Post No.: 0357
After exploring libertarianism in Post No.: 0315, we can compare it with liberalism. John Locke is commonly known as the father of liberalism. Liberalism is a political and moral ideology based on liberty, the consent of the governed, and equality before the law. Across the world, ‘liberal’ parties generally range from centre-left to centre-right on the political spectrum depending on what’s being ‘liberalised’ (e.g. freedom of sexuality or freedom from government interference) so be aware that we might not be comparing like-for-like between different countries, and perhaps different times, and their so-called ‘liberal’ parties.
Both John Locke and Robert Nozick defend the need for strict constraints on what the majority or government can do, thus limiting what can be done to an individual in the name of the good of society. Both also believe that individuals have a pre-political (natural) right to property. Both derive rights from individual self-ownership and not from what’s for the good of society. And both argue that the purpose of government is to secure people these natural rights to life, liberty and property; not to secure wealth.
But whereas for Nozick’s libertarianism, an owner may choose to surrender his/her own right to life – for Locke’s liberalism, the right to life is inalienable. Locke believed that we are free yet not free, in the sense that even though we can do whatever we want, we cannot ever choose to give up these ‘natural rights’ (which transcend politics or governments) of being able to do whatever we want, even if we wanted to. We’re not allowed to choose to be un-free, even if we freely want to choose it(!)
He believed that individuals have natural rights to life, liberty and property that constrain what a government (which in a democracy is essentially decided by the people) is allowed to do – our life is supposedly ours, yet we cannot choose to voluntarily give it away or commit suicide even if we wanted to. Our lives and liberty are hence inalienable (non-transferable) even if we wanted to give them away. He believed that this is due to a belief that God gave us these rights and we don’t own them as such – we are merely trustees of them. (So our property is somehow ours yet our own lives and liberty aren’t technically ours because they’re God’s. But if it’s transitive, if God owns our lives, our selves, then God technically owns our property too. And if we were to argue that God shares everything then all this property would ironically become everyone’s too(!))
Locke added that labour is the unquestionable property of the labourer and no person but he/she can have a right to that “at least where there is enough and as good left in common for others.”
He also believed that we should get to own whatever we enclose, work on and improve, which suggests that we can take something that is not yet currently owned – or at least not ‘formally claimed’ – by anyone else yet, and make it ours without other people’s consent. This potentially leaves nothing for the public or common good.
Now we often need to take into account the context of when and where certain philosophical thoughts originated – the surrounding events, culture, beliefs and extent of the pool of human knowledge at the time – to fully understand their author’s rationale, as well as to not potentially misapply them in contexts that were never considered or predicted at the time. John Locke was English and lived mainly during the 17th century, and some argue that his particular conception of liberalism was merely about trying to post-justify taking land away from Native Americans when Europeans, like the British, colonised and claimed the Americas for themselves.
And while we’re on this line of thought – weren’t other animals and plants already enclosing the land (with webs, hives, nests, dens, etc.), working the land and improving the land (e.g. worms, flies and basically everything in a natural ecosystem that works in harmony), and thus owning the land… before any human came to claim it as ‘their’ own property?! Hence what kind of arrogance do humans have? Wild animals and plants work and improve the land far better than humans do too if we look at sustainability and biodiversity. (Indeed, the indigenous or Native Americans who were already present in the Americas, way before any European person ‘discovered’ it, lived relatively sustainably compared to the colonialists too – so perhaps they should literally ‘take back their own country’ in order to ‘make America great again’?!) Humans are animals too but just a bit more self-righteous than others it seems.
No one and no thing chooses to be the species it becomes from a liberty or choice perspective. The species and family lineage of spiders you probably try to banish from ‘your land’ lived on that patch of land long before humans even existed. So when people morally believe that things become their own personal possessions if they ‘work on it and enclose it’ then what about all the unfair and ill-gotten gains they acquired from taking from a spider (who built a web, thus worked on the land and enclosed it with a web way before a human stole it from them), a rat, bird or other creature – never mind indigenous peoples – and all that followed from the unjust transfer of ownership since then? ‘Improvement of the land’ is highly subjective too, so why should someone impose his/her own particular conception of ‘improvement’ on everyone else?
One may argue that other furry animals have no place in justice because humans are ‘special’ and were especially chosen by God, but modern science is increasingly revealing how un-special humans are in the animal kingdom – humans are just another product of evolution, with strengths as well as flaws. Some may argue nonetheless that people shouldn’t care about other animals, but how is this a sophisticated and holistic view and consideration of universal justice? Another problem is that we sometimes forget to apply the “at least where there is enough and as good left in common for others” part of the liberalism philosophy too.
…Anyway, Locke believed that people wouldn’t truly have property of their own at all if somebody else, such as the state, had a right to take their substance or any part of it from them without their consent. Others will argue though, that living in a particular country involves implicitly consenting to its particular laws and taxes. If you want to live in a particular country then you must obey its particular laws because that country isn’t (unilaterally) yours. The laws were essentially decided by the majority of the people there, as expressed via the political parties they voted for, who then formed governments.
The inconvenience in the ‘state of nature’ (the hypothetical life of people before organised or civil societies came into existence) that Locke understood was that if people are to dispense their own justice then people tend to get carried away, and this is why he understood and agreed that we need a government and police nonetheless – a consent to give up our individual power for enforcing rights. Once we enter society, we enter it via tacit consent and agreement to leave the state of nature and to be governed by the majority and by a system of human laws. This social contract is meant to, amongst other things, protect people’s natural and property rights.
In explaining how a person can enter a social contract and be obliged to the laws of civil society, Locke invoked the notion of ‘tacit consent’. John Rawls, who is also a ‘social contract theorist’ of sorts, argued that a social contract can only arise from ‘hypothetical consent’. But whereas Locke’s notion of ‘tacit consent’ implicitly suggests that one accepts the terms of the contract through one’s actions (so no need for one to express an explicit consent), Rawls’s notion of ‘hypothetical consent’ suggests that one would’ve consented to the terms of the contract were one asked to do so under certain ideal conditions (i.e. under a ‘veil of ignorance’, so no need for one to express an actual consent).
We will look at the ideas of John Rawls in far more detail in future posts, but for what’s relevant here, Rawls might criticise Locke’s form of social contract because the parties to the contract know too much about their own particular interests, and as a result the terms of the contract are not necessarily fair due to information asymmetries and therefore bargaining asymmetries, hence why he proposed the ‘veil of ignorance’ as a method of determining the morality of rules – in this thought experiment, we must imagine ourselves before we’re born, and at this juncture no one, including ourselves, knows about the details of our own upcoming circumstances (e.g. whether we’ll be born into a rich or poor family with a high or low social status, whether we’ll be born with high or low physical or mental health risks, whether we’ll have a high or low intelligence, etc.) and from this standpoint we should decide on what rights we want in society. You might be born lucky or unlucky so choose these rights carefully.
…Locke believed that a limited government should serve to protect one’s natural rights. But if our rights to life, liberty and property are inalienable, even by the intervention of government – the conflict, contradiction or paradox is that what counts as respecting one’s rights to life, liberty and property is for governments to ultimately define(!) And when we punish criminals, aren’t we then taking away their liberties? Locke accepts that governments may legitimately take our property via taxation (to pay for the running of a government itself) and require citizens to sacrifice their own lives in war. But if there are exceptions to the rules then don’t these make the whole philosophy of liberalism incredibly messy and the choice of what counts as exceptions highly subjective? (Even in a totalitarian state, people are free… but for certain exceptions(!))
If we need to consent to whatever the majority of people decides within a legal system that protects and enforces our rights, then is this actually more utilitarian than liberal? How much power should the majority have and how limited should a government be if it is created by consent? Once there’s a legitimate government based on consent, the only limits, according to Locke, are limits on arbitrary or discriminatory takings of life, liberty or property – but if the majority decides on a generally applicable law via a fair process then there is considered to be no violation of natural rights. (But a communist state is non-discriminatory too – it takes everyone’s properties(!))
Is messy therefore inevitable?! Again, there seems to be no perfect philosophical ideology – hence debates will probably wage forever. John Locke’s conception of liberalism is only one of many (as is Jeremy Bentham’s conception of utilitarianism and Robert Nozick’s conception of libertarianism, for instance) hence one will need to clarify what one means if one claims to be ‘liberal’ (e.g. classical liberalism, social liberalism). And a superficial examination of a particular philosophical ideology may make that ideology appear appealing – for example, of course we want freedom (and that’s where many people stop thinking) – but if we put in a lot more effort to truly scrutinise it, and other ideologies, with an open mind, we notice the merits and deficiencies, and usually contradictions, impracticalities and questions, concerning them all.
Woof. Do you also agree that learning and knowing more can sometimes lead to answers actually becoming greyer and more nuanced rather than simplistically black-or-white? If so, please let us know by using the Twitter comment button below so that I don’t feel alone with this feeling!