Posts Tagged ‘John Locke’

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

December 16, 2016

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


Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Locke, pt. 1

November 30, 2016

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Locke, pt. 1

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


—–John Locke



Without a doubt, John Locke had more influence on the American Revolution than any other political thinker. If Plato represents the beginning of Western political philosophy, John Locke represents the cutting edge of political thought in the early Enlightenment. And like Plato, Locke was a product of his time and schooled by the tumultuous events of his day. To understand Locke, it is helpful to first understand his background.

John Locke’s father was a captain in the Parliamentarian army during the English Civil War. For my American readers who didn’t know England HAD a civil war, here’s the short version: After the death of Queen Elizabeth I, the throne of England passed to her nearest relative, King James of Scotland, who thus became James I of England (and sponsored the King James translation of the Bible, which you may have heard about). As king of two separate but related kingdoms, he had a divided constituency to balance: Anglicans in England with their bishops and cardinals, Presbyterians in Scotland with elected church leaders, the two nations with a long history of warfare between them and religious minorities among them. King James managed to balance the two thrones pretty well, although not completely without dissent. It was during his reign that the first British colony in North America was founded in Virginia, primarily by economic adventurers; later, conservative Christians who objected to England’s overly lax religious climate founded the colony at Plymouth, Massachusetts. James I thus oversaw not only the union of England and Scotland, but also the beginnings of the transoceanic British Empire. His son, King Charles I, did not fare as well. Charles attempted to enforce religious conformity, and attempted to rule as an absolute monarch without the advise and consent of the elected Parliament. The English people revolted, with armies loyal to the king fighting against troops loyal to Parliament. The Parliamentarians included religious minorities such as the Presbyterians and Puritans, and even smaller factions such as the Levelers and other religious and political radicals. John Locke’s father fought for Parliament in the early part of this war, which eventually led to the capture and execution of the king, eleven years of control by the Puritans, the return of the dead king’s son as Charles II, his overthrow in another revolution and finally a new royal family, led by King William of Orange (of William and Mary fame). John Locke’s most important political essay, his Second Treatise of Government, was written to justify and support William’s claim to the throne of England. Thus John Locke is very much a child of the English Civil War; his father fought at its start, and he wrote its declaration of victory for liberty over the forces of absolute monarchy.

Locke’s First Treatise of Civil Government was written to refute the theory of the divine right kings. Since God commands everything, the argument went, God also commands who should be king; therefore, the king is God’s agent and to oppose the king in any way is to oppose God. Locke refutes this argument and insists that there be another, less mysterious foundation for political authority. In his Second Treatise on Civil Government he seems to focus on the social contract theory of Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes famously argued that in the “state of Nature,” outside of all government, human life would be intolerable, since human nature is greedy, selfish and utterly irrational; therefore, each person tacitly agrees to give up some of his natural rights in exchange for each other person in the community doing the same, and all agree to live under the rule of a king or other sovereign.[1] This sovereign has nearly absolute power to act as he (possibly she or they) sees fit, so long as he enforces order, protects the lives of his subjects, and does not arbitrarily kill or imprison them. Anyone who finds the sovereign unsuitable may leave the country; but having renounced the sovereign’s rule, one has also renounced his protection, and may be killed or enslaved by anyone who is able (until the refugee finds the protection of a new sovereign). Likewise, a sovereign which is unable or unwilling to establish a safe and orderly society has failed the citizens, placing them back into a state of anarchy where life is a war of every one against every one, and life is “solitary, nasty, brutish and short.”

It is in his second treatise that Locke lays out more of his own theories, rather than simply refuting the arguments of others, and for this reason his second treatise is more widely read and influential than the first. Still, it shows some influences from both the theories he is transcending. While Locke does not accept the absolute divine right of kings, he does continue to use religious language, referring to the laws of Nature as being given by God and so on. But Locke’s vision of God, and of God’s creation, is first of all rational. Thus, in the Second Treatise chapter II, section 8, Locke equates the law of Nature and reason with the will of God; to him there is no further knowledge of God than what is discoverable through God’s creation properly understood. Understanding the rational basis of government as also being God’s will may give it extra authority and motivational force, but for Locke it does not add any content; what we need to know of government must be learned through sound reasoning. This puts his theory closer to that of Hobbes. However, Locke’s view of human nature is considerably more optimistic than Hobbes’, and thus his view of how much force is required or justified to control human behavior is also very different.

In Locke’s view, outside of all government, in the hypothetical “state of Nature,” human life would still be governed by rules of reason. Human beings are emotional, but are also rational beings, and their behavior ought to be directed by their reason. We know that no one has the right to injure another, either by assault or by gathering up so much of the resources of nature that there is nothing left for anyone else. I may have a right to all the apples I find growing on a wild tree in the forest, but I don’t have a right to more than I can eat or use before they spoil; the rest must be left for others. And if there are disputes, or someone violates these rational laws of nature, then anyone and everyone has a right to step in and punish the malefactor.

Thus, our need for government is actually rather limited. Fundamentally, we need a neutral arbiter when someone violates our natural inalienable rights. Left to ourselves to punish the wrongs done us, we would be likely to go too far; so we designate a magistrate to create laws and judge violations. All other government basically flows from that beginning.

But what are those “inalienable” rights? This phrase, which appears earlier in Hobbes, is expanded and clarified in Locke. First and most fundamentally is the right to life. I have a right to live and to protect my life. I join a society largely to protect my life; therefore, I can never be understood as having renounced my right to life by becoming or remaining a citizen.[2] Second, I join a society to preserve my basic liberty. In nature each individual is completely free from all outside control, subject only to the laws of nature revealed through reason. As a citizen in a society, I may give up some of my freedoms, but I do so only to preserve my basic liberty against the threat of enslavement or oppression. Finally, I join a society to protect my property, and to adjudicate when there is a legitimate dispute as to what my property is.

How is property a natural (or what for Locke is the same thing, a divine) right? The basic property of each person is his or her own body. That, clearly, Nature gave you. Even in a state of nature, I may find all sorts of resources that would make my life better, including food and materials for making tools. Nuts lying on the forest floor belong to no one. However, when I start picking them up, I am adding something: my own effort. This effort is a part of my own body, which works on these natural products and changes them, by gathering or shaping them in some way. Thus, the nuts I gathered from the untamed forest are now nuts plus a little of me, and therefore become my property.

I always tell my students that this is intuitively true, or at least psychologically true. Legally, the goods in the shopping cart still belong to the store; but if you doubt that the person who gathered them considers them his or hers, try going through someone’s grocery cart to help yourself to a can of soup. You will hear something like, “Go get your own! I found that, now it’s mine.”

Thus, we don’t depend on the State to tell us what we can or can’t own, according to Locke. God’s own will, as revealed in the laws of nature, designates that whatever you shape or gather or improve by your own work is your natural property. The State may create laws to control or define this property-making, allowing a person to stake a claim to a particular piece of farmland or mining rights or whatever; and it may create currency and other economic structures to allow us to trade and transfer the fruits of our labors. We may even agree to be taxed, each of us contributing some portion of the fruits of our labors to accomplish some task for the good of us all. But in the final analysis, the government is there to ensure that we preserve our lives, our basic freedom and our own property. These are our inalienable rights, and the basis of the social contract. Society agrees to protect these rights, and we as citizens agree to support the society as necessary by obeying its laws and reasonable demands.

To be continued…..

[1] I say “he” deliberately; Hobbes generally treats women as one of those goods that men would fight and murder each other over, rather than as independent persons themselves.

[2] This is a rejection of the view laid out in Plato’s Crito, for example.

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? (introduction)

October 10, 2016

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? (introduction)


No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

—–Winston Churchill



In philosophy, it is generally considered a good and worthy strategy to start with a thesis to which everyone can agree, and see what can be learned from closely examining that notion. One thing everyone seems to agree on is that everyone in the other political tribe is a f—ing moron. Since the parties are pretty evenly divided (Democrats supposedly have more numbers, but Republicans have the Presidency, Congress, most state legislators and governors, and are currently cementing control of the Supreme Court for the next twenty or thirty years), that means that, if we provisionally accept this judgment as true, half the country are idiots, whose votes count just as much as the smart, moral, caring and good people who agree with you.

Why should this be? Or perhaps better, should this be? One news report quotes a professor of political science as saying:


We go in assuming a baseline among students, which is that they are uncritically, unreflectively fans of democracy, right? America is a democracy, we all love America. Democracy is good. This election season, that baseline—-my experience has been—-can no longer be assumed…[1]



Half the country, according to polls, believes that colleges are actively trying to subvert American democracy, and have been doing so for years. In fact, this professor and others report that until this year they’ve just been able to assume that their students had such immediate faith in democracy that there was no need to sell it. Now, a generation is coming into our colleges who are looking at the nastiness, the accusations of vote-rigging and vote-suppression and political intimidation and even violence, and those young people are basically ready to say, “Well, democracy had a good run; but I guess it’s time to find something that works.” And why shouldn’t they? Half our government—-the party that runs the Congress and most of the states and half the Supreme Court—-has been telling them for years that democracy has failed and is failing. Now, they feel they see the proof with their own eyes.

Philosophers have discussed the merits and demerits of democracy almost as long as “philosophy” has existed. The first sustained political treatise, Plato’s Republic, was written as Athenian democracy was collapsing. Later Greek and Roman philosophers wrote extensively about the relationship between citizen and State, rulers and ruled, and whether self-rule was desirable or even possible. As the Roman Empire transitioned from pagan to Christian, an entirely new tradition of political thought entered the conversation, and political thought in Europe became an ongoing synthesis of Greek, Roman, Hebraic, and pagan traditions. Some of these traditions allowed for far more individual autonomy and social mobility than did others, but none were what we would really call “democratic.” Still, the notion of democracy did not vanish completely, returning in religious communities such as the Quakers that rejected human authority over others. After the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries, the Enlightenment began the project of looking for human-based political theories to replace Christian theocracy. British Empricism gave us the totalitarian monarchism of Thomas Hobbes, the representative democracy of John Locke and the utilitarianism of David Hume, among others. As the nineteenth century rolled into the twentieth we saw the rise of Marxism and fascism. The Twentieth Century has been called “The People’s Century” because it saw the rise of democracy and the collapse of colonialism, and growing millions gained the freedom to exercise political power in their own countries; yet for much of that century it was openly debated whether democracy or totalitarianism would ultimately triumph. By the end, it seemed that democracy had won and the popular press tossed around terms like “the end of history;” the thinking was that humanity had resolved the tension between the State and the individual, and that the rights of the individual had been admitted to be fundamental. Even as the 21st Century began with religiously-inspired terrorism, no one seriously thought that they posed a serious threat. As Christopher Hitchens put it, terrorists could unleash events, but the progress of civilization would not be stopped. And the religious zealots themselves admit that the task of overthrowing democracy to establish theocracy is humanly impossible; they rely on a faith that God will miraculously intervene to slaughter all their foes and give them the ultimate victory and domination over others.

And then came the presidential election of 2016. Republicans routinely claim that the election of Hillary Clinton will mean the end of democracy and the end of the United States. Since this is the same group that claimed the same thing about Obama, that claim lacks credibility to most people; but to the 40% or so of Republicans who believe Obama is a secret Muslim sleeper agent waiting for his chance to destroy America, the vow by Clinton to “continue the progress made by Obama” sounds like a death threat.[2] On the other hand, Republicans have been talking about taking up arms to kill liberals since the beginning of the Tea Party Movement, including various threats by GOP candidates to use “Second Amendment” remedies to get rid of Harry Reid or Obama or Hillary Clinton, threats by Republican governors to call up the National Guard to fight off “federal overreach,” and a multitude of militias and Sovereign Citizens threatening or even committing violence and terrorism. Now, they have a candidate for President who openly talks about removing constitutional protections for free speech, who urges his supporters to attack protestors and promises to pay their legal bills, who regularly retweets posts from a variety of white supremacist militants. Almost overnight, then, we went from believing democracy was the ultimate culmination of the forces of history, which was opposed only by lunatics bent on some sort of magical return the Middle Ages, to a situation where millions of Americans believe that democracy is in fact under attack and could be destroyed in a few months. And even elected officials, such as the governor of Kentucky, talk about the possible need to resort to violence and force if the election turns out the wrong way and conservatives don’t win.[3]

Philosophers need to contribute to this discussion. It is clear that many millions of Americans have in fact lost faith in democracy. Hillary Clinton caught a lot of flak for labeling half of Donald Trump’s supporters a “basket of deplorables,” but in fact polls indicate she is mathematically correct: on a variety of issues, about half of Donald Trump’s supporters express racist, homophobic, and otherwise intolerant views and delusions.[4] And as Clinton admits, about half of is supporters don’t. Perhaps, like Mike Pence, you don’t think racism or intolerance or contempt for America’s heritage as a nation of immigrants and nonconformists merits the word “deplorable.”[5] Or given that half of the conservative candidate’s base falls into this “basket of deplorables,” perhaps you don’t want to offend them. What cannot be denied, however, is that roughly half of Republicans think democracy is destroying America, because the majority is voting to weaken “traditional values” of white patriarchy. That’s millions of people. Add to that the millions more who think democracy is failing because it led us to the Trump candidacy and the empowerment of the deplorables, and that’s almost a landslide. In these circumstances, philosophy is needed. Political science tends to ask, “How is power gained and used?” in a value-neutral way. Philosophers need to step in ask, “SHOULD power be gained and used in this way?” Philosophers can ask the questions about value, whether and why democracy is “good” even if you don’t like the results of the last or next election. And they have a history of analyzing and debating these concepts that goes back thousands of years, which can inform and guide today’s debates.

To be continued….

[1] Sam Sanders, “How Do You Teach Politics during an Election that Defies Convention?” Morning Edition (NPR) Oct. 6, 2016 (

[2] Louis Jacobson, “Do 59 Percent of Americans Believe Obama is a Muslim?” Punditfact Nov. 23, 2015 (

[3] David A. Graham, “Matt Bevin’s Apocalyptic Warnings of Bloodshed;” The Atlantic Sept. 13, 2016 (

[4] Charles M. Blow, “About the Basket of Deplorables,” New York Times Sept. 12, 2016 (

[5] Matthew Nussbaum, “Pence Declines to Call David Duke ‘Deplorable’”; Politico Sept. 12, 2016 (

Why is Baltimore Burning?

April 30, 2015

Pleas and Excuses

Riots have broken out in Baltimore in response to the death of Freddie Gray, who died due to injuries he received while being transported in a police van. Gray was not buckled in, but was in handcuffs and leg irons, and may have been given a “rough ride,” meaning the police van was driven with the intent of causing Gray injury. The six police officers involved have been suspended pending an investigation of their conduct during the arrest.

Sadly, abuses of police power against minorities seem fairly commonplace across our country. Citizens’ capacity to record police behavior and the tide of anger created in response to such abuses have made such cases major news in the past year. Heightened awareness that police seem to be above the law’s requirements, and that minority populations are often not provided with the protections of law to the same extent as white citizens, has caused civil unrest. And…

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Social Contract Theory in the News, or Why We Shouldn’t Be Surprised that Baltimore is Burning, We Should Be Surprised South Carolina Isn’t

April 30, 2015

Social Contract Theory in the News, or Why We Shouldn’t Be Surprised that Baltimore is Burning, We Should Be Surprised South Carolina Isn’t



Every once in awhile, something happens that seems to be completely inexplicable to the pundits and reporters who claim the authority to explain the world to us, but which makes complete sense to anyone with even a modicum of philosophy in the back of his or her brain. Right now, the self-proclaimed good patriots who are paid millions of dollars to tell us how to be patriots too seem utterly confused by the fact that people are rioting in Baltimore. Why would anyone burn and destroy property like this, Sean Hannity asks?[1] Since Sean didn’t let the person he was asking put three sentences together without interruption, those watching his discussion are left at least as uninformed as when they started. But philosopher Katrina Sifferd explains it pretty well, when she writes:

John Austin famously claimed legal rules were threats backed by sanctions – “if you x, we will punish you.” H.L.A. Hart, however, showed that such sanction-centered accounts ignored an essential feature of law: the “internal point of view.” In a stable legal system, Hart said, citizens don’t just feel obliged to follow the law because there is a gun pointed to their heads. They feel obligated to follow the law, in part because they benefit from it – they believe their lives are better off overall due to the rule of law.[2]

I can’t really blame Sean Hannity, or most people, for having never heard of J. L. Austin. He is one of my favorite 20th Century philosophers, but by the 20th Century philosophers had been largely confined to universities like dangerous animals are kept in zoos: there when anyone wants to look for awhile, but controlled and muted and unable to cause any real harm. But I can, and do, wonder how all these hyper-patriots justify not knowing anything about John Locke (except that he was a character in Lost). After all, John Locke was the philosopher Jefferson, Franklin, and virtually every other Colonial intellectual read right before saying, “We should have our own country.” No John Locke, no American Revolution. If you want to understand what the patriots were talking about when they said King George was a tyrant or people have inalienable rights, you have to understand John Locke; and if you don’t care enough to find that out, you should shut the hell up about politics and patriotism. Why listen to a self-professed chicken farmer who doesn’t know what an egg is?

Dr. Sifferd’s description implies a parallel between John Austin and Thomas Hobbes, English philosopher and eventual namesake of a very popular tiger.[3] Thomas Hobbes was an early Enlightenment philosopher and ardent supporter of absolute monarchy. Hobbes argued that people are irrational, selfish and fearful creatures, totally dominated by their fears and desires; therefore, the only way they could live together was if some powerful king or perhaps a small oligarchy took charge and terrified everyone into living peaceably with his or her neighbor. The State is thus the maker of laws and the enforcer, but is itself above all law; the citizens accept this because the alternative is violent anarchy. Not surprisingly, Hobbes was popular with the king and nobles who believed that the State should have absolute and unchallenged rule over the stupid, vicious masses.

H. L. A. Hart, on the other hand, more resembles John Locke. Locke’s family had opposed the very monarchy Hobbes supported, and his father even fought in rebellion against his king. While Hobbes was writing to support the necessity of having a king who would ruthlessly suppress all dissent and bend all wills to his own, Locke’s father was fighting for the Parliament elected by the people to be their voice in government, and their check on royal abuse. Locke’s own political philosophy reflects his family history. He argued that a civilized society was a sort of contract between the people and the government. It is as if they all existed in a “state of Nature” without any legal system or political structure. They would still be humans, and therefore would still be guided by reason. They would have complete liberty, since with no laws there is no control; they would have complete equality, since there would be no social structure or authority. They would have natural rights to life, liberty and whatever they could produce by the sweat of their brows and the genius of their minds. However, living without law courts, police, or any other political structure, they would find life difficult and conflict hard to avoid and harder to resolve once it began. Therefore, they would want to establish rules, laws, and thus would need legislators and magistrates and the other elements of civil government. However, the whole reason this government exists is to protect those rights the citizens created it to defend, much later described as “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Life was to be protected by laws and designated judges and police (or those with official police powers). Liberty was protected by the fact that the government would rule only by the will of the majority, so the will of each individual would count equally and the final policies would be the expression of the sum of their wills. With the rule of law and popular sovereignty, a government would thus be established to protect the welfare of each individual and to guarantee that one had a right to the products of one’s own labor. Thus, in Locke’s understanding, government does not rest on the threat of punishment; it rests on the voluntary consent of the governed. Or, as Hare put it, government rests on the people’s belief that they are better off with the rule of law.

The other side of this is that the State exists to serve the people, not the other way around; and if the State fails to serve the people, they have every right to get rid of it and form another.[4] True, the social contract is majority rule, and we all agree to abide by the group decision; but since the whole motivation to remain a citizen is to protect one’s “inalienable rights” such as life and liberty, if the State is not doing that there is no motivation for one to stay in it, and every reason to leave. And, Locke says, a group that has thus felt disenfranchised has every right to join together and resist the rest, by violence if need be. Again, this is a fundamental principle of the United States. We did not wait for the majority of Great Britain to decide to give us our rights; it is not up to the oppressor to decide whether or not the victim is really oppressed. The oppressed acts on that feeling, and if enough others also feel oppressed then one person’s disaffection can become a group’s dissent, or even rebellion. Locke’s generally optimistic view of human nature seems to assume that if the disagreement were really private or irrational, the disaffection would not rise to the level of organized armed rebellion; if enough people joined together against their former government, it probably was for a good reason.

Thus, Locke’s philosophy suggests, if enough people start to feel threatened and tyrannized by their own government, not only is rebellion likely; it is in some circumstances the only rational choice. One such circumstance would be if the police forces ostensibly created to protect one’s inalienable rights began systematically violating them. In South Carolina, for example, a police officer shot an unarmed black man who was fleeing.[5] One can argue that anyone who runs from a cop deserves to be shot; the officer himself, however, apparently did not think so, since he both handcuffed the dead man and apparently dropped his Taser nearby, both actions that seem to serve no purpose except to create the false impression of a struggle. As a nation, we have seen a series of these sorts of incidents, recorded on cell phones by private citizens exercising their Constitutional rights as defined by the highest courts in the land. Sometimes, as in South Carolina, the video seems to contradict the police officer’s story and his superiors discipline him. That may be what has saved South Carolina from Baltimore’s fate. Where people can have some faith in the legal system to protect them, the rational thing for them to do is to try to work with that system. In other cases, police instead arrest the people who are recording their actions.[6] When Eric Garner died while being arrested, and the only person arrested for what the medical examiner called “homicide” was the person who had recorded the arrest, people in that community felt that the social contract was no longer protecting them. They were being told to uphold their side of the tacit agreement between citizen and State, but the State was not keeping its side and instead was punishing anyone who might expose this failure.

Due to the growing influence of social media, video recordings of possible or confirmed police abuse are broadcast worldwide in minutes. This has an amplifying effect, no doubt. Just as one news story about a shark bite can lead to national apprehension about sharks (when the odds of a fatal shark attack are somewhere between the odds of winning Powerball and waking up on the Moon tomorrow), video of one unarmed man being shot can seem as if it happened just around the block. The difference is, when I see a news story of a shark attack, I don’t think to myself of the time a shark circled me, and none of my friends talk of being bumped by sharks, etc. because these things almost never happen. But in many minority communities, a news story about a “police attack” can lead to people remembering and recounting how many of them have been stopped and frisked for no particular reason, excessive traffic fines used to fund a city government that doesn’t even provide for their inalienable rights, and numerous other grievances and slights, many petty, some severe, but all-to-common in any case. Nationally, crime rates have been falling for many years, but police tactics and legal punishments have only gotten harsher despite the decreasing threat.

I’ve been stopped by the police, and I hated it. I’ve also had many police officers as students, and they have been exemplary. They do a job that is necessary to any civil society, as Locke would point out, and it is a difficult, dangerous, stressful, underpaid and often unappreciated job that I could not do and would not want to try. Even when I find them inconvenient, or even unjust in some instance, I know my community would be worse off without them. And I have a hard time understanding why anyone who wasn’t guilty of something pretty bad would try to run from an armed cop. But whether you believe the feeling is justified or not, it is a simple fact that too many communities feel oppressed, disenfranchised, and disaffected. And when anyone concludes that the government is not working for him or her, it is hardly surprising when that person stops cooperating. Our entire nation was founded on the principle that people have a right to resist if they are being oppressed. And it is not for white people to tell black people that racism is dead, if that does not match their own experiences, any more than it was King George’s place to tell the American rebels that their complaints were unjustified because the majority of British people all agreed with him that the Americans were ignorant and unreasonable.

The question, then, is not “why is Baltimore burning?” A man who was already arrested and restrained, of no possible threat to anyone, wound up dead of bodily injury. The community this man came from does not view this as an isolated incident; they see it as a pattern in their community, just one more example of harsh and unequal treatment by the justice system. And many in this nation do not see it as an isolated incident either. Too many see video on social media, reflect on experiences in their own lives, and conclude there is a systematic campaign by the police to oppress them. To many white people, this seems paranoid and irrational. I come from Florida, where a primarily white, conservative government enacted some of the most sweeping stand-your-ground laws in the nation to defend against a systematic abuse of people’s rights to defend themselves. The primary example of that systematic abuse, it turns out, did not occur.[7] Arizona implemented some of the strictest immigration policies in the nation in response to beheadings by immigrants—which in fact never happened.[8] Across the nation, new Voter I.D. laws are being enacted, which are shown to have denied many legal voters the right to cast a ballot. All of this is to prevent people from impersonating legal voters. This taxpayer expense prevents a crime that no one has ever proven to be any sort of serious threat to any election, and which in fact could not possibly threaten the results of any election; it would simply be too difficult to pull off on any scale sufficient to sway an election. I think we white people just lost the high ground on the whole “you’re being paranoid” argument. Laws are being written to protect against crimes that are not being committed, while the black and brown people who claim they are not being protected produce video recordings—-and are told they are being paranoid and unreasonable. There is more documentation for the claims of racism and systemic oppression by protestors than there is to justify “stand your ground,” voter I.D. and anti-immigrant hysteria combined. Anyone who isn’t willing to repeal those laws must admit that the black community has even more cause to demand laws be written and enforced to protect them from the dangers they feel they face.

Today in the U.S. there are only two accepted reasons to riot: a major loss in a sporting event, and a major victory in a sporting event. Neither of these will cause any pundit to wonder, “Why are those thugs burning their own city?”[9] But in fact, your team losing a basketball game is not a violation of the social contract. There is no justification for such behavior, which is tolerated and even expected because it is so common. By contrast, being threatened and harassed and having a neighbor killed without a trial are legitimate reasons for revolt, by John Locke’s standards or anyone’s. So the real question isn’t, “Why is Baltimore Burning?” The questions we should be asking are, “Why aren’t more cities burning, how can we stop the problem from getting worse, and are our present actions helpful?”

Based on this analysis, the answers to these questions are:

  1. The reason more cities aren’t burning is that, as the famous video of Baltimore Mom illustrates, most minority people still feel that they are better off with the status quo than with either anarchy or open warfare.[10]
  2. Creating situations where more people feel that their inalienable rights are protected and their basic liberty and equality can be exercised is an essential element in promoting civil calm.
  3. As shown in this article, the current political trend is towards laws that deal with imaginary problems and irrational fears of white conservatives, while creating real problems and real cause for fear among non-whites (and to some extent, non-conservatives). At the same time, there is a major media-industrial complex devoted to downplaying those real concerns while exacerbating those irrational conservative fears. As a result, many conservatives feel disenfranchised because they have been repeatedly told they are being persecuted; and many non-whites feel disenfranchised because, well, they are literally disenfranchised, denied the right to vote, denied due process of law and denied basic rights. Increasing the sense of social alienation will increase social unrest; and our nation’s grandfather, John Locke, would tell us that we should expect this will lead to a troubled future.

[1] Joanna Rothkopf, “Sean Hannity Shamed by Baltimore Protester;” April 28, 2015 ( ) accessed April 29, 2015

[2] Katrina Sifferd, “Why is Baltimore Burning?” Pleas and Excuses, April 28, 2015 ( accessed April 29, 2015

[3] “Calvin and Hobbes” was much funnier than John Calvin and Thomas Hobbes

[4] John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, chapter XIX, “Of the Dissolution of Government” (1690)

[5] Michael Martinez, “South Carolina Cop Shoots an Unarmed Man: A Timeline;” CNN ( accessed April 29, 2015

[6] Bill Briggs, “Can the Cops Cuff You for Filming an Arrest?” NBC News ( accessed April 29, 2015

[7] Ben Montgomery, “Florida’s ‘Stand Your Ground’ Law was Born of 2004 Case, but that Story has been Distorted;” Tampa Bay Times, April 14, 2012 ( accessed April 29, 2015

[8] Robert Farley, “Gov. Jan Brewer Talks of Beheadings in the Arizona Desert,” Politifact.Com April 29, 2015 (, accessed April 29, 2015

[9] Frank Vyan Walton, “Carl Stokes to CNN’s Erin Burnett: Thugs? Just Call Them N#ggers Then…” Daily Kos, April 28, 2015 ( accessed April 29, 2015

[10] Baltimore Mom: “I Just Lost It” Seeing Son at Riots with Rock in Hand;” CBS News April 29, 2015 ( accessed April 29, 2015