Who are the Real Liberals?
A few hundred years ago, humanity went through a remarkable period of transformation, the Enlightenment. A number of different developments enabled this transformation to take place, and the impact of the Enlightenment has been tremendous. One area where the Enlightenment had particularly strong influence was in political theory. Before the Enlightenment, it was common knowledge that all men were natural slaves. We were slaves to our parents and slaves to our rulers in the same way that we were naturally slaves to God. This ancient doctrine justified the despotic political systems that had existed in one form or another throughout most of history.
The Enlightenment changed this tradition. Enlightenment thinkers began to see the world as dominated by physical forces put in place by a benevolent God. Man became a naturally free and rational creature who can choose his own life. Man has dignity; he is intrinsically and individually valuable. He owns himself and the products of his labor. His rational nature enables him to build a free society where he is not a slave to his rulers. This philosophy, the belief that man has inherent dignity, is now known as Classical Liberalism, and it was the philosophical inspiration for The American Revolution.
Our founding fathers were steeped in the liberal tradition. One classical liberal that was particularly influential to the founding of our country was an Englishman named John Locke (1632-1704). Locke was so influential that Thomas Jefferson listed him as one of the most influential men in his own thinking and was even accused of plagiarizing Locke while writing the Declaration of Independence.
In Locke we find the arguments and ideals that inspired our founding documents. For example, Locke famously argued that our dignity comes directly from our special creation. We own ourselves and self-ownership entails an inviolable right to our lives, liberty, and property, which at the same time entails a prohibition from violating the rights of others:
…Being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions; for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent and infinitely wise Maker… they are His property, whose workmanship they are made to last during His, not one another's pleasure.
This idea found its way into our Declaration of Independence in modified form:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Locke didn’t stop there, however, he argued that men only create government in order to secure their rights, and he also offered a (at the time) radical view about the source of political power. Political power doesn’t derive from the divine right of kings; instead it comes only from the consent of the governed:
…It is not without reason that he seeks out and is willing to join in society with others who are already united… for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties and estates.
…That which is absolutely necessary to its being a law, the consent of the society, over whom nobody can have a power to make laws but by their own consent…
Once again, we find both of these ideas in our Declaration of Independence:
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
Moreover, Locke advocated for a natural right to rebellion, the Appeal to Heaven, when the government violates the rights of its citizens. Furthermore, this right to rebellion is determined by the trust placed in the government by We the People:
If a controversy arise betwixt a prince and some of the people in a matter where the law is silent or doubtful, and the thing be of great consequence, I should think the proper umpire in such a case should be the body of the people… But if the prince, or whoever they be in the administration, decline that way of determination, the appeal then lies nowhere but to Heaven. Force between either persons who have no known superior on earth or, which permits no appeal to a judge on earth, being properly a state of war, wherein the appeal lies only to heaven.
And in our Declaration of Independence:
But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
Locke’s fingerprints can be found all over the constitution and our entire American way of life. For Locke, the government has only a few primary responsibilities, which are to settle honest disputes between citizens, to protect us from criminals, and to protect us from foreign governments. Everything else we can take care of ourselves because we are rational and moral by our very nature. Furthermore, the government only exists to serve the people and cannot have more power than the individuals that constitute it, and it must operate under the rule of law embodied in an original constitution. It cannot arbitrarily take property, and it cannot give power to royal descendants or paramilitary organizations if the citizens do not consent. (Does any of this sound familiar?)
Locke was without a doubt the most influential thinker to our founding fathers. Since this time, Classical Liberalism has gone through a number of evolutions. Radically different political philosophies have developed from the original liberalism; these developments span the political spectrum from libertarianism on the right to today’s “post-modern” liberalism on the left. However, the original, classical liberalism of John Locke still persists today in only one group: the Tea Party.
Members of the Tea Party fight for the ideas that originated in Locke and were manifested in our founding documents. We fight for the belief in inalienable and God-given rights to life, liberty, and property against those who would tell us that dignity comes from society and our property does not truly belong to us as individuals. We fight for a constitutionally limited government that works for us, the people, against those who want an all-encompassing government that is involved in every aspect of our lives. We fight for the ability to dispose of our government when it oversteps its constitutionally determined boundaries, and we fight against those who tell us that the elites in power know what is best for us so we should blindly obey their commands. We fight because we believe that the only measure by which to judge the goodness of a government is the extent that the government respects the God-given individual human dignity of its citizens. We know that if we do not fight for our dignity as individuals then those in power will certainly tread upon us at every opportunity. We fight because defending our individual dignity is part of our cultural birthright, and it is the right thing to do. As Locke puts it, “Self-defense is a part of the law of nature; nor can it be denied the community, even against the king himself…”
Benjamin Aguda is a PhD candidate in philosophy at the University of Memphis where he teaches Classical Liberalism to undergraduates. He is reached at email@example.com.