For forms of government let fools contest;
Whate’er is best administered is best.
-Alexander Pope, “An Essay on Man”
The Mandate of Heaven: Competence as the Basis for Legitimate Government
The ancient Chinese concept of the “Mandate of Heaven” is rather simple. The legitimacy of a rule is determined by the competence of the ruler. Thus, a ruler’s right to rule is justified by his performance, by his ability to exercise efficacious power to order the commonwealth and maintain functional institutions and civic ordinances. Therefore, legitimacy is derived from the ruler’s ability to govern well and competently. It is very close to a “might is right” theory in the fact that they make right a function of positive empirical facts, e.g. actual empirically discernible order and working institutions. However, it is not a “might is right” theory in that it is not sheer ability to terrorise and coerce obedience by force which gives ruler the right but also the ability to maintain functioning social institutions and bring about actual civic order. It would be more accurate to describe this as a “competence is right” theory.
Therefore, for the Chinese, questions of “forms” of government, hereditary right, aristocratic background, democratic elections, etc, are not as important as the ruler’s competence and ability to efficiently and efficaciously govern the country. China has even been ruled by “foreign barbarians” like the Mongols and the Manchurians! (They are not the ethnic Han Chinese) It is for this reason that natural disasters, collapsing social order and times of extreme poverty have been taken as signs that the ruler is losing the Mandate of Heaven as these diminishes the ruler’s ability to rule efficaciously or maintain functioning civic ordinances. Once the ruler’s hold over the country weakens, then the Mandate of Heaven will simply pass over to someone who is powerful and competent enough to overturn the incompetence ruler and restore civic order.
The Western Attempt to Secure Legitimacy by Humanly Constructed Political Systems
It is important to note however that in the “Mandate of Heaven” conception, there is proposed no humanly actionable or humanly enactable system or process for the deposition or election of rulers. It is more of an epistemic test rather than a political procedure. You can tell who has received the Mandate of Heaven and is the legitimate ruler based on who as a matter of fact has acquired effective power to rule and govern well. This is merely an epistemic test, but it says nothing about what you can do to so secure this ruler.
As a good way to distinguish between the Mandate of Heaven and Western conceptions, we can compare it with the Western notion of the Divine Right of Kings. The Divine Right of King actually has a humanly actionable form and determinable process for selecting and rejecting rulers. Legitimate rulers are to be chosen on the basis of their ability to trace their royal pedigree; this is an actionable selection process within our control.
Thus, whether it is a democracy, a republic, or a monarchy, the Western political ideal is that good governance can be secured by political activity or humanly actionable procedures and systems. They may differ as to what that political activity or procedure is, but the fundamental premise remains the same: that there exists a humanly actionable procedure, process or system which is within our power to set up for securing good government.
The Failure of Political Activity
Naturally, especially in this time and age, we are starting to recognise that our humanly constructed procedures for selecting rulers are human, all too human, systems, and are fallible and liable to malfunction, either because it is rigged or because of its own inherent flaws and contradictions. This is why advocacy of political ideals are often accompanied by what I shall call “romantic” justifications.
Political legitimacy under this scheme shifts the basis of legitimate government from competence and empirically determinable flourishing and order, to romantic ideals of “the will of the People”, etc. The point is no longer what’s good or what’s best, the point is collective self-assertion and self-will, even if that collective self-will leads to its own destruction and failure. It is the romantic “better to own your own life and will, even if that leads to your own doom, rather than to surrender it to another even if you can be happy and well-fed.”
Romantic justifications like these are ideological props to continue maintaining the status quo. In the face of many contemporary Western democracies’s malfunction and incompetence, their rule continues to be justified on the basis of these romantic ideals. So what if he is an utter failure and the country is going bankrupt or social order is collapsing? He’s still the ruler because we elected him, and there is an inherent value in that election whether or not he can actually rule properly.
Needless to say, I think history has ample evidence that our human attempts to create a system to secure good governments have been a spectacular failure. Liberal Democracy, the vaunted “End of History” and political paradise for securing lasting peace, prosperity and happiness, has exploded as a mere myth in our time. It is not only collapsing in may parts of the world, but it is also malfunctioning badly in parts where it was once so successful.
Conclusion: Good Government a Matter of Luck or God’s Grace
While many are going back to the drawing board to in desperation to formulate better theories or ideals for us to secure our civic health via actionable human systems, my conclusion is much more bleak. There is no such ideal political form or system or procedure or process. Good governance is really and literally a matter of luck, a gift which we just happen to enjoy, something which is beyond our power to secure and which we simply receive as a matter of God’s grace.
The Mandate of Heaven is therefore inherently anti-political. It is sceptical about political activity towards securing good governance. Occasionally a country is gifted with man, or groups of man, of wisdom, virtue and competence who rises to power and enact peace and prosperity in the land. Yet also all too sadly, it happens that no one competent or wise or virtuous enough rises to power and the land suffers from years and decades of incompetent rule.
Yet this is also the understanding which gives full glory to God. It acknowledges in concrete empirical terms what it really means to say that good governance is a gift of God. It is not something which we can secure by our own cleverly devised systems or processes or effort. It just happens based on gifts of wisdom, competence and virtue which it has pleased God to grant to certain man or groups and whose path to power has been blessed and blazed by God. The Mandate of Heaven at its heart simply says that there is no real substitute for actual good government, and no humanly invented political system can replace actual governmental competence.
This is why older societies quite literally praised God for the appearance of rulers who can bring order in the land. They realise that civic order, peace and prosperity was a contingent matter which was not in their power to secure, and when a good King rises to the throne, they praised God for his gracious condescension and kindness for sending such a ruler. And with that, I leave you with the words of the translators to the 1611 King James Bible as a good example as to what our attitude should be towards good rulers:
Great and manifold were the blessings (most dread Sovereign) which Almighty GOD, the Father of all Mercies, bestowed upon us the people of ENGLAND, when first he sent your Majesty’s Royal person to rule and reign over us. For whereas it was the expectation of many, who wished not well unto our ZION, that upon the setting of that bright Occidental Star Queen ELIZABETH of most happy memory, some thick and palpable clouds of darkness would so have overshadowed this land, that men should have been in doubt which way they were to walk, and that it should hardly be known, who was to direct the unsettled State: the appearance of your MAJESTY, as of the Sun in his strength, instantly dispelled those supposed and surmised mists, and gave unto all that were well affected, exceeding cause of comfort; especially when we beheld the government established in your HIGHNESS, and your hopeful Seed, by an undoubted Title, and this also accompanied with Peace and tranquillity, at home and abroad.