even arrested. Protestations of "But I’m a shareholder!" notwithstanding.

How, then, does it work? The only thing that is mine is the piece of paper, the stock certificate, the actual share itself. Owning the share entitles me to a portion of the profits, if there are any and if the share contract stipulates payment of a dividend. Past that, I can hold the share, bury it in a jar in the backyard, set it on fire, make a kite out of it — whatever. Most importantly, I can sell it if ExMob someday offends my sensibilities (or I need the cash). I can buy more if I like ExMob or if, someday, I feel rich enough to try and gain a controlling share of the company. Unless ExMob shares are part of my employer-provided pension fund or some kind of trust fund, I’m not required, not forced, to own any shares whatsoever in the company.

So, what does this have to do with popular sovereignty? How do these things even compare? Looking back at those 6 billion ExxonMobil shares, let us suppose every man, woman and child on earth owned a single share, and no one owned more than anyone else. All are equal. No one can sell their shares, no one can buy another share. Were this the case, could you realistically say that anyone effectively owned ExMob? Would a share that could be neither bought nor sold truly be of any value? And could you really describe ExxonMobil, the company itself (as opposed to its assets), as private property in any real sense?

Absent effective ownership, who then gets to decide what strategies ExxonMobil as a company pursues? Who gets access to company property? The managers hired by enough of the shareholders. And in a world in which 6 billion people each owned a share, I can see great campaigns on the part of aspiring ExMob managers, promising bigger dividends and whatnot, to get as many of the 6 billion shareholders to vote them into office. Consider — each of those managers owns a single share, no more and no less than the rest of us, but they get to walk on the grass, turn the valves, flip the switches, park in the parking spots, fly in company planes and work in company offices. More important, they get to tell us — the owners — what products will be available, where, when, and how much they cost.

So, who’s really in charge? The owners? Or the managers they hire?

There are some significant differences between publicly traded companies and nation states (though the power of managers is very similar), there are two very important distinctions. First, no business or corporation can compel anyone to do anything without first having secured the approval or assistance of the state. Secondly, no one can be forced to own any portion of a company or have their ownership rights restricted in any way. But what I have just described in my absurd little example is, I believe, the essential problem of popular sovereignty. (And it is very much the same problem as that of socialist property.) "We," who each own an equal and inalienable share of the United States of America, cannot "rule ourselves." It may be possible for 30 people to "rule themselves," but it is impossible for 3 million to do so and utterly impossible for 300 million. So, we write a constitution that defines "ruling ourselves" as the process of hiring people "from time to time" to do the job "in our name." Each of us, as American citizens, allegedly "owns" (or has a "stake" in) a one-three-hundred-millionth bit of America, but like the fictitious ExxonMobil share owners I describe above, none of us can point to our square inch of the National Mall, or our acre of BLM land in Nevada, or our US Army Apache attack helicopter, or our file cabinet in the Department of Commerce’s cavernous Hoover Building. None of us can effectively exercise that "sovereignty" which we supposedly inherit from the Constitution.

The reality is that the hired managers — elected officials and civil servants — gain all the power and authority of ownership without any of the concomitant risk or responsibility of ownership. We "hire" them, and then they boss us around. (I’m trying to remember when exactly it was I signed up for this deal…)

Don’t think so? Try walking onto "government" property some day without permission to enter. Try using government resources without being on the payroll. You will be invited to leave. Or manhandled and tossed off. Or even arrested. Protestations of "I’m a taxpayer and a citizen!" notwithstanding.

Moreover, citizenship — the right to participate in politics — cannot be legally bought, sold, bartered or traded. (Someone who is taxed more than I am ought to have more citizenship than I do, since that person pays for more government than I do.) At least I can sell my ExxonMobil share and incur no further obligations to the company and make no more legal demands of it. But renouncing one’s citizenship does no good. The police can still clap you in irons and the taxman will still demand his share as well. And in this era of nation states, how do you travel abroad without a passport?

Popular sovereignty, when combined with electoral democracy, has created a very powerful and addictive illusion — the illusion that the people can rule, can rule themselves collectively. The reality is that the many are ruled by the few in almost every place and at almost every time throughout human history. And that is just as true of America today as it is any other place and at any other time.

We live, however, in a world of popular sovereignty, a world in which peoples — allegedly represented by elected branches of government, or one-true parties, or by chosen races or by cresting waves of history — believe they can and should rule themselves (and others as well). It’s a mystical doctrine, as strange and ineffable as the Holy Trinity, kept afloat solely by faith while the tide of evidence and experience tries hard to pull it under (popular sovereignty, that is, an not Trinity). As I’ve said before, I don’t have any problem with mystical doctrines. They just make a really awful basis for governing, for sticking guns in people’s faces and telling them "you must or else."

I see no sign, however, that faith in popular sovereignty will disappear from the face of the earth or the mind of man anytime soon. No one wants to believe they are ruled, even as they willingly submit to their "leaders" and explain how wonderful they are. Those who fight unjust governments or wicked rulers all too often do so in the name of that same abstract and ineffable "people." So unfortunately, we are not done with this miserable and destructive idea yet.

Charles H. Featherstone [send him mail] is a seminarian and freelance editor living in Chicago. Visit his blog.