Locke: Freedom Isn’t Ignorant

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.

Locke and Responsible Citizenship

In reading Locke some ideas have come back to the front of mind that I want to talk about here briefly, perhaps with more to come in the discussion about Locke’s essay.

In political discourse today, we sometimes here assertions such as “all taxation is theft” or “all government is based on violence.” Locke’s essay talks about why and how people form governments: the primary reason is to solve disputes in an impartial way and to help ensure everyone’s freedom. In “An Essay Concerning the True Original Extent and End of Civil Government,” Locke writes about how people can exist in a state of nature and then form governments as a way of managing affairs among a larger number of people. The government, then grows out of the desire of people to have a society that uses reason to extend beyond the state of nature.

So, when someone says that all government is based on violence, it means that they do not have an understanding of what government is or what it is supposed to do. Similarly, to say all taxation is theft on the part of the government is to assert that the government is some kind of other entity.

In a representative democracy, however, the government is us. We are the ones that are doing the taxing and spending the taxes. Reasonable people can disagree about the best way to do that, and mistakes will be made, but to assert that all taxes are theft implies that the speaker is too lazy to be involved in the government at even the most superficial level to make sure that the money they contribute is spent correctly. Alternately, making the assertion that all taxes are theft could simply be a reflection that the speaker is a freeloader who wants all of the benefits of living in our society, but doesn’t want to pay their fair share. It is the person who goes out to dinner with the group, orders the expensive meal and then disappears before the check shows up.

As for government being based on violence, again this is an assertion of the lazy. Government is based on the agreement that everyone needs to play by the same set of rules to keep society going. It is not important that the policeman has the gun; it is important that the policeman has a set of laws that everyone has agreed to in order to keep the society running. While any individual can say that they did not write or create a particular law, that is a cop out for the self-indulgent. A person, particularly one living in the United States, has the ability to work to change the laws or, if that fails, to leave. But either do one or the other.

Don’t sit around whining about how the government is bad. We are the government, and we get what we put into it. We live in an age where outrage and extreme views are attention getting. We live in an age where everyone has a broadcast platform, thanks to the Internet. Sadly, there are not enough editors and reasonable readers to challenge the extremism. While we all seem to have a good sense of our rights, no one wants the responsibilities that come with them. Yes we have the right to free speech, for example, but we also have the responsibility to speak up when we think things are going wrong.

Government is an agreement that we all make. If there are problems with the government, then it is because we are shirking our responsibility to make sure it runs well.

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.