Philosophy – Why Do We Have Governments? Locke Attempts to Give Us an Answer.

What is the purpose of government? Why do we even have it in the first place? Locke takes on answering these questions as his task in his “Concerning Civil Government, Second Essay.”

Locke is answering many of the questions that have come up in some of the modern political debates. Perhaps if more folks were to read Locke, then perhaps the discussion could start from a place where the first principles had at least been considered.

So, what is the purpose of a civil government? It is to take people out of a state of nature where everyone needs to shift for themselves to a state where they can live together. The purpose of government is to resolve disputes between people impartially and peaceably.

“Men being, as has been said, by nature all free, equal, and independent, no one can be put out of this estate and subjected to the political power of another without his own consent, which is done by agreeing with other men, to join and unite into a community for their comfortable, safe, and peaceable living, one amongst another, in secure enjoyment of their properties, and a greater security against any that are not of it.”

What’s more important is that governments are created because the people come together to create them voluntarily. But creating the government does come with responsibilities.

“And thus every man, by consenting with others to make one body politic under one government, puts himself under an obligation to everyone of that society to submit to the determination of the majority, and to be concluded by it; or else this original compact, whereby he with others incorporates into one society, would signify nothing, and be no compact if he be left free and under no other ties than he was in before in the state of Nature.”

People who benefit from the government have a responsibility to conduct themselves in accordance with the laws of that government. We have seen instances in the United States where people have tried to set themselves outside of the law, and even tried to use force or the threat of force to make their case. Locke would say that these people are essentially freeloaders who are taking advantage of the safety and benefits offered by a government without holding up their end of the bargain.

“And to this, I say that every man that has any possession or enjoyment of any part of the dominions of any government doth hereby give his tact consent, and is as far forth obliged to obedience to the laws of that government, during such enjoyment, as any one under it, whether this his possession be of land to him and his heirs for ever, or a lodging for only a week; or whether it  be barely traveling freely on the highway; and in effect it reaches as far as the very being of anyone within the territories of that government.”

“Whoever therefore from thenceforth, by inheritance, purchases permissions or otherwise enjoys any part of the land annexed to, and under the government of that commonweal, must take it with the condition it is under – that is, of submitting to the government of the commonwealth, under whose jurisdiction is it, as far forth as any subject of it.”

All of that said, Locke does not believe that people should just be blind subjects. If there is a problem, he writes that people should turn to the law first and work through problems with the government in accordance with the law. A well-constructed state will have laws that prevent tyranny and prevent governments from acting arbitrarily. But when governments start to infringe on peoples’ rights, then they can be changed.

“The power that every individual gave the society when he entered into it can never revert to the individuals again, as long as the society lasts, but will always remain in the community; because without this there can be no community….But if they have set limits to the duration of their legislative, and made this supreme power in any person or assembly only temporary; or else when, by the miscarriages of those in authority, it is forfeited; upon the forfeiture of their rulers, or at the determination of the time set, it reverts to the society, and the people have a right to act as supreme, and continue the legislative in themselves or place it in a new form, or new hands, as they think good.”

While Locke thinks that the first step should be finding a remedy within the laws and finding a peaceable solution, he does believe that the people have right to resist governments that threaten them. He rejects the notion that there are kings who would be somehow so superior to the people that they can act capriciously. When the government gets really ugly, then the people have the right to return the favor.

“But if they who say it lays a foundation for rebellion mean that it may occasion civil wars or intestine broils to tell the people that they are absolved from obedience when illegal attempts are made upon their liberties or properties…this doctrine is not to be allowed, being so destructive to the peace of the world; they may as well say, upon the same ground, that honest men may not oppose robbers or pirates, because this may occasion disorder or bloodshed.”

Of course all of this requires people to actively think about their government and to engage with it. People need to think through why the government is there and realize that it is there because we have all agreed tacitly or explicitly to have it. Our political discourse would be improved if we could all start from the place Locke suggests: we have agreed to a government because it is better than living in a state of nature, and we need to work to configure it in such a way that it works for the good of people and, as Locke would say preserves “their lives, liberties and estates, which I call by the general name – property.”

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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.