Locke Should Be Read Before Arguing About Government

As the next U.S. presidential election cycle gears up, the country has begun a conversation once again over the role of government in people’s lives. ‘Conversation’ is perhaps an overly polite term and implies informed talkers. In reality though, I’d like to make everyone take some time out to read at least the first couple of chapters of this book.

Most of the debate seems to center around expediency for anyone involved, and it seems that people are not really thinking hard about this. Locke didn’t have television, facebook, or twitter, so I guess he had more time. Maybe if people really took time to think about things we’d not be locked into slogan shouting and could make some real progress.

The first two chapters of “An Essay Concerning the True Original Extent and End of Civil Government” talk about where political power comes from and why we have government. Locke starts from the very beginning going back to the idea of the beginning of time to talk about Adam and about mankind existing in a state of nature.

What he is trying to get at is where does government come from and what does it mean.

“Political power, then, I take to be a right of making laws, with penalties of death,  and consequently all less penalties for the regulating and force of the community in the execution of such laws, and in the defense of the commonwealth from foreign injury, and all this only for the public good.”

“To understand political power aright, and derive it from its original, we must consider what estate all men are naturally in, and that is, a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and person as they think fit within the bounds of the law of Nature, without asking leave or depending upon the will of any other man.”

Locke is trying to put the pieces together to say even though people should be able to regulate themselves, once we get enough people together, then there needs to be some kind of government to help insure that freedom to live as each person sees fit. The civil government exists to resolve disputes so that things do not always go to the most powerful and so that judgements can be rendered in an objective way.

“But thought this be a state of liberty, yet it is not a state of license; though man in that state have an uncontrollable liberty to dispose of his person or possession, yet he has not liberty to destroy himself, or so much as any creature in his possession, but where some nobler use than its bare preservation calls for it.”

There are some absolutists who would take issue even with this kind of restriction, but Locke argues that we have a duty to preserve ourselves and to not invade others rights. So what we do, or as Locke says, what God has done,  is create civil governments to “restrain the partiality and violence of men.”

This government is not, as some have argued based on a monopoly of violence on the part of the government, but rather, to use Locke’s words an “agreeing together mutually to enter into one community, and make one body politic; other promised and compact men may make one with another, and yet still be in the state of Nature.”

One of the things that sometimes gets lost in the U.S. political conversation is that starting premise. The many sides seem to view one another as enemies, and increasingly forget that the nation was born out of people agreeing to come together in one community, one body politic. We may disagree on what the best path forward is, but I think we need to remember we all agreed on a good starting point.

 

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