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#Patriots and #Tyrants: A #Lockean Perspective

posted Dec 23, 2013, 3:26 AM by Peter Joseph Moons

Patriots and Tyrants: A Lockean Perspective

By Peter Moons

How and why Locke limits the tasks of government


John Locke disfavored a strong sovereign ruling a state, for he worried about the loss of liberty; he also preferred the state of nature, where the individual enjoyed much freedom.  Locke did not believe in the ‘summum bonum’ -- the common good -- for some individuals might be exploited for others’ undeserved gain.[1]  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.[2]  Providing for common security is an action attributed to governments: having the government ensure the safety of persons and property meant that some individuals would 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.[3] These are activities that benefit each person within the society, yet are dependent upon the people’s consent.  The people and their property are then better protected with government’s involvement than if the people had to perform this task individually.  Thus, Locke supported the idea of private property and ownership, which is the opposite of government-ownership, or as came to be in the 20th century, collectivization.


A balance of powers is central to Lockean politics and Locke’s semi-holy trinity of three branches of government 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.[4]


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;[5] Locke takes this into account in his discussion on tyranny.  Presently, Locke would be astounded to compare some democracies today with how they were originally organized.  For some democracies, Locke would say there has been a “usurpation [of] power”[6] for which “dissolution” may be required.[7]  Power taken from the people and consolidated within the government is an abuse of authority, of which Locke warned.

Locke’s Promotion Of Technology

Locke implicitly promotes technology because this knowledge and machinery as such stimulates better information flows, which aids in keeping tyranny at bay.  As Locke argued, government comes from the consent of the people.[8]  The higher the 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.  From whatever point on the political spectrum, patriots know and participate in their government, while low-information voters, or the non-participatory, allow tyrants to usurp control from the governed.


Locke 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 rightfully, one whose power comes from the people’s consent.


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 governments performing a security function: 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 a new theory is plausible: 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 in the hands of government makes this tyrannical transformation easier.  Locke would echo this caveat.


[1] John Locke, The Second Treatise of Government. (Indianapolis: Bobs-Merrill Company, 1952), Chapter IX, 131.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., Chapter IX, 123-131.

[4] Ibid., Chapter VII, 99.

[5] Ibid., Chapter VII, 120.

[6] Ibid., Chapter XVIII, 199.

[7] Ibid., Chapter XIX, 211.

[8] Ibid., Chapter VIII, 98.