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Saturday, October 15, 2011

LOCKE: Of the Limits of Government 2011

One of the problems every generation has to face is the basic question: how can we all live together in peace? Different people have different ideas on the best way to go about doing this. So governments are formed to help everyone agree on the basic ground rules society will live by. First this fundamental question must be answered: what is the purpose of government? Again different people will give different answers. The United States Constitution lists life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as legitimate government goals. Locke’s answer is this: the great end of men's entering into society, being the enjoyment of their properties in peace and safety… The rest is just a matter of filling in the details so people can enjoy in peace and quiet all those things they’ve worked to acquire. Governments are formed to protect us and our property. But Locke poses an interesting question. Who protects us from the government? For example, can the government force me to sell my land in order to build a new football stadium? Interesting question. From Locke’s view we have two competing claims: my claim to enjoy my property versus the claims of my neighbors to enjoy football games at a new stadium. Someone has to decide these things. Who decides? Maybe Locke can help us here. He says (The legislative branch) is not only the supreme power of the common-wealth, but sacred and unalterable… In other words, we will elect people to make laws for us. They are our legislators. But that doesn’t mean they can do whatever they want: First, it is not, nor can possibly be absolutely arbitrary over the lives and fortunes of the people: nobody has an absolute arbitrary power over himself, or over any other, to destroy his own life, or take away the life or property of another... This makes it seem clear: the legislature can’t take away my land. But Locke goes on to say: Their (legislator’s) power, in the utmost bounds of it, is limited to the public good of the society. This is also clear: a new football field is for the public good of society. Therefore, I’ve got to sell my land to the football team. They’re not “taking” my land; they’re just buying it from me to build a new football field. I can go buy some land somewhere else. Is this fair? Locke is uncomfortable with a government where everything is decided on the spur of the moment. We need some rules that everyone agrees to follow. Locke puts these limits on the legislators: They are to govern by promulgated established laws, not to be varied in particular cases, but to have one rule for rich and poor, for the favorite at court, and the country man at plough. The laws should be the same for everyone and everywhere; rich or poor, city or country, the same laws apply equally. This is for our own good. Locke elaborates on this need for established laws: the legislative, or supreme authority, cannot assume to its self a power to rule by extemporary arbitrary decrees, but is bound to dispense justice, and decide the rights of the subject by promulgated standing laws, and known authorized judges… The game won’t be fair until everyone knows the rules of the game. And we have to agree what those rules are before the game starts. We can make a law, for example, that says society can’t force someone to sell their property. What Locke says we should not do is then go back and change it to say: society can’t force someone to sell their property EXCEPT to build a new football field. Why does he feel so strongly about changing the rules? Because it’s a slippery slope. If they can take my property for a football field, they can take your property for a shoe store, or any other reason for that matter. Locke’s conclusion is this: for the preservation of property being the end of government, and that for which men enter into society, it necessarily supposes and requires, that the people should have property…nobody hath a right to take their substance or any part of it from them, without their own consent: without this they have no property at all… No football field.


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