The late Margaret Thatcher was spot-on in her analysis of the American founding when she said, “Europe was created by history. America was made by philosophy.” The source for the Declaration of Independence, our commitment to “unalienable” rights, and the creation of our limited government comes not from historical trial and error but rather from 17th-century philosopher, John Locke.
During the Trump era, spats on the right have brought into question, among other things, Locke’s utility in modern American government. Surely, there are many valid points to be made in the eternal debate on the proper size and scope of our government, but a related, crucially needed discussion would focus on our current level of commitment to Lockean ideals. Does anybody on the national stage actually care for or aspire to return to our Lockean roots?
To answer that question, we must first understand Lockean ideals. In his Second Treatise of Government, Locke posited that human beings possess certain rights by dint of their very existence: the rights to life, liberty, and property. In a state of nature, where all men are equally powerful, man is compelled to protect himself and protect humanity. Therefore, individuals have both a right to life and a duty to preserve life.
Locke also believed that individuals should be free to conduct their affairs or exercise liberty in any manner they pleased, so long as that exercise did not interfere with the rights of others. Namely, humans had a right to control the land they kept and the goods they procured but more importantly, humans had a right to their own persons.
In his Second Treatise of Government, Locke asserts that the purpose of government is to secure natural rights—nothing more, nothing less. To quote the Declaration, “that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Our Constitution enumerates very specific powers the government has over the people. Attached to the Constitution is a Bill of Rights that prescribes exactly which rights the government cannot infringe upon with its very limited powers. Each of the rights listed in the Bill of Rights mirror or are borne out of the Lockean notions of human rights and nature.
The question then is: of the likely 2020 contenders for the Presidency, which candidate will preserve America’s Lockean ethos? A guarantee of personal rights by way of limited government?
It sure as heck isn’t Joe Biden. Take for example the Obama/Biden Administration’s signature legislative achievement, the Affordable Care Act. Where in the Lockean concept of government can be found the power to penalize its citizens for not purchasing a market product? Biden’s single greatest “accomplishment” as Vice President directly violates the concept of Lockean freedom as explained in the Second Treatise and protected by the Constitution. Biden invents government powers antithetical to the American founding on a whim and cannot be trusted to lead this nation.
President Donald Trump is guilty of similar offenses. At the 2016 Republican National Convention, Trump’s speech featured a dead give away that if elected President, he would expand the size of government and dilute our founding ideals. “I alone can fix it.” should’ve been the line that disqualified Donald Trump in the eyes of conservatives, but it wasn’t. We now see the results of this top-down, executive style governance in the form of tariffs designed to benefit the few at the expense of many, unconstitutional executive orders, bogus national emergency declarations that usurp the legitimate powers of Congress, populist rhetoric, and yes, impeachable behavior in the foreign policy arena.
So where did we go wrong? How did the parties of Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, both devotees of Locke, find themselves embracing candidates and policies that would cause their respective founders to wretch? In short, both parties have become progressive.
Republicans first embraced progressivism when they reelected Theodore Roosevelt in 1904, green-lighting the massive expansion of state power that took place during his administration. His disdain for limited government, along with the disdain his progressive contemporaries experienced, was borne out of a deep desire to utilize the powers of the state to perfect humanity. Limited government and natural rights were obstacles to that goal.
Since then, Republican leaders have vacillated between moving beyond Locke to fully embracing his legacy. President Calvin Coolidge favored the latter. We see this in his inaugural address. Echoing Locke, he reminded his countrymen, “We must realize that human nature is about the most constant thing in the universe and that the essentials of human relationship do not change.” Coolidge attempted to pry back the claws of the ever expanding state, but failed. Conversely, upon taking office, Richard Nixon established a state-owned railway and ballooned the powers of bureaucrats at the EPA and agencies. Ronald Reagan made a valiant attempt to decrease the size and scope of government. Reagan was also the last to make it clear that America, “testif[ies] to the power and the vision of free men inspired by the ideals and dedication to liberty of John Locke.”
On the Democratic side, Woodrow Wilson became the first President in American history to actively campaign for a government free of its constitutional restraints. Since then, Democratic legislators and executives have rammed through the New Deal legislation of the 1930’s, the Great Society package of the 1960’s, and came within 1000 delegates of nominating a socialist as their candidate for President of the United States in 2016.
In the modern day, calls for socialized health care and increased minimum wages clear signs of progressivism on the left. On the right, a comfort with breaking up big banks, higher taxes, minimum wage, and social security show a similar vein of progressivism on the right.
Perhaps these are worthy goals; perhaps they are not. This is a separate question, though, from whether or not either party currently aligns to Locke’s original concept of government, one created solely to maintain the rights of individual men and women—an ideal from which both parties have strayed.
So what can we do to reestablish our founding ideology? The answer is not clear at the moment. The institutions America’s founders presumed would have preserved the American ethos have crumbled. We all know about the rapidly declining numbers of God fearing, moral minded patriots, especially among the younger generations. The Boy Scouts are bankrupt, the Lions Clubs are declining, and the Salvation Army is villainized. The universities, designed to be bastions of knowledge and enlightenment-style inquiry have been largely co-opted be progressive, sometimes Marxist thinkers openly opposed to America’s founding philosophy.
To start clawing back the years of progressive encroachment, let’s start at the individual level. To properly defend Lockean ideals, read Locke. To understand how those ideals were implemented in our Constitution and Declaration of Independence, study the contemporary debates and writings of Madison, Hamilton, Jefferson, and others. Mothers and fathers, talk to your children about these issues, don’t trust the school system to do it for you. In other words, be proactive, not reactive. As Locke wrote, “I have always thought the actions of men the best interpreters of their thoughts.” We cannot just fight the anti-Lockeans, we must make the case for our own founding philosophy if we want to preserve it.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.