Those advocating charity think that to play by the constitutional rules, we have to presume that those who hold office mean well and can, with help, do the right thing. The less charitable regard the president-elect as fundamentally corrupt, unfit or malicious. They furthermore think that this provides grounds for rejecting the soon-to-be president’s authority, for not acknowledging him as truly or properly holding the office.
There are good reasons to believe that both these attitudes are confused and mistaken. They conflate a president’s legitimate authority with his or her competence, virtue or justice. My research on David Hume’s political thought — derived from that great philosopher and historian’s reflections on hundreds of years of history — suggests that the whole point of a constitutional system is to ensure that questions of legitimate authority have essentially nothing to do with questions of competence, virtue or even justice.
This seems counterintuitive. But then, constitutional government is counterintuitive. It might seem more natural for people to come together and pick the leader who seems to be the best because he or she is smartest, strongest, wisest, most pious, related to previous leaders by blood or marriage, or some combination. But though this method seems to come naturally, both intuitively and historically, it is not good. Except in tiny societies, people won’t know the prospective leaders personally, and will have to rely on chancy reputation. More problematically, people are likely to disagree over who is the best leader, especially in diverse societies divided by religion, culture and ethnic identity. Indeed, these disagreements may easily lead to war between different factions, each with its own preferred leader or petty warlord.