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On #Freedom & #Tyranny: The Political #Philosophy of John #Locke

posted Nov 25, 2013, 3:11 AM by Peter Joseph Moons

On Freedom & Tyranny: The Political Philosophy of John Locke


By Peter Joseph Moons


John Locke disfavored a strong sovereign ruling a state, for he was concerned about the loss of liberty as much as he worried about the state of nature, where the individual enjoyed much freedom, but loss of life and property were potential outcomes.  Locke did not believe in the ‘summum bonum’ -- the common good -- for some individual may be exploited for another’s undeserved gain. (Locke, Chapter IX, 131*)  This mindset is consistent with Locke’s appreciation of the lack of constraints found in the state of nature; however, Locke’s concern that the state of nature was “unsafe and uneasy” prompted him to allow for some government activity. (Chapter IX, 131)   


Providing for common security is an action attributed to governments: having the government ensure the safety of persons and property meant that some individuals will have to relinquish some freedom.  Locke saw that citizens could provide their ‘consent’ to be governed, which meant that governmental interference in their lives was not by force.  Locke limited this governmental involvement to a finite amount of activity, such as enforcement of laws, judicial oversight of contract disputes, and security of the people and their property. (Chapter IX, 123-131)  These are activities that benefit each person within the society, yet are dependent upon the people’s consent.  Thus, the people and their property are better protected with government’s involvement than if the people had to perform this task individually.


There is a connection between the three branches of government and Locke’s goal of preventing an absolute power from ruling citizens unjustly.  Locke’s semi-holy trinity of three branches is of course a foundational concept of American democracy…and others.  One has to wonder what Locke, as well as Jefferson and Madison, would think of the current US system of so much power centralized in the executive branch.  This thought certainly leads back to one of Locke’s other key concepts: the consent the governed give to the government to enforce laws, provide for security, etc.  The people grant that consent while acknowledging that the government will continue as initially formed. (Chapter VII, 99)


However, once those citizens pass on, and new generations come after, those latter citizens provide their consent by voting as a democracy on laws and as a republic for legislators, council members, governors, and presidents.  What they do not get to vote on is the extant form the government has assumed; (Chapter VII, 120) Locke takes this into account in his discussion on tyranny, from which the abuses must be severe enough in order to justify a revolution.  Presently, Locke would be astounded to compare some democracies today with how they were originally organized.  For some, he might say that there has been a “usurpation [of] power” (Chapter XVIII, 199) for which “dissolution” may be required. (Chapter XIX, 211)  Power taken from the people and consolidated within the government is an abuse of authority of which Locke presciently warned.


Locke on Technology.


Locke implicitly promotes technology because technology as such stimulates better information flows, which aids in keeping tyranny at bay.  As Locke argued, government comes from the consent of the people. (Chapter VIII, 98)  The higher quality and quantity of information the people have about their government, its functions, and decisions, the better able those citizens are to make informed decisions in participatory government.  Moreover, more information means an increase in transparency and a decrease in corruption.  Through the concept of consent, Locke implies that information, and in the current modality, technology, benefits good governance. 


He also believed that human liberty is a valuable good; technology that sustains that liberty, especially in the face of arbitrary power, is therefore good and needed.  Locke would see that just as the use of big data and analytics in elections is acceptable, so is technology in the hands of the average citizen in order to make wise decisions during elections.  Again, as Locke noted, all the power the government has comes from the people.  Thus, the people, campaigns, and governments should have an equitable amount of technology though which they can access information that continues a government whose power comes from the people’s consent.


            A duality of technology usage exists between defending a government and citizens using technology for their own personal ends. Of course, technology is inherent to the multiple passed and current revolutions, industrial, information, transhuman, etc, that governments have either funded, allowed to flourish, or exploited. This last point is most critical in light of your reference about the consent of the people to the government to perform its functions of security for one reason: people, in every society, have a tendency to be lazy after their revolution is over or their new government is installed; they just want to get on with their lives.


As much as the people want to be left alone, the masses leave the government alone, at least until they need something.  And this is where things go awry and I will propose a theory: the more politically unengaged the public, the higher the tendency for the government to devolve into tyranny. A corollary to this theory is that technology makes this tyrannical transformation easier.  Indeed, the tyrannical government that wants to stay in power will either limit people's access to technology or subvert that technology for its own ends: controlling the government, people, and society in order to stay in power.

*References from John Locke, The Second Treatise of Government, Indianapolis: Bobs-Merrill Company, 1952.