25 - 03 - 2019

Creating a govt that is answerable to the people

John Locke (1632 –1704) was an English philosopher, widely regarded as one of the most influential Enlightenment thinkers and commonly known as the “Father of Liberalism,” because he laid much of the groundwork for the modern democratic society.

Having been born into a Puritan family and theologically influenced by Philipp van Limborch, Locke developed many of his political thoughts from a biblical perspective, which was mostly based on the creation accounts in Genesis and the laws in the Book of Exodus. Here are some of his major contributions to the development of political thoughts:

The State of Nature and Inherent Rights: Locke’s account of political society is based on the human condition at the beginning of communal life. He argues that all men and women are born equal and therefore there can be no natural hierarchy among humans. They are also created to be free. But this freedom, Locke says, is not a state of complete license, because it is set within the bonds of the law of nature, subject only to the will of “the infinitely wise Maker.”  That being the case, “no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.” This state existed as part of the law of nature before any government came into existence. Therefore, no fellow human or government has any right to deprive these God-given rights without their prior consent under some sort of social contract.

Refutation of the Divine-Right-to-Rule Theory: In 1680, Robert Filmer, a political theorist, wrote Patriarcha, advocating the divine right to rule by a hereditary system, thereby defending the English monarchy, by saying that God vested paternal authority to Adam and gave the earth as grant to him, which was what the monarchy inherited. But Locke counter-argues that Filmer’s claim is absurd, because it is mankind that has received the right to rule and the earth is their common dominion.

Government by Consent: In the primordial state of nature all people were equal and everyone had a natural right to defend his “life, health, liberty, or possessions.” At the same time, Locke recognizes that having rights was not enough in that natural state, because the strong would always take advantage of the weak in the absence of some higher authority over them. He writes, “If man in the state of nature be so free, why will he part with his freedom? The Enjoyment of his property is constantly exposed to invasion of others. [For this reason] man is willing to join society with others for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties and estates ….” Thus, to avoid constant unpredictability or war-like situations, civilized men have abandoned the state of nature and chosen to subject themselves under a common authority, the government, which would, in turn, serve to protect their freedom and their inalienable rights.

Political Power as Morally Based: Power for Locke never simply means “capacity” but always “morally sanctioned capacity.” Morality pervades the whole arrangement of society, and it is this fact that makes something legitimate and right. Thus, in his Second Treatises, Locke defines political power as a “right of making Laws with Penalties of Death, and consequently all less Penalties, for the Regulating and Preserving of Property, and of employing the force of the Community, in the Execution of such Laws and in defense of the Common-wealth from Foreign Injury, and all this only for the Public Good.”

Separation of Powers:  Unlike Hobbes’ strong unitary system (absolutism) where no subjects could sue the government or appeal to the law against a monarch, Locke advocates for a constitutional system of government that would be characterized by the rule of laws. To avoid the danger of one ruler monopolizing political power, he argues for a separation of powers by dividing the government into three branches: the Legislative, the Executive, and the Federal. He insists that it is imperative to have checks and balances so as to ensure a just system of government on behalf of the people.

Separation of Church and State:  Locke’s essay on religious toleration appeared in 1689 amidst a fear that Catholicism might be taking over England and transforming the church there into a political power as was the case with papal Rome. So, Locke responded to the situation by proposing religious toleration as the answer, which has resulted in serving as a model for the separation of church and state. On the other hand, the state also should not, according to Locke, interfere in religious affairs but respect freedom of religion except when the dissenting belief is a threat to public order.

Rights to Revolt: According to Locke, it is the society which makes the formation of government possible through a social contract. But when a government violates the terms of the mutual agreements or betrays the confidence of the governed, that same society may remove it – that is, if the executive power fails to provide the conditions under which the people can enjoy their rights, then the people are entitled to remove him. Thus, Locke believes that revolution is not only a right but an obligation in extreme circumstances.

Much of what Locke advocated in the realm of politics was accepted in England after the Glorious Revolution of 1688–89. His writings influenced many Enlightenment thinkers throughout Europe. His radical ideas sowed the seed for the American Revolution and the subsequent Declaration of Independence from Great Britain in 1776. In France as well, Locke’s ideas found clear expression in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen and other justifications of the French Revolution of 1789. 

Perhaps our political consciousness is still very shallow. But what about holding our own state-level government accountable? Let alone exercising our right to revolt against our government, do we even know how to question our local politicians who keep breaking their election promises to us time and time again?