Whether a right of revolution exists, whether a revolution will happen, and whether it will be successful are three different questions. The first question is a normative or moral question; the second, an economic question (see Mancur Olson’s The Logic of Collective Action); the third one, both a normative question (what are the criteria of success?) and an economic question (how does the revolution develop?).

The answer to the normative question—is there a right of revolution?—depends on one’s moral philosophy, and many were developed since homo sapiens started thinking. A right of revolution exists if one adheres to a consistent individualist philosophy where all individuals have equal value and rights. More specifically, it exists in the individualist political philosophy (perhaps the zenithal one) that underlies the work of economists James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock, as presented in their 1962 classic The Calculus of Consent: Logical Foundations of Constitutional Democracy (see also my Econlib review).

An individual right of revolution follows from the primacy of the individual over the collective, which is not to say that waging a revolution is easy nor that it will necessarily be successful. The French Revolution, for example, was rather unsuccessful by any classical-liberal criterion, except perhaps in a long-term perspective. The right of revolution is a typical belief of modernity, which Buchanan and Tullock have pushed to its logical conclusion:

The individual may choose to reject the [social] “contract” entirely; he may revert to a “state of nature”—in this case a revolt against established social order. On ethical grounds the individual must always be granted the “right” to make such a choice, but, once he has done so, the remaining members of the group have no contractual obligation to consider the revolutionary to be subject to the protections of the “contract.” (p. 261)

In his appendix to the book (each of the two authors has one), Gordon Tullock points out one important, but often neglected, corollary:

The State should not have a monopoly of force. The oriental states were “too strong for society” and we should do everything in our power to avoid a similar situation. The State should have enough power to “keep the peace” but not enough to provide temptation to ambitious men. The State should never be given enough power to prevent genuinely popular uprisings against it. … In this, as in other aspects of our construction of the constitutional implications of a consistent individualistic philosophy, the shifts in the fraction of the population approving or disapproving certain changes are not of central importance. (p. 348)

The last sentence—which captures the gist of our authors’ philosophy—means that it is not morally “of central importance” whether it is one or 75 million individuals who revolt against the state because their rights have been trampled upon. (In my opinion, though, Tullock should have written “individualist” instead of “individualistic.”) See also James Buchanan’s 2006 book Why I, Too, Am Not a Conservative (and my review in the spring 2022 issue of Regulation). Whether or how such a state is possible appears to be a crucial question of political economy.

The Declaration of Independence.

Liberty Leading the People, La Liberté guidant le peuple, painting by Eugène Delacroix commemorating the July Revolution of 1830, which toppled King Charles X.