John Locke Looks for a Better Way than Believing in the Divine Right of Kings or Power to the Strong

Wikipedia article on John Locke

Having finished blogging my way through John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” (see John Stuart Mill’s Defense of Freedom), I wanted to turn to John Locke’s 2d Treatise on Government: “On Civil Government.” One of the many reasons John Locke’s 2d Treatise on Government is important is that the Framers of the Constitution of the United States and those who ratified it were so well versed in John Locke’s 2d Treatise of Government. Thus, anyone attempting to determine the original public meaning of the Constitution of the United States, should be as well versed in this work as folks back in the 18th century were.  

In Chapter I (“The Introduction”) of the 2d Treatise of Government “On Civil Government,” John Locke summarizes his argument of his 1st Treatise of Government demolishing an argument for the divine right of Kings, and sets the stage for what follows, writing: 

It having been shewn in the foregoing discourse,

  1.  That Adam had not, either by natural right of fatherhood, or by positive donation from God, any such authority over his children, or dominion over the world, as is pretended:
  2.  That if he had, his heirs, yet, had no right to it:
  3.  That if his heirs had, there being no law of nature nor positive law of God that determines which is the right heir in all cases that may arise, the right of succession, and consequently of bearing rule, could not have been certainly determined:
  4.  That if even that had been determined, yet the knowledge of which is the eldest line of Adam’s posterity, being so long since utterly lost, that in the races of mankind and families of the world, there remains not to one above another, the least pretence to be the eldest house, and to have the right of inheritance:

All these premises having, as I think, been clearly made out, it is impossible that the rulers now on earth should make any benefit, or derive any the least shadow of authority from that, which is held to be the fountain of all power, Adam’s private dominion and paternal jurisdiction; so that he that will not give just occasion to think that all government in the world is the product only of force and violence, and that men live together by no other rules but that of beasts, where the strongest carries it, and so lay a foundation for perpetual disorder and mischief, tumult, sedition and rebellion, (things that the followers of that hypothesis so loudly cry out against) must of necessity find out another rise of government, another original of political power, and another way of designing and knowing the persons that have it, than what Sir Robert Filmer hath taught us.

After taking down the divine right of kings, John Locke sets out his goal of finding some basis for government other than power to the strong. In disagreeing with both the divine right of kings and power to the strong, John Lock is unwilling to say that because things are a certain way, that they should be that way. 

In my view, asking how things should be, without too much deference to how they are now, is the secret of progress. Of course, one should pay some respect to the principle well taught in economics that there might be a good reason for the way things are. But it is the height of folly to think that things are never the way they are for a bad reason. 

Let me try to make this point sharply. Speaking without mercy, any time there is any technological progress it means that in retrospect something was being done stupidly before. Any time one learns anything, it reveals one’s ignorance before. And any time a society is made more just, it reveals in high relief the injustice of what went before. 

But in each case, what many only see in retrospect, someone had to see in advance, when it wasn’t so easy to see: a better way to make widgets, a new insight, or an injustice to be righted. 

When I took the Landmark Education “Curriculum for Living,” they had a special definition of an insight for personal growth: “Something that occurs to you as bad news about yourself.” The bad news that something is amiss has to be allowed in before there is much hope of making things better. 

What is painful in personal growth is less painful when doing research, since there an insight might be bad news about someone else’s research that one can hope to right with one’s own research. Still, there is usually some pain in seeing things askew, even if the chance to right them can advance one’s own career. It is much better to have everyone do things well than to have people do things badly so that one can shine by doing them better. 

Economists are trained to tear apart a presentation intellectually to find what is wrong and can be criticized. This is very useful training. But I wish they spent at least an equal amount of effort tearing apart social reality intellectually to find what is wrong and can be criticized. That is the beginning of the path toward making things better. 

The tools of economic analysis are powerful, and can often be used productively to find ways to move the world in a good direction. Of course, those tools can also be used for to help find ways to help some people at the expense of many others. (For an example, see “Us and Them.”) Or the tools of economic analysis can be used as part of a game that has no immediate effect for good or ill on the wider world, but sharpens the wits of economists for a later time when some of the participants in that game do turn toward trying to make the world a better place or trying to help some people at the expense of many others. 

“Two Treatises of Government” was published anonymously by John Locke in 1689. It was only a hundred years later, in 1789, that it fully bore fruit in the Constitution of the United States. This a good example of the principle I set out in “That Baby Born in Bethlehem Should Inspire Society to Keep Redeeming Itself”:

… the fact that the young will soon replace us gives rise to an important strategic principle: however hard it may seem to change misguided institutions and policies, all it takes to succeed in such an effort is to durably convince the young that there is a better way.

Many, many things stay the same until suddenly, one day, they are different. Ideas of how to make things better and patience in putting those ideas forward are two keys to bringing change in the right direction. In my view, John Locke made the world a better place. May we also do so.