Erik Graff's Reviews > Second Treatise of Government

Second Treatise of Government by John Locke
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Mar 08, 2009

it was amazing
bookshelves: philosophy
Recommended to Erik by: David Schweickart
Recommended for: citizens
Read in March, 1981 — I own a copy

This book was assigned reading for the "Social and Political Philosophy" class at Loyola University Chicago. It's a rewarding, yet easy, read.

John Locke's Second Treatise has long been mentioned as a major factor in forming the mindsets of the authors of the Constitution of the USA. There is certainly, as Wittgenstein would put it, "a family resemblance", but a study of the library contents of the period indicates that actually it may not have been much read at the time. It certainly wasn't his most popular book. In any case, when the framers spoke and wrote, their references were much more often to the idealized days of the Roman Republic than to the theories of Locke or any other roughly contemporary political philosopher. Still, the kind of thinking enunciated by Locke was apparently in the air and his arguments regarding governmental legitimacy are powerful--at least to those of us indoctrinated since childhood with such ideals as that governments require legitimization beyond brute force or tradition.

The basic idea is this: governments derive legitimacy from the consent of the governed--in other words, they are contractual arrangements. Any notion that this is historically descriptive is certainly dubious, but the idea is certainly relevant to the founding of this republic years after his death. It was also, during that period, apparently both realistic and practical, the existence of the American frontier allowing adults the possibility of opting out such contracts.

Of course, Locke has his blindspots. He does deal with the issue of children, endorsing the idea that young men upon attainment of their majority ought be able to become outlaws. Tho young boys remain coerced, they have the prospect of freedom. He does not, however, at least to my recollection, give thought to girls and women. Nor does he think of those adult members of the community who are, owing to physical or mental disability, unable to fend for themselves. Most egregiously, however, he neglects the native inhabitants of the American and of all other habitable frontiers of his and of our later revolutionary age.

Still, it is a powerful idea and an attractive one. So powerful and constituative is it of the secular American religion that the loss of the frontier, of any realistic way to opt out of the American system, out of any governmental system, constitutes a radical challenge to the very foundations of the claim that the United States of America is in any way specially sanctioned.

I should very much like to live in a society in which this, the matter of governmental legitimacy, was an issue of actual concern, rather than of pious mythologization. Any government worthy of our respect must needs include among its functions the maintenance of real means to escape its authority. Indeed, making allowance for race and gender blindness, our government, and that of our Britannic parent, used to act with some mind to just that when the mythic frontiers of America and of Australia seemed quite real. Oh, it was half-assed and self-serving, but frontiers were seen as social safety valves and these, and other, governments did make some efforts to make it possible for citizens to get away from noxious authority by such means as the Northwest Territories and Homestead Acts. Nowadays, however, while rugged individualism and frontier virtues are still invoked by the political priesthoods, the actual fact is quite the contrary. Our government grows ever more intrusive, ever more oppressive, ever more inescapable and ever more disrespected while it should, at least, be striving to engage with the other powers and principalities in order to create the conditions for all of them to obtain and maintain legitimacy. This can be done.

Science fiction writers has dealt with this issue for decades, solving the problem of legitimacy in various ways. On one extreme there is the vast body of literature about pioneers in space, usually just hi-tech versions of sixteenth through eighteenth century colonists, pioneers, adventurers, pirates and the like. These pictures are, of course, unrealistic, given the technologies involved and the capitalization that they would entail. On the other extreme, and more realistically, there have been some who have envisioned futures when vast areas of our planet have been depopulated in order to allow for outlawry. As I recall, Huxley makes a wilderness Australia the alternative to his dystopian brave new world and a private retreat the haven for psychedelic pilgrims in his Island. Neither work out, but they could. Here, in the Midwest, we have created a national park in the Indiana Dunes by exemplary intention.

Unless nature forces the issue by radical depopulation, such an effort will not yield immediate results. If the nations unitedly decided to create a frontier of, say, Australia (assuming it would be big enough and clement enough to be a real alternative to those not liking the existing social contracts available elsewhere and willing to bear the hardships of independent outlawry), it would have to occur over time given the interests of its current inhabitants. Otherwise, one might consider global efforts to reduce the human population and perhaps concentrate the remainder so as to allow ever-increasing frontier areas everywhere, frontiers offering freedoms ranging from weekend excursions to lifelong escape. Or, and this I just have a glimmer of, perhaps future developments in computer technology, the world-wide web and self-induced altered states of consciousness will allow our descendents other dimensions of freedom barely imaginable to us now, but real enough to them as to serve as alternatives to unwanted authority.

In any case, John Locke, way back in the transitional years of the 17-18th centuries, got me started worrying about this stuff. Quite an accomplishment!

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