Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Locke, pt. 2

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Locke, pt. 2

 

For when any number of men have, by the consent of every individual, made a community, they have thereby made that community one body, with a power to act as one body, which is only by the will and determination of the majority

 

—– John Locke

 

 

How does “protecting the inalienable right to liberty” translate to obeying the laws of the government, or even paying taxes?   This is what is perhaps the most radical and transformative part of Locke’s political philosophy. Locke follows the same basic formula as Hobbes and many other social contract theorists: we imagine starting in a “state of Nature” prior to all government, and then ask why any individual would move from the perfect freedom of anarchy into an ordered (and ordering) society. How we interpret the natural state of humanity tells us about what sort of debt we owe the State, and by implication what the State owes us citizens. It assumes a quasi-historical moment when the individual voluntarily joined the society, recognizing that this was more implicit and theoretical than actual. In Locke’s view, a free and basically reasonable individual chooses to belong to a civil society because that society preserves his or her basic freedom and rationality better than simply going it alone in a state of natural anarchy.[1] However, to be a functioning society, the group has to be able to act as a coherent unit; so some sort of government must exist. Thus, we all have to agree to give up our right to just do whatever pops into our heads, and instead must cooperate. That means we need some sort of process whereby everyone can be heard, everyone’s interests can be considered, and then the group can decide to act as determined by the will of the majority. Each of us must agree to accept the will of the majority, since otherwise agreeing to live in a society was a hollow promise; either we’re all in this together, or there is no “we” and anarchy prevails. So you may have a “king” but even his policies must be expressions of the collective will of his “subjects.”[2] As part of this society, there may be some property set aside for common use; Locke assumes that every village will have a village green, where anyone may come and harvest turf as needed, for example. And if the group decides on some joint project, as Athens did when Themistocles persuaded them to build a national fleet, they may agree to pay into a common fund to do so, and all citizens are obligated to pay this tax even if the minority didn’t vote for it since it is an expression of the will of the society as a whole, of which they are a part. In exchange, the minority has the right to fight for its voice to be heard and its concerns to be addressed, and to try to persuade some portion of the others to join and support its views as policies for the group.

This really was a revolutionary thought. Most societies in Europe were governed by monarchies that ruled by a presumed divine right. When Thomas Hobbes wrote his Leviathan to propose a secular basis for government, that was already a radical notion. Hobbes acknowledged as much when he wrote that, “This is the generation of that great LEVIATHAN, or rather, to speak more reverently, of that mortal god, to which we owe under the immortal God, our peace and defence.”[3] We are not, he is saying, ruled by God; we are ruled by Leviathan, The Beast. God has left us to be ruled by this earthly master, this god that we ourselves have made by forming a social compact or commonwealth. But Hobbes still offered his philosophy as a defense of the privileges of the absolute monarch. Short of randomly torturing or murdering subjects, or failing to actually control and defend the realm, Hobbes put no limits on the sovereign’s power. Locke writes to defend not absolute monarchy, but a republic and limited monarchy. The force that is to determine national policy is not the whim of one powerful king backed by the brute force of an army; instead it is the collective will of the citizens that is to dictate to the government what it should do.

Just how revolutionary this theory is becomes clear when Locke considers the dissolution of the commonwealth.[4] There he argues that when any government attempts to usurp absolute power over its citizens, either by arbitrarily seizing their property, by enslaving them or killing them, then they are freed from their tacit agreement to abide by its laws. The government has broken the social contract, so now the citizens are back in a state of nature. And as free persons in a state of nature, they are once again free to join together for mutual defense, and to form a new government. Locke offers the intellectual and moral justification for political revolution. The government that denies its citizens their inalienable rights has violated the laws of Nature, Reason and God (which are largely equivalent terms for Locke), and thus has lost all legitimacy. It rules only by force, and thus there is no crime in resisting it and overthrowing it by force, either. Only the government that acts as directed by the will of the majority has any binding, legitimate claim to the obedience of the people.
The philosophical foundation for the American Revolution was this very notion. People felt that they were being “enslaved” by the distant crown and parliament, which imposed taxes on them without their consent or even voice. (Yes, it is a tragic irony that they knew what enslavement was so well, owning slaves themselves.) They had come to this frontier land and tamed it, raised crops, built homes and churches and whole cities, and now they felt that this was theirs. They had put their own sweat into this land; as Locke said, they had put part of themselves into it, and thus it was as much theirs as their own flesh. And now a distant government was imposing laws and taxes on them. From the English point of view, they were simply asking the colonies to pay for their own defense; but the fact remained that there were no colonial representatives in Parliament. From a Lockean point of view, they were outside the social contract, since they were denied the fundamental right of any citizen of the commonwealth to be heard. And following Locke, they felt that this gave them the right to revolt. They produced a Declaration of Independence, which detailed their justifications for their break from England, and established the beginnings of their social contract to form a new commonwealth together. This was not like Plato’s failed attempt to bring his ideal republic to life in ancient Syracuse, where conceptual perfection crashed against human realities. Nor was it like the more recent attempt to establish a divine theocracy in Münster, which fell into disorder and was destroyed by its enemies. This philosophical experiment, which we now know as the United States of America, was not based on Biblical or philosophical idealism, but on human reason, on philosophy rooted in observation, experience and reflection. Unlike Plato’s Republic or his later Laws, the empiricist philosophy of Locke did not assume that there was an ideal state which could only change by degenerating. The founders of the United States assumed that their nation would have to change and grow, and they included mechanisms for amending the social contract. They hoped that it would grow and become better as its people chose the best among them to debate and discover new solutions to unanticipated problems. And while Plato’s republic sought to eliminate social conflict, the very notion of Locke’s commonwealth assumes disagreement and conflict. Any nation based on Locke’s principles has to allow for all stakeholders to have a voice, and to resolve their competing claims in a peaceful manner. It hasn’t always worked, as we know, but the trend for over two hundred years has been to channel dissent and conflict, expanding the rights of citizens and the chorus of voices in the marketplace of ideas.

To be continued…

[1] John Locke, Second Treatise of Civil Government, chapter II, sections 4-11

[2] Locke, chapter VIII, sect. 95-99

[3] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, chapter 17

[4] Locke, chapter XIX, sect. 222

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