Posts Tagged ‘Second Treatise of Government’

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Locke, pt. 3

February 2, 2017

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Locke, pt. 3


Whensoever therefore the legislative shall transgress this fundamental rule of society; and either by ambition, fear, folly or corruption, endeavour to grasp themselves, or put into the hands of any other, an absolute power over the lives, liberties, and estates of the people; by this breach of trust they forfeit the power the people had put into their hands for quite contrary ends, and it devolves to the people, who have a right to resume their original liberty, and, by the establishment of a new legislative, (such as they shall think fit) provide for their own safety and security, which is the end for which they are in society.


—– John Locke



We can see at least three points where Locke provides us with an answer to the question of whether stupid people should be allowed to vote. The first is the description of the state of Nature, and the common point he shares with the totalitarian Hobbes: equality. The wise and the foolish, the sage and the ignoramus are all essentially equal. For Hobbes, this contention was based on his utter pessimism; believing all people are basically irrational and nasty, he thought the clever no better than the brute. In the war of each against all, the differences between the smart and the stupid matter little; each can kill the other in the right circumstances. Thus each has as much to gain by belonging to a commonwealth, and as much to give up by accepting its restrictions. For Locke, his belief in equality rests on more optimistic grounds: a faith in the rule of reason even in the state of nature. Locke believed all people were essentially free to choose good or evil, and free to choose to employ their reason to determine the right course of action. All may not be identically capable or informed, but all are essentially educable and reasonable. Therefore, no one would enter a social contract that sacrificed that inalienable equality; each gives up only those rights that all the others give up as well.

Second, each has an inalienable right to the property that is the fruit of one’s labors. Whether one is a renowned philosopher or a simple farmer, whoever does the work has joined his or her efforts to the world and made that part of it to be private property. The government I choose to live under must agree to protect my property, regardless of how informed I am about world affairs or how inclined I am to reason passionately rather than logically. That is one of the functions of civil government: to protect private property.

Third, all proper civil government is by the will of the majority. A supporter once called out, “Governor Stevenson, all thinking people are for you!” And Adlai Stevenson answered, “That’s not enough. I need a majority.”[1] That story is often treated as an indictment of democracy, but it needn’t be. Every person has a right to have his or her needs addressed and concerns heard. Maybe I don’t know all the economics of free trade; but I do know if I am losing my job because the factory is relocating overseas. I have a right to demand that society do something to help me. My fundamental equality is expressed in each person being equal before the law. My right to my own work is guaranteed in society’s protection of my property. The inalienable right to liberty is lived out in the principle of government by the will of the majority: of the people, by the people and for the people. When we can all have our say, all make our case, and all freely agree to take a vote and work together on whatever we jointly decide, my fundamental freedom is actualized through the action of the government, which is responding not to the whims of a king or even an elite, but to the total pressure of each one of us pushing upon the levers of power.

It seems then that there are ample reasons for civil government to arise and maintain itself. It fulfills the needs of the individual members better than living in a governmentless state of nature could, and it coordinates group actions so that we can live together in peace and together achieve goals we could not on our own. Why, then, would any government ever collapse into tyranny? Plato pointed to the corrupting power of wealth, but Locke’s view of political power particularly rules this out; since civil government exists largely to protect the private property of every citizen, it can hardly be that owning property in itself should disqualify anyone from participation in government. Nor can Locke agree with Plato’s contention that only a small group should be allowed any political power; for Locke, political power flows up from the people, who explicitly or implicitly choose a government which is then obligated to act according to their collective will. Instead, Locke points to the weakness of human nature, and the tendency of some individuals to violate the laws of reason and to grasp for more than they ought. He writes:



… tyranny is the exercise of power beyond right, which no body can have a right to. And this is making use of the power any one has in his hands, not for the good of those who are under it, but for his own private separate advantage. When the governor, however intitled, makes not the law, but his will, the rule; and his commands and actions are not directed to the preservation of the properties of his people, but the satisfaction of his own ambition, revenge, covetousness, or any other irregular passion.[2]



So tyranny is not only the assumption of power by someone who is not entitled; the tyrant might be an elected official. The tyrant might not be particularly oppressive, if it suits him or her not to be. The tyrant might not even be a single person, but could in fact be a group.[3] But the tyrant is motivated not by the will and good of the people, but by personal interests and whim. The tyrant is, after all, only human, and subject to ambition, covetousness, and all the other common “irregular” passions. The tyrant may see the job of government as a chance for personal advancement, or simply believe that he/she/they know better than the majority what is “good” and thus refuse to act according to their will or needs.

Locke had a stark warning of what can happen if these inalienable rights are ignored. He writes:



The reason why men enter into society, is the preservation of their property; and the end why they chuse and authorize a legislative, is, that there may be laws made, and rules set, as guards and fences to the properties of all the members of the society, to limit the power, and moderate the dominion, of every part and member of the society: for since it can never be supposed to be the will of the society, that the legislative should have a power to destroy that which every one designs to secure, by entering into society, and for which the people submitted themselves to legislators of their own making; whenever the legislators endeavour to take away, and destroy the property of the people, or to reduce them to slavery under arbitrary power, they put themselves into a state of war with the people, who are thereupon absolved from any farther obedience, and are left to the common refuge, which God hath provided for all men, against force and violence.[4]



In case that last line isn’t clear to today’s readers, the “common refuge” is to fight back. If the government ceases to represent the majority, and instead caters only to the ruler or to a small group of supporters, it puts itself at war with its own citizens, and they in turn have the right to rise up and defend themselves and ultimately to overthrow their tyrannical masters, if necessary and possible. This is literally revolutionary stuff, both when it was published and 315 years later. This is what the Founding Fathers relied on when they explained, to themselves and to the ages, why they were declaring independence from their sovereign lord and king in England. The reasons Jefferson gives in the Declaration of Independence matches exactly the behavior of a tyrant as described by John Locke eighty-five years before: “(King George III) …has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people….He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone for the tenure of their offices,…For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent: For depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of Trial by Jury…” Denying the right of elected officials to meet, or depriving them of their independence, or refusing to enforce the laws they passed, are all things Locke singles out as reasons for the dissolution of government. Add to that the seizure of property without consent, and without due process of law as passed by representatives elected by the people themselves, and the actual acts of violent repression cited by the Declaration, and this matches Locke’s description of a government that has declared war on its own people. And in that case, Locke says, the people have every right to band together, grab whatever weapons they can find, and fight for their freedom. The government that overreaches and turns oppressor does not just risk angering the people; it loses its entire justification for being considered a “government” at all, and becomes nothing more than an alien, enemy occupation. In this circumstance, rebellion is not just possible; it is the only just and reasonable option. It is not even really a “rebellion” at all, but rather self-defense against the tyrannical power that has declared war on the citizens.

It may seem like this is a prescription for anarchy. If anyone may decide at any time to rebel, what is to stop rebellions from breaking out at any time? What stops anyone who doesn’t want to pay taxes or follow the laws the majority follow from declaring their own personal independence, gathering up an armed mob or paid militia, and going to war against society? Locke is aware of this criticism and has responses. In his discussion of this, we see him trying to walk a path between two extremes. On the one hand, he says it is clearly absurd to say that one must wait until all hope is lost before one can begin to resist tyranny.[5] On the other hand, there must be limits, and there are. First, there this the simple fact of human nature: “People are not so easily got out of their old forms, as some are apt to suggest.”[6] By and large, people will put up with a lot before they resort to the risky and uncertain path of violence. “Better the devil you know,” as they say. It is only when the government has been seriously mismanaged, or the authorities have so trampled upon the inalienable rights of the people that they have already declared war upon them, that people are likely to resort to force to defend themselves.[7] Locke is not saying that anyone has the right to take up arms simply because he (or she) happens to not like the current government’s policy on some matter. By joining together in a community, we all agreed to live by the community’s rules and to respect the will of the majority.[8] As long as there are functioning mechanisms for the people to voice their opinions and elect representatives who will make the laws all will live by, there is no need or justification for rebellion. But when the government ceases to respect those mechanisms, and the people are left with no peaceful way to resolve their grievances and the will of the majority is not the guiding principle of the state, then the people may take up arms, overthrow the tyranny and establish a new and free government.

So, should stupid people be allowed to vote? We are all created equal, whether one is a bit smarter or stronger or better-looking. We all have the same inalienable rights. Those rights are only protected and expressed in a civil society, which means a society with the rule of law and where the will of the people is the ultimate foundation of that law. Each individual’s inalienable liberty is enacted when he or she is votes for the representatives to the legislative body. To deny someone the right to vote because he or she might vote “wrong” is to deny that person’s personhood. It is tyranny and slavery. And one always has the right, by the laws of God and reason, to resist with force anyone who tries to oppress another.

[1] “Music Cues: Adlai Stevenson,” Feb. 5, 2000

[2] John Locke, Second Treatise of Civil Government, chapter XVIII, sect. 199

[3] Second Treatise sect. 201

[4] Second Treatise of Government, chapter XIX, sec. 222

[5] Second Treatise, Chapter XIX, sec. 230-33

[6] Second Treatise, Chapter XIX, sec. 223

[7] sec. 224-230

[8] sec. 243


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.