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Sunday, February 12, 2006

The Unlikely Consequences: Democracy from Locke's Natural Law and Absolutism from Rousseau's General Will

[This blog-entry reprints an essay I wrote for POLI 209 in 12 April 1994. I have altered its format in accordance with the standards of this blog. I have however left alone its sweeping value judgements, its ignorance of footnotes, and its emphasing of key terms. *and check the epilog.]

In the seventeenth century, the classical ideals of science, logic, and reason were re-emerging from the Dark Ages. In this period, Thomas Hobbes essayed to rationalize the reigning powers' hold over Europe in his Leviathan, without recourse to King James I's doctrine of "divine right". Mankind's life in a state of nature (absolute freedom) is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short," since the laws of nature ("doing to others as we would be done to") are "contrary to our natural passions." Therefore, any group of people must create a commonwealth in order to protect each member from one another and from outside forces. It must have power in order to be effective; therefore, it contracts with itself to promote a sovereign, who takes whatever measures he deems necessary.

Hobbes shocked Europe with his ideas. He had introduced the idea that governments derive their raison d'être from the people, not from a divine entity- but, at the same time, he had restated the unpopular claim that autocracy was the only form of government capable of protecting the populace. Hobbes's Leviathan, like Machiavelli's The Prince, was unacceptable to the leading political scientists of its time. Two schools of thought arose in answer to Hobbes's challenge: one spearheaded by John Locke, the other by Jean Jacques Rousseau.

John Locke was heavily influenced by the science of Isaac Newton. He expanded on Hobbes's theories in An Essay Concerning the True Original, Extent and End of Civil Government, in order to establish a balance of authority between the governors and the governed. Although he agreed with Hobbes's arguments against the state of nature, he refuted him on one point: since the absolute tyrant observes no higher authority, he himself exists in the state of nature! Locke set limits on the power of the sovereign based on Hobbes's definition of natural law. The laws of the sovereign's domain are likewise based, "proscribing no further than is for the general good of those under that law" and "hedging us in only from bogs and precipices." Freedom as defined by Locke is not "a liberty for every man to do what he lists," however; true freedom protects each human being from harm dealt by others. In this way, Locke founded his libertarian edifice upon Hobbes's arguments for absolute authority.

Locke's persuasive arguments spread throughout the world. His writings composed the intellectual justification for the American Revolution, and inspired similar movements for reform in Europe. Over one-half of the countries making up the world today have constitutions based on the American model.

Soon after Locke published his opus, Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote The Social Contract. Rousseau believed that personal property was wrong, and that mankind's nature was essentially good. Natural law, as defined by Hobbes and promoted by Locke, derives from property and is thus "always beneficial to 'haves' and injurious to 'have-nots'." Instead, the people should adhere to the general will of the community. This is the declared will of the majority of the well-informed; it is "an act of sovereignty, and has the force of law." The general populace "are never corrupted though often deceived." Although he did not believe in government, he implicitly allotted to the "well-informed" absolute power.

The left wing of the French National Assembly were the first to adopt "general will" as a concept of rulership. The extreme Jacobins took over France in 1793, and invested emergency powers to the most "well-informed" of them- the infamous Council of Twelve. Within a year, the Council had committed such atrocities in the name of the Revolution that the whole Republic came under disrepute. Despite this early failure, Rousseau's ideas became widely accepted by the European "literati", and inspired certain intellectuals to invent socialist theories.

Socialism, the political and economic theory of social organization advocating a rationally-ordered, collective society, was not new to the world. Plato had posited just such a society in The Republic, based upon the model of ancient Sparta. After Rousseau, socialist thinkers abounded, although most of them were noted eccentrics. Fourier, for example, believed that the world would end in 40,000 years as the oceans turned into lemonade. Saint-Simon and Owen both received visitors from the Spirit World- the former spoke to Charlemagne, the latter Thomas Jefferson.

The most credible of these theorists was Karl Marx, who attempted to utilize the science of economics. According to The Communist Manifesto, human history was the history of class struggle; at this time, the bourgeoisie class was exploiting the proletariat class. Soon, the proletarians would revolt and institute a tyranny, which Marx labelled the dictatorship of the proletariat. Its function was solely to re-educate all sectors of society until everyone had become "well-informed" enough to make this radical government irrelevant. At that point the state would wither away into communism, a Utopia in which there would be no private property nor government.

Marx's ideas were soon subjected to the same dispersion as Rousseau's. The "Internationals" were torn apart by internal strife; socialists and anarchists could not agree on anything, and trade-unionists were viewed as class traitors. Even before the Russian Revolution, the Russian Social Democratic Party split into mutually incompatible Menshevik and Bolshevik factions. After the Revolution and the Second World War, each independent communist state followed a different route from the others; from Albania and Yugoslavia to China and Khmer Rouge Cambodia. This was a direct contrast with the democratic countries, almost all of which are at least loosely allied with the United States of America.

Those states which have followed Locke's model tend to be more prosperous and less oppressive than those which have followed Rousseau's, and they also tend to agree with one another. This is somewhat surprising, because Locke seems to be much more authoritarian than the quasi-anarchistic Rousseau. Locke believed that a people should govern itself on the basis of certain natural laws, and Rousseau believed that a people should govern itself according to its general will. However, Locke's commonwealth sets limits on its sovereign, whereas Rousseau's general will is made by a well-informed elite with absolute power. In short, Rousseau and all who followed him allowed their sovereigns to live in a state of nature. Locke does not.

UPDATE 12/10/2013: a rebuttal - no; I must admit, a refutation - at Radish. I linked to the relevant part, but please do read it all.

posted by Zimri on 23:51 | link | 0 comments

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