Sunday, January 22, 2012

Locke on Republican Liberty

In Search of the Republic--27

Locke argues that when men form themselves into a political society and establish a body to enact laws for the public good, this act implies an obligation to adhere to those laws. Without such an obligation, the social compact becomes meaningless.

So what becomes of the liberty that men enjoyed in their state of nature?

He defines natural liberty as follows:

"THE natural liberty of man is to be free from any superior power on earth, and not to be under the will or legislative authority of man, but to have only the law of nature for his rule."

Political liberty, or the liberty one enjoys in political society,  slightly differs:


"The liberty of man, in society, is to be under no other legislative power, but that established, by consent, in the commonwealth; nor under the dominion of any will, or restraint of any law, but what that legislative shall enact, according to the trust put in it."

This definition of political liberty conforms with the traditional republican ideas about liberty going back to classical Athens and  Rome and resurrected during the Renaissance.

Traditionally, republican liberty focused on two points. First, republican theory assumed the liberty or  independence of the republican city from surrounding cities, principalities, and kingdoms. Greek city-states jealously guarded their liberty and independence from their neighboring Greek city-states; the Renaissance republics of Italy attempted to maintain their independence from France, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Papal States. Second, and related to this, republican theory held that the citizens in a republic should enjoy the liberty to live under laws of their own making. This meant that the citizens, directly themselves or indirectly through deputies or representatives so entrusted, made their own laws. The laws were to be clearly promulgated. And usually institutions were established to settle disputes or allow the citizens to contest the laws.

The point is that men should not  live under the arbitrary will and arbitary laws of an absolute monarch. To live so was the essence of slavery.

Locke  contrasted political liberty not only  with natural liberty, but also with the liberty falsely attributed to republicanism by its enemies. Robert Filmer and Thomas Hobbes, two advocates for royal absolutism, falsely charged that republicans believed in "a liberty for every one to do what he lists, to live as he pleases, and not to be tied by any laws." They concluded that such a view was preposterous because all laws restrict one's liberty.

This charge Locke explicitly denies. He explains that republicans believe in  laws. No matter what external circumstances in which men live, they live under laws. In a republican political society men live under laws of their own making; in a state of nature men live under the laws of nature.

"Freedom of men under government is, to have a standing rule to live by, common to every one of that society, and made by the legislative power erected in it; a liberty to follow my own will in all things, where the rule prescribes not; and not to be subject to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown, arbitrary will of another man: as freedom of nature is, to be under no other restraint but the law of nature."

This should cause at least some libertarians to pause and ponder whether or not Locke really is, as some of them  claim, a forefather of libertarianism. Some libertarians seem to embrace the definition of liberty falsely ascribed to republicanism by it enemies and explicitly denied by Locke: "a liberty for every one to do what he lists, to live as he pleases, and not to be tied by any laws."

Of course, libertarians add to this definition a caveat--as long as one does not harm another. So some libertarians believe that the government should not regulate so-called victimless activities such as the consumption of narcotics, practice of prostitution, or the commission of suicide. Now most libertarians admit that the law of the nature--or reason-- obliges one to avoid these things. Yet at the same time, they argue that the government should nonetheless restrain from regulating or outlawing such practices.

Consequently, libertarian notions of  political liberty really constitute a version of natural liberty-- and a reductionist version of natural liberty at that. Indeed,  it can be argued that at some libertarians in essence deny the concept of political liberty altogether.



2 comments:

Mrs. AL (Always Learning) said...

Clearly you are getting almost no comments on this series. It is my sincere hope you are getting LOTS of readers. This is superb!

V.L.Ewell said...

According to the stats recorded by blogspot, I received a little over 200 views last month. Of course, probably a dozen of them were my own after posting. Is anyone reading them or just glacing and moving on? It's anyone's guess.