THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 358, March 12, 2006
More on Locke and the Logical Conclusion of His Philosophy
Special to TLE
I was recently reading a copy of Friedrich A. Hayek's The Road to Serfdom at a local restaurant when I was approached by a stranger with an opinion. The man began by asking me how it was that I became familiar with Hayek. If you are not familiar with Friedrich Hayek, he was an economist of the 20th Century whose most popular work The Road to Serfdom was published just prior to the end of World War II. In The Road to Serfdom Hayek outlines the doom that awaits any nation which heads down the slippery slope of socialism. Back to the restaurant. When I told the inquiring gentleman that I am a libertarian he told me that I am "halfway there." When I asked him what he meant by this statement he did not hesitate to explain. He told me why the war in Iraq is necessary to counteract the growing threat of terrorism that is a result of bourgeoning hostilities amongst middle-eastern Muslims. He went on to explain to me that some social programs will always be necessary to counteract poverty at home. While the conversation was cut short, I am sure that there are more issues at which my philosophy is only "halfway there" according to his self-proclaimed conservative ideology.
The question that begs to be asked is can we merge a democratic philosophy of government that is based upon the right to property with modern socialistic ideals without being inconsistent? The answer is no, we cannot. Do such inconsistencies have consequences? History will tell. If Hayek was right and justice prevails then we have sacrificed every bit of liberty that our government was intended to preserve for such concepts as social equity for the poor and misguided concerns for national safety. But let me ask another question: how is it that a "conservative" today could possibly come to such illogical conclusions? Before I answer this question, how about a very short lesson in political theory.
Prior to the American Revolution and at the outset of the birth of capitalism two men wrote two books in which two very different philosophies of government were outlined. The first was entitled Two Treatises of Government and was written (originally anonymously) by John Locke in 1689. The second, The Social Contract, Or Principles of Political Right was published in 1762 by author Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Locke, in his Second Treatise, outlines for us why it is that private property actually does exist in the first place and then goes on to conclude that the role of government is to protect that property. He states that "...the Commonwealth comes by a Power to set down, what punishment shall belong to the several transgressions which they think worthy of it, committed by the members of that Society... and all this for the preservation of the property of the members of that Society, as far as is possible.1" I am aware that this short excerpt does not provide for a full account of Locke's philosophy. Nevertheless, the point is that Locke asserted that governments exist to protect the property of the governed. Now let us look at Rousseau's position.
In The Social Contract Rousseau states that a democratic system presupposes certain things concerning how society should be ordered. He posits that democracy requires "a large measure of equality in rank and fortune, without which equality of rights and authority cannot long subsist" and goes on to state that little or no luxury is necessary for the citizens of a democratic society because, according to Rousseau "it corrupts at once the rich and poor, the rich by possession and the poor by covetousness." Rousseau concludes his chapter on Democracy by stating "Were there a people of gods their government would be democratic. So perfect a government is not for men.2" While Rousseau tends to be unclear as to how he defines his terms I will assume that he would have considered the early American form of government "for the people, by the people" to be a democratic one.
From such a brief account of the positions of both philosophers, which one sounds more in line with my friend at the restaurant? I think that the answer to this question is obvious.
The point is that Locke's philosophy of government, being essentially libertarian, is very opposed to any idea that government might restrict the property rights of its citizens seeing as it is the duty of government to protect that property. Contrary to this, Rousseau's philosophy, being essentially socialistic, sees "equality in rank and fortune" as a necessary precondition to a democratic form of government. Rousseau is completely in line with modern socialistic ideology as well as both mainstream conservatism and liberalism wherein they all agree that the less fortunate in society have a right to some minimum amount of property guaranteed to them at the expense of the more fortunate. Such thinking is entirely problematic. Here is why. If the very government which is entrusted with preserving the property of its citizens is allowed to do with that property as it pleases and as it sees fit, whether it is for the "general welfare" or not makes no difference - it is no longer the property of the individual which the government is protectingit is the property of the state. What then is the property of the state? Anything and everything that it can get its hands on: from a ludicrous percentage of your paycheck, to your home, to your life!
Unfortunately, it is rarely considered to be extreme to want to merge such socialistic principles as were espoused by the self-professed conservative who I met at the restaurant with such libertarian principles as Hayek would have us uphold. Even more unfortunate is the fact that it is the person who is consistent in recognizing the logical consequences of such thinking who is considered to be extreme, if not old-fashioned. It is in an attempt to synthesize these two philosophies of government that a conservative, like the man I met at the restaurant, is able to come to the conclusions that he holds to.
The purpose of this article is not to address my problems with any specific set of issues that currently comprise the platform of either of the socialistic parties running our country. Neither is my point to single out a well-intentioned stranger who had the mind to start a conversation. My point is to recognize the fact that unless we learn to distinguish between a philosophy of liberty and a philosophy of socialism, a Lockeian philosophy of government and a Rousseauian one, all the good intentions in the world will not save our country from the impending doom that befalls those who accept the tenet that social equity comes before liberty.
1. John Locke, Two Treatises of Government; Peter Laslett, Cambridge University Press, 2004; p.324.
2. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract and Discourses; Everyman Press, 1993; p.240.
Project Gutenberg e-text: Two Treatises of Government
Constitution Society e-text: The Social Contract
The Road to Serfdom (Amazon.com)