John Locke and Republican Liberty

A Personal Credo, Part II

See Part I here.

By explaining everything in nature, including the evolution of humans and consciousness, as the result ultimately of impersonal forces working on atoms, materialists like Democritus and Epicurus swept away all moral and political systems justified by appeal to the commandments of supernatural beings. Although he had much to say about ethics in the world that science has revealed, Epicurus had little to say about politics, other than defining justice as agreements about people neither to harm one another nor do harm.

This vagueness made it possible for Epicurus to be admired both by Karl Marx, who wrote his dissertation on Epicurus, and Friedrich von Mises, who wrote: “The historical role of the theory of the division of labor as elaborated by British political economy from Hume to Ricardo consisted in the complete demolition of all metaphysical doctrines concerning the origin and the operation of social cooperation. It consummated the spiritual, moral and intellectual emancipation of mankind inaugurated by the philosophy of Epicureanism.”

If we reject the secular doctrine of “might makes right,” because it is based on subjugation rather than mutual benefit, then a number of rival secular theories of politics have competed with each other. The most important have been conventionalism (time-tested tradition as the basis for social order), deontological ethics (duty-based rules), virtue ethics (qualities of character), utilitarianism (the greatest good of the greatest number), perfectionism (the state exists to develop the inner potential of its citizens) and contractarianism (a hypothetical social contract among free, self-interested individuals as a guide to the best political system).

The “republican liberty” of the American Founders was deeply influenced by the social contract theory of John Locke (1632-1704), who derived his Christianized Epicureanism in part from the French philosopher Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655). Since the nineteenth century, however, most progressive and liberal intellectuals have rejected Lockean contractarianism for utilitarian or perfectionist justifications of liberalism. The social contract theory of John Rawls, although superficially similar to Locke’s, is rooted in the quite different tradition of Kantian deontological (duty-based) ethics.

But while republican liberty has lost favor among university faculties, in the world at large ever since the American and French revolutions republican liberalism has become the dominant political theory. In Asia and the Middle East and Africa as well as Europe and the Americas, the ideas of natural or human rights, popular sovereignty, and collective self-determination have defeated dialectical materialism and the theory of the master race. Only political Islam and American Christian fundamentalism -- both dwindling forces -- have mounted a significant counter-attack against contractarian natural rights liberalism in recent decades.

Let me explain why I think that the contractarian theory of republican liberty is superior to today’s utilitarian and perfectionist versions of liberalism. Utilitarianism tends towards undemocratic technocracy; after all, if really smart people are best able to determine “the greatest good for the greatest number,” then power should be concentrated in the hands of the brilliant, educated and altruistic. We republican liberals in the tradition of Locke believe that brilliant and educated people are just as likely to selfishly exploit the public as anyone else, albeit more capably, so we are unmoved by a slogan of “all power to the experts!”

Perfectionist liberalism, which holds that government should promote conditions in which individuals can develop their own potential, is appealing. But it takes for granted the prior existence of a benign, capable government and a coherent community. For republican liberals, the question is why is there any government or community at all, rather than primitive and violent anarchy?

The Lockean answer is that to escape insecurity, which is first and foremost physical insecurity -- the possibility of murder, rape, slavery or starvation at the hands of human predators -- individuals implicitly (not in an actual, historic contracts) give up some of their freedom in order to form societies with the coercive power to repel invaders, suppress criminals and prevent their own leaders from tyrannizing them. Like his fellow neo-Epicurean atomist Thomas Hobbes, John Locke thinks of politics as an escape from the dangerous “state of nature”; unlike Hobbes, Locke views despotism as one danger among several, not an alternative to danger.

It is this emphasis on the ever-present danger of physical insecurity that attracts me to Locke, Hobbes and other theorists of the social contract, rather than rival traditions of political philosophy, which strike me as too academic and unworldly. We are living only a few years after the Long War of 1914-1989, in which more than a hundred million died of unnatural causes as a result of world wars, proxy wars, Hitler’s genocidal campaign against Europe’s Jews and gypsies and Stalin’s and Mao’s collectivization campaigns and labor camps. In living memory in the United States de facto labor enslavement existed in much of the South, enforced by public lynch mobs and KKK death squads, and West Coast whites enthusiastically appropriated the property of Japanese-Americans consigned to concentration camps after Pearl Harbor. Any political theory that does not put the prevention of horrors like these at its core is worthless.

As I see it, the central question in every era, including our own, is the very Lockean question that President Lincoln asked in his address of July 4, 1861 to Congress, near the beginning of the Civil War: "Must a government, of necessity, be too strong for the liberties of its own people, or too weak to maintain its own existence?''