Political Thought Links: Parallels:
Who are Today's Lockeans?
is difficult to find a direct parallel to Locke's political philosophy
on today's political scene. Some would argue that all Americans
are basically Lockeans, since almost all of us at least agree
in general that individual rights exist and should be protected
and respected by our government. The structure of the American
government is similar to, but not identical, with Locke's vision.
Others would argue that we and our government have come quite
far from the simple liberalism of Locke, and that our government
has far exceeded in power what Locke would have considered tyrannical,
especially in the areas of taxation and restrictions on gun ownership.
Libertarians could lay claim to many of Locke's positions, but
so could conservatives (especially fiscal conservatives) and liberals
(especially those whose focus is civil liberties). Let's examine
a few issues so that we can see more clearly what a Lockean position
might look like in specific public policy debates.
Control v. Second Amendment Rights
Gun control and gun rights have been and remain hotly debated
issues in the United States. Even though the U.S. has a number
of restrictions on the sale and purchase of guns, other countries
have many more. Some of these countries experience far fewer homicides
and other gun fatalities than the United States. However, the
Second Amendment to the Constitution gives Americans the right
to "keep and bear arms." The fact that the Constitution enshrines
this right, along with the fact that ours is a relatively violent
society, has led some individuals and groups to call for a complete
ban on certain types of guns, and much stricter regulation of
other types of guns.
These advocates of gun control argue that our founders, and thinkers
like Locke, would never want the Second Amendment to guarantee
the right to keep any and all private weapons but only those necessary
for a "well-regulated militia." They further argue that the times
have changed, and our system of national defense is much different
than it was in Locke's time or in the founding era. What can a
family with a few handguns or shotguns do against the most typical
foreign foes of today's America-terrorists and powerful countries
with sophisticated conventional and even nuclear weapons? Such
threats can only be met by a well-organized, highly trained and
professional military with a vast amount of fire-power, which
we have successfully developed. They would argue that we need
to change our understanding of the constitution to fit the times.
In these times, they argue, the complete freedom to own guns has
encouraged a culture of violence and has led to many accidental
deaths as well as murders committed in the heat of passion when
a gun is all too handy. They point to other countries with more
gun restrictions which have less violence as proof that their
proposals would work here, too.
Advocates of gun control dismiss the concern that Locke had, that
people must be prepared and able to revolt in case their own government
becomes tyrannical. The government has changed a great deal, they
would argue. It is democratic and responsive to the needs of the
people. The idea that the people would ever want or need to revolt
against such a government seems remote and antiquarian to gun
control advocates. It also seems impossible-how could a people
armed primarily with rifles, shotguns and handguns be any threat
to the United States military?
Advocates of a "strict construction" or more literal interpretation
of the Second Amendment argue that the founders, inspired by Locke
and other thinkers, intended for every law-abiding person to be
able to keep and bear arms. The purpose, they argue, is not only
defense against foreign enemies, and issue more relevant and realistic
in those days, but also defense against one's own government.
Indeed, gun rights advocates can and do use Locke's reasoning
as proof of the fundamental importance of having a citizenry which
is not disarmed and thus easily dominated by the government. While
the federal government is much better armed than any individual
or group of private citizens, these citizens could still resist
the government should it ever become tyrannical, and could even
more effectively resist local authorities trying to carry out
tyrannical orders. In the twentieth century, sometimes a people
that resists much greater powers can win the day by gaining the
sympathy and support of more people and other countries, as happened
in Vietnam, or by shaming their own country's military into disobeying
their orders to oppress their own people, as happened in the former
Soviet Union. Even weak resistance is not always futile.
Furthermore, gun rights advocates contend that a more realistic
threat these days is crime. They argue that America's violent
culture is not caused by the presence of guns, but that law-abiding
people need guns in order to protect their persons and their property.
Like Locke, they argue that a person must have the absolute right
to protect themselves if the government cannot--often the case
when a break-in occurs in the middle of the night, for instance.
They present evidence that states which allow individuals to carry
concealed weapons for self-protection have less crime (i.e., knowing
that the victim might be armed deters criminals), and they produce
examples where women in particular have been saved from death
by their ability to use a gun in self-defense. The famous saying
of the National Rifle Association (NRA), "Guns Don't Kill People,
People Kill People," is meant to convey the idea that crime is
not caused by guns but by violent people and will not be reduced
by regulating guns, but may very well be increased as more and
more innocent people become defenseless.
of Church and State?
In his Letter Concerning Toleration, Locke makes it clear that
he is for disestablishment, that is that there should be no state-established
church, as the Church of England, which receives tax dollars for
its support and special privileges from the government that other
churches and religions do not receive. In Locke's time establishment
also meant the persecution and outlawing of other religious groups.
In Locke's view, there was nothing wrong with a government official
publically expressing his personal religious views, but he should
never veer into imposing those views on others by any sort of
Hardly anyone in America will argue that government should establish
a religion. In that sense almost everyone respects and advocates
the "establishment clause" of the First Amendment to our Constitution.
The question Americans debate is whether and what kinds of religious
ideas, images, principles, etc., should be presented in publically
owned and operated institutions.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is the principal organization
which advocates a strict separation of church and state. In principle,
this organization would call for the removal of all religion from
the public square. "In God We Trust" would be removed from coinage
and paper money, displays of the Ten Commandments in public places
such as courts and city halls would be forbidden. Parochial schools
would not be able to receive any federal funding because this
would amount to the government supporting religion. In short,
the ACLU interprets the First Amendment to mean government must
not mingle with or support religion in general, not just one "official"
religion in particular. Advocates of complete separation argue
that this kind of distance between government and religion is
necessary to ensure that people are completely free to believe
whatever they will, or to not believe, without any interference
or pressure from government, even in symbolic form. The U.S. Supreme
Court has largely followed this expanded interpretation of the
First Amendment's establishment clause. Although it has not yet
approved any of the examples given, it has struck down some once-common
practices such as prayers in public schools, Christmas displays
in city parks, and public funding of books with religious content
in parochial schools.
Those who oppose such decisions argue that the Establishment Clause
was meant simply to prevent the establishment by the federal government
of one religion or church and the exclusion of others. They point
to the history of England and the early colonial history in America
to show that this was the common understanding of "establishment"
at that time. They provide evidence that the American founders
themselves accepted such practices as national days of prayer
and fasting, prayer before congressional sessions, and federal
funding of religious schools. Turning their attention to the present-day,
they argue that the type of exclusion of religion from the public
square that the ACLU desires amounts to a violation of another
clause of the First Amendment, the Free Exercise Clause which
guarantees the rights of Americans to freely exercise their religious
beliefs. Advocating that religious beliefs be the only ones officially
excluded from public places amounts to putting religious speech
and practice into a special category that can be suppressed by
government. They argue that this exclusion is clearly not what
thinkers like Locke or the American founders would have desired,
because they were concerned with keeping religion free and healthy.
Libertarians are freedom-loving people. They have expanded Locke's
notion of individual freedom, probably far beyond what Locke himself
would have considered viable or wise, yet they use the same type
of logic that Locke used to support religious freedom and property
rights. They believe that it is not the government's business
to regulate in any way our personal decisions, unless those decisions
can harm another person.
Libertarians believe, as did Locke, that our bodies are our most
fundamental and inalienable property. Therefore we should be able
to do anything with our own bodies, again, so long as in the process
we do not harm others in any real way. Thus, libertarians often
promote an end to laws against certain types of abortion, prostitution,
drug use, certain forms of gambling, same-sex relationships and
marriages, and seat-belt free driving. It is not that libertarians
are necessarily advocating these activities, but that they see
no reason why government should be involved in regulating our
personal and moral choices. Libertarians believe that adults can
make up their own minds and that, given enough freedom, they will
behave wisely, because certain actions have bad consequences.
Indeed, libertarians often point out that the government's influence
is doubly perverse-first, it outlaws practices like these, and
then through its vast power it creates programs which soften the
blow of the natural consequences that befall people when they
make these bad choices. Thus, government inadvertently encourages
the very self-destructive behavior it hopes to discourage.
Libertarians advance a vision of very limited government and thus
of much lower taxes. Libertarians believe that the power to tax
is the power to enslave and even to kill. That is, the more of
our money the government has, the more power it has over us-to
make us do what it wants, to make us pack up and go to war, if
necessary. The tax code itself is a mild example of what libertarians
see as government coercion. The code encourages certain behaviors
such as buying a home and having children by giving people deductions,
and discourages other behaviors, such as marriage and stay-at-home
parenting by penalizing these activities. Why should the government
be making these decisions for us? Libertarians resoundingly answer
that it should not. For libertarians, the primary purpose of government
should be providing for national defense and for the enforcement
of laws against real crimes such as theft and murder. Needless
to say, libertarians are strong gun-rights advocates.
Those who argue against the amount of freedom libertarians want
have a tougher task. They have to convince us why we should not
always be able to make our own choices about those things that
appear to be personal, private and not harmful to others. They
first tackle the libertarian assumption that these types of activities
are purely private and not harmful to others. Whether to be a
prostitute, and whether to purchase the services of a prostitute
appear to be personal choices, but in the real world they have
certain harmful consequences to others-especially to the families
of those who choose to use prostitutes. Similarly, drug use seems
like a personal choice, but it can be so harmful to the individual
that he or she loses a job, and the dependent family must be supported
by the taxpayers. In other words, individuals do not live in a
vacuum. They are members of families, groups and society itself.
Their personal choices have ramifications for the rest of us.
Opponents of the libertarian position may argue that government
should indeed have a role in shaping our choices for our own sake.
Government is the personification of society and community-it
cannot help but send moral messages to people either by ignoring
or by taking proactive measures. Human beings are social creatures,
and not just isolated individuals, and there is a role for the
larger society to play in "socializing" or civilizing them. One
of the many ways in which this role is fulfilled is through laws.
Laws against socially unacceptable behavior such as prostitution
and gambling help people to control themselves and thus be better
and more responsible citizens and better and ultimately happier
The issue of abortion falls into a murky territory for both sides
of this debate. Some libertarians actually call for outlawing
abortion, because in their minds abortion is the killing of another
human being with the same absolute right to life as any other
human being. Other libertarians call for abortion to be completely
legal at all stages because a woman's body is her own property
and government must not in any way tell her what to do or not
do with it. Opponents of the latter libertarian position would
argue that legalized abortion perpetuates a "culture of death"
which creates attitudes toward human life in our society that
produce other problems such as higher suicide and murder rates.
They might also argue that abortion often harms the woman who
"chooses" it, either physically or, more often, psychologically.
Because of this harm, the government should regulate abortion
and at least make sure that a woman who chooses abortion is making
an informed and thoroughly considered choice. Laws in many of
the states which call for waiting periods, full medical and adoption
information, and parental consent reflect these social and personal