We Built this City on Rage n’ War

Art & Literature, Domestic Policy, Politics — By on April 13, 2010 at 12:02 am

Every society has some form of origin story. A few, like America’s, are recent and well-documented. Others, as in Egypt or Greece, trace back to oral lore and ancient mythologies. But a larger question lingers beneath these accounts: why do humans form societies? Why can’t each person live, work and trade independently without governments and courts and elections and–most of all–without taxes?

Political philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, writing during the late 17th to 18th century Enlightenment period, thought extensively about this question. They concluded the same thing: it’s because humans suck. Because we can’t get along without behavioral constraints, we need societies: without them, humanity would subsist in a perpetual ‘state of war’.

Since war has a nasty tendency to hinder everyone’s life and liberty, humans resort to forming social structures. Alexander Hamilton articulated the theory nicely in the Federalist Papers:

Why has government been instituted at all? Because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice, without constraint.

John Locke, whose ideas are embedded in the foundations of American political thought, outlined the transition from the ‘state of war’ to the institution of government in his 1690 work, The Second Treatise of Government. Here’s the rundown:

First and foremost, Locke grounded his theory in a concept we’ve probably heard before: ‘natural law’. Given by God and within the fabric of the natural universe, this law is discovered when anyone uses her reason properly, meaning that every human is responsible to live at least according the natural law. Accountability to positive laws that reach beyond pure natural law, whether the Decalogue or the tax code, only falls to whomever the positive laws are directly given.

Locke believe that humans who live in accord with natural law are in the ‘natural state’. In the natural state, there is no need for authority beyond individuals and their own reason. Disputes can be solved by reason, without any third party. No one transgresses the others’ rights: namely, self-protection and allowance to individually seek recompense from another person who caused the agent to experience property loss.  In other words, there is zero need for government in the natural state.

So go live in the natural state!
This is the part where everyone says, Yeah. Right.

Short of Eden, an idyll not directly addressed but lurking beneath Locke’s description of the natural state, natural human harmony is impossible. We instinctively know that greed and pride best the best of us. Visions of universal peace sans law or external authority seem ludicrous.

Which is exactly Locke’s point. Which is why we form governments.

To escape the state of war, humans willingly surrender many of natural rights to a common authority. An autonomous individual’s natural freedoms—for example, the right to exact justice without a third party—are transferred to the governing authority for the sake of general order.

So rather than holding that God first instated human government, Locke holds that we invented government as a defense mechanism. Can we buy Locke’s theory? Can the origin of social structures be reduced to a desperate human need for protection from ourselves?

Whether or not the reduction is wholly correct, Locke seems to strike a deep and true into the motivation behind human behavior. His ideas are rooted in a theistic worldview: we were created by some Being greater than ourselves to live in harmony, but some fault in us destroys that possibility. That is why Locke would never entertain anarchy or utopianism as beneficial social movements: they deny that error is woven into the fabric of humanity. We instinctively know, as Locke recognized, that without government enforced laws, people will injure others for their own benefit.

I would like to know, then, what Locke would have to say about socialism. Close your eyes and pretend that the government now takes every cent of your capital and redistributes it using social programs.

If everyone consented to this program, Locke very well may find it permissible: his political theory allows for a wide variety of economic systems. But I don’t believe that the majority of Americans are willing to give that consent.

Locke holds that the government exists by virtue of citizens granting it permission to exist and conferring onto government many rights they would have as autonomous individuals in the natural state.

In the natural state, no one has the right to forcibly take another’s property—that would only happen in the irrational state of war, which the government is supposed to prevent. So, if the government takes wealth without general consent, it wages war on the people. I’m curious…when’s the last time you heard someone say they approved of Congress’s handling of tax dollars?

Social programs and expenditures continually shuffle through Congress, sometimes even beneath nineteen hundred pages of jargon. Congressmen will use shady tactics to gather votes, as we’ve recently seen with the health care bill.

According to Locke, we built this city as a protection from blunted reason. At what point will we find that bad reasoning emits from the city? Eventually, protection from other individuals fades in light of needing protection from government.

Reforming any government is a messy business, even when bloodless—just look at Poland’s Solidarity movement or Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution. But at some point, the scale tips, and the pursuit of a happy, peaceful life is more hindered than helped by the government. At this point, government causes the state of war that citizens wanted protection against.

The author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, wrote in an 1802 letter to Thomas Cooper:

If we can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people, under the pretence of taking care of them, they must become happy. Their finances are now under such a course of application as nothing could derange but war or federalism.

I have to wonder if, right now, Locke just might say that ‘war’ and ‘federalism’ are looking pretty similar.

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  • Tocquevillean Tortise

    A good first swing at Locke, for a solid base hit.

    However, the man was most probably not a Christian, and his political theory can work on the grounds of radical autonomy, i.e., self-ownership, even if it is dressed up as ALSO working due to God’s ownership of us and being in accord with the Golden Rule. See Michael Zuckert’s books. This is why Locke’s law of nature is not in accord with the natural law tradition, and really is something distinct. It’s “honesty is the best policy” FOR the real ends of self-preservation and property-based prosperity. I.e., it’s what Tocqueville called “self-interest rightly understood.” Christian Americans can actually be grateful for its code, for it makes it easier for the athiests among the “We” that is our people to “hold the truths” of the Declaration.

    And, you need to think more carefully about theories of consent. James Madison once had to remind ol’ TJ that every society, even Lockean republican ones, have to rely to some degree on tacit consent. And that means, that by the Declaration’s language, the Obama administration is legitimate government, and that you and I can be understood to have consented to the social contract of the Constitution even though we were never asked about it and never will be. Sound kind of artificial? Well, while we do have reason to be grateful for Lockeanism and the Declaration, both do have their limits and blind spots…

  • Tocquevillean Tortise

    A good first swing at Locke, for a solid base hit.

    However, the man was most probably not a Christian, and his political theory can work on the grounds of radical autonomy, i.e., self-ownership, even if it is dressed up as ALSO working due to God’s ownership of us and being in accord with the Golden Rule. See Michael Zuckert’s books. This is why Locke’s law of nature is not in accord with the natural law tradition, and really is something distinct. It’s “honesty is the best policy” FOR the real ends of self-preservation and property-based prosperity. I.e., it’s what Tocqueville called “self-interest rightly understood.” Christian Americans can actually be grateful for its code, for it makes it easier for the athiests among the “We” that is our people to “hold the truths” of the Declaration.

    And, you need to think more carefully about theories of consent. James Madison once had to remind ol’ TJ that every society, even Lockean republican ones, have to rely to some degree on tacit consent. And that means, that by the Declaration’s language, the Obama administration is legitimate government, and that you and I can be understood to have consented to the social contract of the Constitution even though we were never asked about it and never will be. Sound kind of artificial? Well, while we do have reason to be grateful for Lockeanism and the Declaration, both do have their limits and blind spots…

  • Robin Dembroff

    Dear Mr. Tortise (Tortoise?),

    I have wonderful news: we agree! When I said that “His [Locke’s] ideas are rooted in a theistic worldview,” I didn’t mean to imply that Locke or his ideas are Christian. Rather, what I was going for is that his ideas are arising out of a society that accepted certain moral truths that are generally attached to belief in some type of deity, be it the Christian God or no.

    You’re right though: I ought to have been more explicit that Locke’s conception of natural law differs from that of previous tradition.

    Regarding consent, I hope I didn’t imply that I think the Obama administration is illegitimate government. Nor, even, that ‘the federal government’ is illegitimate. What I hoped to convey was the dangers of ‘federalism’ as a political philosophy in which government feeds and bloats until its inefficiency negates the ability to offer citizens the protection it was created to provide.

  • Robin Dembroff

    Dear Mr. Tortise (Tortoise?),

    I have wonderful news: we agree! When I said that “His [Locke’s] ideas are rooted in a theistic worldview,” I didn’t mean to imply that Locke or his ideas are Christian. Rather, what I was going for is that his ideas are arising out of a society that accepted certain moral truths that are generally attached to belief in some type of deity, be it the Christian God or no.

    You’re right though: I ought to have been more explicit that Locke’s conception of natural law differs from that of previous tradition.

    Regarding consent, I hope I didn’t imply that I think the Obama administration is illegitimate government. Nor, even, that ‘the federal government’ is illegitimate. What I hoped to convey was the dangers of ‘federalism’ as a political philosophy in which government feeds and bloats until its inefficiency negates the ability to offer citizens the protection it was created to provide.

  • Tortoise Correctly Spelled

    Good to have the clarifications. And no Tocquevillean could disagree with your last point, although “federalism” is not a tag many use for the political philosophy you’re describing.

  • Tortoise Correctly Spelled

    Good to have the clarifications. And no Tocquevillean could disagree with your last point, although “federalism” is not a tag many use for the political philosophy you’re describing.

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