Will Inequality Lead to Illegitimacy?

American politicians are fond of quoting the Declaration of Independence. Equality, unalienable rights, life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness—you know the drill.

But the line right after the famous one, while less quoted, is no less important: “To secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” 

That claim, like the one about all men being created equal, seems obvious to most Americans today. Even the world’s worst despots generally try to couch their regimes in language about popular support. But it wasn’t always obvious. Even during John Locke’s lifetime, modern Europeans—having already largely abandoned the idea of divine right—still had to balance the interests of “the people” writ large against those of both the aristocracy and the king.

But small-d democracy has marched on. In the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that the “great democratic revolution” was “irresistible”:

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