Saturday, February 4, 2012

Locke on Usurpation and Tyanny

In Search of the Republic--32

Locke summarizes two threats to legitimate government: usurpation and tyanny.

Usurpation is the assumption of governmental powers by persons unauthorized in the exercise of those powers:

"In all lawful governments, the designation of the persons, who are to bear rule, is as natural and necessary a part as the form of the government itself, and is that which had its establishment originally from the people; the anarchy being much alike, to have no form of government at all, or to agree that it shall be monarchical, but to appoint no way to design the person that shall have the power, and be the monarch. Hence all commonwealths, with the form of government established, have rules also of appointing those who are to have any share in the public authority, and settled methods of conveying the right to them. Whoever gets into the exercise of any part of the power, by other ways than what the laws of the community have prescribed, hath no right to be obeyed, though the form of the commonwealth be still preserved; since he is not the person the laws have appointed, and consequently not the person the people have consented to. Nor can such an usurper, or any deriving from him, ever have a title, till the people are both at liberty to consent, and have actually consented to allow, and confirm in him the power he hath till then usurped."

While Locke's Treatise is not the Constitution and cannot serve as an objective measure of the legitimacy our government's actions, it captures perfectly the complaint by the Tea Party movement about what lies at the root of our current budgetary crisis. Although the Constitution enumerates specific and limited powers of Congress, Congress today acts as it possesses the Constitutional authority to legislate on anything it wants. Consequently, it has usurped many powers that the Constitution property reserves for the states. And, of course, because the Supreme Court exercises jurisdiction to interpret federal law, the ever expanding legislation by Congress brings along the expanding jurisdiction of the Court.

Tyanny, on the other hand, is the assumption of powers no one has the right to exercise for the private interest of the tyrant.

"AS usurpation is the exercise of power, which another hath a right to; so tyranny is the exercise of power beyond right, which no body can have a right to. And this is making use of the power any one has in his hands, not for the good of those who are under it, but for his own private separate advantage. When the governor, however intitled, makes not the law, but his will, the rule; and his commands and actions are not directed to the preservation of the properties of his people, but the satisfaction of his own ambition, revenge, covetousness, or any other irregular passion."

Locke's definition fits well with Aristotle's description of tyranny as the rule of a monarch in his own interest rather than for the common good.

And it provides insight into the understanding of tyranny by our founders. Some historians claim that the founders ideology actually distorted their perception of British intentions and led them to exaggerate the threat that British regulations posed to their liberty. These historians, however, misinterpret th fonders because of our contemporary understanding of tyranny. Today we associate tyranny with totalitarian governments the accompanying gulag, concentration camps, or killing fields. The founders made more modest claims about the British. Using the traditional definiton of tyranny, they claimed only that the British government assumed for itself powers that it did not in fact possess, subjecting the colonies to abitrary rule for the good of the homeland rather than for the good of the colonies.

They simply agreed with Locke's concise phraseology-"Where the law ends, tyranny begins."

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