John Locke’s Political Theory and Its Influence on American Thinking

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

We’ve met the multifacetic John Locke before as a philosopher. But he was not less controversial and not less talented as a political theorist. In his two Treatises on Government, Locke went straight to the bedrock of politics as he had in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding in epistemology.

In the Treatises on Government, Locke asked for what we might call a thought experiment. In order to understand the nature of government, let’s imagine ourselves back at a point in human history before governments existed. Now, some people might have wanted to argue this was impossible, that humanity has a natural bent to social organization, and that social organization was there from the start. The people who made this argument in Locke’s day were usually arguing that God had created kings from the beginning with full divinely ordained powers to rule, and only the most ultra-monarchist in Locke’s England wanted to make that argument in 1688. Besides, the Bible, which was still the most influential book on all European society, saw government as a gradual and undirected growth. The European explorations of North America seemed to offer plenty of evidence of Indian societies without any elaborate system of government. So, this objection lost a good deal of force.

Back to Mr. Locke, we begin our thought experiment at a point when human beings are simply there in the landscape. This is what Locke called the State of Nature. In that state, just like in any deserted island or isolated colony, the first priority was survival. Locke’s State of Nature is a state dominated by scarcity, or at least scarcity of things that you might readily eat or wear. To survive, you must delve in the earth, you must pick the food from the trees or you must plant the trees in the first place. Now, two things happen as a result of all this. First of all, you survive. And then, by mixing your labor with the natural materials at hand to create food, cloth and shelter; you create property.

Now, the problem with property is that it is not you. It can be detached from you. And there are plenty of other people out there in the State of Nature who might be happy indeed to save themselves the efforts and solve the problem of scarcity by taking your property from you. And it is at this moment, Locke hypothesises, that the idea of government is born. The reason why men entered society, Locke wrote, is the preservation of their property.

In other words, they sacrifice the total freedom they had in the State of Nature, and by giving up a little of that freedom and joining others in a protective arrangement, they preserve the balance of that freedom and their property in safety. For instance, they agreed to chip in a part of their property, maybe in the form of taxes, for the hiring and the equipping of a security patrol. They agreed to create a board to administer security. Some may not want to give any of their hard-won property to this supervisory board, but they reason that is better to loose little for a good purpose and save the rest, than to loose it all to raiders or burglars.

From this primal beginning, Locke said, all known governments have developed. There are three things we should notice about this.

The Reason for Government

First of all, for Locke, the fundamental problems of life are scarcity and security. Governments’ principal reason for existing is to provide security for the solutions we provide for scarcity. It is in fact, the only reason government exists. Man in the State of Nature, says Locke, is the absolute lord of his own person and possessions, equal to the greatest and subject to nobody. But in the State of Nature, the enjoyment of those possessions, said Locke, is very uncertain and constantly exposed to the invasion of others. This leads us to the second point.

The Creation of Government

Government is an invention of the people. It is not handed down from heaven. Kings are not chosen by God and ready to rule over the rest of us. Nor it is anybody born with any inherent status, like Duke or Earl, in the State of Nature. In the State of Nature, everyone is born equally poor and equally empty-handed. And we invent kings and dukes to serve as protectors of people’s property.

The Limitations of Government

Third, if a government or a king, or duke or earl, are not doing the job they were invented to perform, the people who made them have the authority to find another useful way of protecting their property. For instance, said Locke, the moment you catch them governing without settled standing laws, that is a sure sign that change is needed. No matter how much they may rage and plead some form of divine right for what they do, no one has ever left the State of Nature and put themselves under the rule, were it not to preserve their lives, liberties and fortunes; and by stated rules of right and property, to secure their peace. Or, said Locke, when you see this supreme executor of the government going about to set up his own arbitrary will in the place of law; or when that executor corrupts the rest of the government by solicitations, threats, promises; at that moment, such an executor cannot any longer be trusted.

All Americans are Liberals

Locke is what we might call the prophet of Liberalism. I don’t mean liberal or liberalism in the party politics sense that we use it today. What I’m talking about is the classical Liberalism of the Enlightenment, which was concerned with abolishing the monarchy, making reason rather than tradition the guide of political life, and downplaying the role of inherited and non-rational factors like race, religion or language; and to look expectantly to the future for progress. Liberalism was, you might say, the political equivalent of the Enlightenment’s new epistemology. The later sought to undermine the authority of Aristotle and Theology. The former sought to undermine the authority of kings and tradition.

It is in this sense that virtually all Americans, no matter what political party identification they might have, are classical Lockean liberals. This is because we identify ourselves as Americans by a loyalty to a series of what Abraham Lincoln called “propositions”. We identify ourselves by allegiance to these propositions, not by our identification with a certain ethnic group or religious denomination. We identify ourselves by certain propositions about liberty. We are, in that sense, all liberals; and America is the perfect example of a classic liberal regime.

The Whig Republicans

Locke was only the most celebrated and the most English of the Whig liberals. He was joined on the Whig platform by other Enlightenment political writers: Voltaire, Montesquieu and others. And Locke was more than matched in popularity by the political satirists, which English Whiggism seemed to have a talent for attracting: Joseph Addison and his celebrated magazine “The Spectator”, and John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon in their sensational “The Independent Whig” and “Cato’s Letters”.

If anything, what Locke represented was actually Whiggism’s middle path. Locke insisted that the three-part model of English government after the Glorious Revolution was the best realization of a government that protected property through the rule of law. On the left flank of Whiggism, however, were people who, much more radical than Locke, were outright Republicans or Common Wealth men; like Harrington, who suspected that the restoration of the English monarchy in 1660 had been a big mistake, and that the Glorious Revolution in 1688 had been a missed opportunity to get rid of the entire institution of monarchy.

Many of these Whig republicans drew their inspiration from the well-known universal reading in Greek and Roman history. From this reading and from their own aversion to the corruption of the Royal Courts, these Whig republicans imagined an earlier and better form of government than monarchy. A form of government that dispensed with kings and glorified the rule exercised not by nobility, but by noble and self-denying men over the “Roman Republic”. That was the model.

Trenchard and Gordon’s “Cato’s Letters” were given that title precisely to call to mind that most relentlessly self-righteous of all Roman republicans, Cato the Younger.

Like the Whigs in general, republicans thought of property as land labored by oneself. Property owners lived lives of virtuous simplicity and came to form governments of only the most minimal size, eliminating the possibility of corruption and oppression by invoking a civic public spirit that served the public good rather than private interests. The emphasis of the classical republicans was, therefore, on the achievement of the public good.

Other Whig republicans, however, thought this was taking ancient Rome a little too far and a little too seriously. I mean, admirable as civic virtue and dedication to the public good are, classical republicans were probably expecting too much from human nature if they thought that wicked kings and nobles were the only thing holding nations back from embracing republics.

The Liberal Republicans

Republics imposing or demanding virtue might become tyrannical as monarchies demanding taxes and obedience. So, the alternative embraced by liberal republicans, as opposed to the classical republicans, was to take government out of the virtue business entirely; and allow the free competition of people mixing labor and land to produce as much property as they could.

Liberal Republicanism sometimes requires an optimism almost as sweeping as the optimism of the classical republicans. It assumed that on a low average basis, the marriage of self-preservation and self-interest would produce the best results all around for everyone. At least, the liberal republicans had this on their favor, because they had no preconceived template for what their society should look like; unlike the classical republicans who had Greek and Roman models to tell them how a society should look like. Liberal republicans had no outcomes to force on anyone.

Where the classical republicans liked to think in terms of the public good, the liberal republicans preferred to think of private or individual rights.

Locke and the Whigs in America

To most English readers of Locke, Harrington and the others; Whiggism was a carefully calculated descent, rather than a program for action, if only because no one in England could seriously imagine the origins of English society really being what Locke described as the State of Nature.

In America, however, it was different. Locke’s State of Nature seemed to describe perfectly the conditions under which the North American colonies had been founded. The creation of government to protect property seemed to be exactly what called those colonial legislators into their clandestine existence. And minimal government intervention looked what exactly the colonies had experienced as normal state affairs, both from an uninterested far away imperial government and from the royal governors sent out to oversee them.

John Adams, musing over Locke, Harrington and Milton, in colonial Massachusetts in 1776, admitted that the condition of this country had frequently reminded him of their principles and reasons. And so, Locke and the other Whigs came to be read not as political Utopians, not as people just drawing out blueprints for ideal societies; instead, Locke and the Whigs were read as confirmations of what Americans had all along known as reality.

This also meant that as Americans accepted Locke’s theory of political revolution, they also accepted Locke’s warnings about the process of political degeneration. There is an element of anxiety running through Locke, since the step out of the State of Nature, necessary as it is, is also thought with the dangers that the governments people create will decay and corrupt, that they will set aside the rule of law, that they will grab more and more power, and leave less and less liberty available. And to the extent that Americans read Locke or the State of Nature as a reality, they began looking for confirmations that Locke’s warnings were realities as well.

In the 1760’s, they began to find all the confirmation they needed. The empire they had known as home, and the king they had known as monarch, were gone all disastrously astray.