We often heard that “freedom isn’t free,” usually applied to some notion of military service. In his essay “Concerning the True Original Extent and End of Civil Government, John Locke argues that freedom is not ignorant either. In other words, freedom is only available to people who have the ability to manage their affairs.
He explains this by answering the question of how children can be both born free and subject to the control of their parents.
“We were born free as we are born rational; not that we have actually the exercise of either: age that brings one, brings with it the other too.”
Through this section of the essay, Locke is primarily focuses on parental power, and distinguishes it from political power. But he takes time to talk about freedom in general. One of the interesting passages concerns whether or not freedom and laws are able to coexist. Today’s political debate often rages around whether or not laws and government are good or bad. For Locke, there is a way to tell.
“For law, in its true notion, is not so much the limitation as the direction of a free and intelligent agent to his proper interest, and prescribes no farther than is for the general good of those under that law. Could they be happier without it, the law, as a useless thing, would of itself vanish; and that ill deserves the name of confinement which hedges us in only from bogs and precipices. So that however it may be mistaken, the end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom. For in all the states of created beings, capable of laws, where there is no law, there is no freedom. For liberty is to be free from restraint and violence from others, which cannot be where there is no law; and is not, as we are told, ‘a liberty for every man to do what he lists.’”
Locke says laws should help free and intelligent people – he requires that the people be intelligent, that they have some knowledge of how to manage their affairs and be mentally sound. We have seen laws attacked for being too restrictive or against freedom with an underlying argument that people should be allowed to do things that are bad for themselves – and even sometimes others. I have seen libertarians make an argument that drivers’ licenses are a bad idea. Yet, I think Locke would argue that licenses based on training people to do things better and more safely are those that direct people towards their proper interest. The less extreme debate is whether or not there ought to be training and licensing for gun ownership. Recent changes by the U.S. Congress say that even being mentally sound is not required, but I think Locke would disagree.
Locke wrote after serfdom, but before the rise of the corporation. I wonder what he would think the limitations on businesses should be in our modern context?
Laws can preserve and enlarge freedom by protecting us from “the violence of others” as Locke writes, but we need to understand that phrase in a modern sense. Does contaminating our water and food, threatening our financial stability, or taking away our access to information constitute violence? Perhaps it doesn’t in a physical sense, but an argument can be made that laws should free us from needing to test our water every time we want a drink.
All of this points to need for us to intelligent enough and to possess enough understanding to look after our own interests. Once we can do that, then, as Locke says, the unnecessary laws will vanish.