19 February 2009

Thoughts on Locke

Our first primary source for political philosophy was John Locke's Second Treatise of Government. It was both fascinating and frustrating: fascinating in that I got to see some of the first inklings of the ideas that helped to form the United States; frustrating in that the justifications Locke uses for his ideas are problematic at best, and quite possibly incoherent. That was especially frustrating when I found myself agreeing with his conclusions, but still knowing that there was no real foundation under them.

Locke starts by talking about the "State of Nature." Most political philosophers of the same time period seem to have been very interested in how humans first came together to form societies governed by laws, and refer to the prior time as a "State of Nature." Locke's take on it is fairly unique. It rests on an assumption that there would have been plenty of resources to go around in the State of Nature, and thus little competition for them, and little reason to squabble for them. It would only be as population increased sufficiently to start consuming the resources (particularly land) that conflicts would arise. However, even in the absence of any sort of human governance, these conflicts would still be regulated by "Natural Law." Short version: In the State of Nature, every person has a right to defend his own life and/or body and/or property against attack, and every person has a right to punish anyone who attempts to attack anyone else's life/body/property. There's more to it, but those are the key points. Oh, and the reason for this Natural Law is that "God" granted humans life, and it is going against "God" to attack his creations.

First problem: all available evidence indicates that, with a few exceptions when people moved into new continents, there has always been a scarcity of resources, so there would always have been conflicts over resources. Hobbes' version of the State of Nature did assume scarcity of resources, and was much, much more violent than Locke's.

But moving on from there, even in Locke's more plentiful State of Nature, enough conflicts would arise that people would find it advantageous to band together somehow, and form a compact for mutual aid and protection, i.e. a "Social Contract" ... which leads to the second problem: all available evidence indicates that humans have always lived in social groups. Even our ape ancestors lived in social groups. Any social group will need to have rules of some kind, which might eventually rise to the status of laws. Third problem: even if isolated humans came together and made a compact for their mutual aid and protection, it's not clear that the compact would be binding on their descendants.

Locke does try to deal with this. He says that children are not bound by the Social Contract until they come of age. In particular, if they accept an inheritance of property within an area bound by the Social Contract, they must tacitly accept the contract in order to accept that inheritance. If they wish to go against the contract, they must forfeit the inheritance. There's a bit of muddling about what happens to children who come of age and do not inherit anything immediately, or else I missed something. Others have argued that accepting the benefits of living in a regulated society amounts to tacit acceptance of its Social Contract ... as if one always had an option to just leave and go some place free of any such contract. Hume refuted that one fairly soundly. The vast majority of people have no means to leave, and no familiarity with customs outside their native land, and so do not really have a choice about staying. Also, there aren't too many places left on earth where it's possible to be free of every country's jurisdiction. There may not be any nowadays.

And that's the fatal flaw with any sort of voluntary Social Contract Theory. Only the ones who found the society seem to have any genuine choice about whether to accept the contract or not. Anyone born into the society later simply inherits the results, whether he/she likes it or not. Immigrants may be made to jump through certain hoops to indicate acceptance of the existing contract, and in Locke's view it seems this should make them more loyal to their newfound state than to their old ... yet the opposite is usually the case. Since much of Locke's case rests on the voluntary nature of his Social Contract, this is a rather significant problem.

I think the idea of an implied contract between government and governed might be salvageable (and maybe it will be in our later readings), with the idea that people can withhold their consent should the government be out of hand, but not if the idea rests on them knowingly and voluntarily accepting the contract in the first place. The voluntary nature of the contract would have to rest on the government, then, not the governed. To be allowed to govern, one enters into a contract with the governed, and if one breaks it, then the governed can withdraw their consent. I think that is workable ... except, perhaps, in hereditary governments, where people get born into their position with no more choice than the citizens born into the state.

No comments: