Joseph B. H. McMillan

New Perspectives on Philosophy,  Science,  Religion and Politics

Freedom v Rights

                                      Home                    Articles                      Books                      Biography                   Contact

 We Consent to be governed by the Majority?

by

Joseph BH McMIllan

 

"Hereby it is manifest that during time when men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man."

And then there is this: "The desires, and other passions of man, are in themselves no sin. No more are the actions that proceed from those passions till they know a law that forbids them; which till laws be made they cannot know, nor can any law be made till they have agreed upon the person that shall make it."

That is Thomas Hobbes (1588 – 1679) in Leviathan, also known as the Matter, Form, and Authority of Government – which really says it all.

This is quite frightening stuff, but remarkably, such sentiments still represent exactly the modern Liberal Fundamentalist state.

What Hobbes is saying is that human beings are too stupid and selfish to act in their own long term interests, or to ‘know’ what is right and wrong. So, he says, we need to elect one or more of our number to tell us how to act in our own best interests, and to tell us what is right and wrong.

He doesn’t explain how a group of stupid, selfish people, electing a stupid, selfish person from their midst, suddenly endows that person with the ‘wisdom’ to know what is right and wrong, and to act in a way that does not reflect his own stupid and selfish character.

Yet that is precisely what modern day politicians claim is the effect of their ascendance to power – that somehow they gain some superior ´wisdom´, ´conscience´, and sense of ´justice´, to the rest of us.

So although modern day ´philosophers´ will claim that Hobbes´ was too crude, the fact remains that his formula is precisely the model of modern day Western democratic government.

John Locke (1632 – 1704) ‘refined’ Hobbes’ model. He started his ´philosophy´ of government with what is my Principle 1 – that no person has any natural authority to tell another person what to do.

He agrees that the natural state of man is "a state of perfect freedom to order their actions and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature; without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man."

He also said that men are in "a state also of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another."

So, at first sight, it seems as though Locke is heading in the right direction.

But Locke carried with him plenty of baggage. He was an academic at Oxford University, then later the personal physician and companion of a certain English nobleman called the Earl of Shaftesbury. Locke was also teacher to Shaftesbury’s children.

I always find it ironic that someone so absolutely beholden for his living to another, especially an English nobleman, should be preaching about freedom.

And this quickly comes out in his writing.

Unlike Hobbes, Locke looks to the law of nature; "for the law of nature would, as all other laws that concern men in this world, be in vain, if there were nobody that in the state of nature had a power to execute that law, and thereby preserve the innocent, and restrain offenders."

So, within 3 numbered paragraphs of his Second Treatise, Locke is already looking for someone to govern; to enforce the "law of nature."

Accordingly, after justifying, in his chapter "Of Property", why the likes of Shaftesbury can legitimately 'own' enormous amounts of property, to the exclusion of "common possession," Locke latches onto the concept of "the majority", and the "perfect democracy."

Locke claims that "no one can be put out of [his freedom, equality, and independence], and subjected to the political power of another, without his own consent."

Phew, so far so good!

And "consent" is exactly what Locke claims men do, "for their comfortable, safe, and peaceable living one amongst another."

But here is where Locke becomes bankrupt in his ´thinking´. He is unable to identify any principles to which all people would consent in order to conduct relations within their new community, so he simply claims that man “divests himself of his natural liberty, and puts on the bonds of civil society, ... by agreeing with other men to join and unite into a community, for their comfortable, safe, and peaceable living one amongst another, in a secure enjoyment of their properties, and a greater security against any that are not of it.”

And where do the ´rules´ to govern come from? Alarmingly, Locke says this: “ … the majority have a right to act and conclude the rest.”

So there it is – a “right” of the “majority” to dictate to the rest of us.

And done, says Locke, because "when any number of men have, by the consent of every individual, made a community, they have thereby made that community one body, with a power to act as one body, which is only the will and determination of the majority; … it is necessary the body should move that way whither the greater force carries it, which is the consent of the majority: … and so every one is bound by that consent to be concluded by the majority."

What a devious little man! But I'm sure his noble Earl was pleased.

Locke’s ´thinking´ is a perfect example of turning logic on its head. We consent to relinquish our freedom to the majority, so that I have unwittingly 'consented' to be ruled by "that way whither the greater force carries it, which is the consent of the majority."??

How can I consent to relinquish my consent to the consent of the majority, but still retain my freedom?

But this inverted logic is only the start of Locke's 'treatise'.

He goes on to claim that men give up their freedom "to be regulated by laws made by society."

Locke argues that man consents to "give up the equality, liberty, and executive power [he] had in the state of nature, into the hands of the society," because of "three defects" which make "the state of nature so unsafe and uneasy."

Those "three defects", he claims, are: no "established, settled, known" laws of right and wrong to settle controversies; no "known and indifferent" judges, with authority to determine disputes by reference to laws; and lastly, no "power" to execute punishment.

So, Locke argues, man consents to give up his condition of freedom (or as Locke describes it, "the equality, liberty, and executive power [he] had in the state of nature"), only "with an intention [to] better preserve himself, his liberty and property."

Thus, says Locke, "the power of the society, or legislative constituted by them, can never be supposed to extend farther than the common good; but is obliged to secure every one's property, by providing against those three defects above-mentioned, that made the state of nature so unsafe and uneasy."

After briefly outlining the bounds of government, Locke sets out his idea of the "perfect democracy."

"The majority having, as has been showed, upon men's first uniting into society, the whole power of the community naturally in them, may employ all that power in making laws for the community from time to time, and executing those laws by officers of their own appointing; and then the form of the government is a perfect democracy."

Locke then delineates the "bounds" of government: to govern by promulgated established laws; the laws must be "designed for no other end ultimately, but the good of the people;" government "must not raise taxes on the property of people, without the consent of the people;" and the legislator must not "transfer the power of making laws to anybody else."

The "good of the people"? Tax, by consent of the majority? The "common good"? The majority 'consenting' on my behalf? "the greater force carries it, which is the consent of the majority"?

What on earth is left of my freedom?

I have sacrificed freedom to the common good, to the majority, to the “greater force” of the “consent of the majority”? I have agreed that the majority can consent to government appropriating my property under the guise of tax?

Oh Yes, I nearly forgot! If government is naughty and ventures beyond its mandate, say by imposing additional taxes, we can - wait for it - we can be "aggrieved." And we can take our grievance to ….? Well - to the government. And if government laughs at us, what then? "The appeal lies nowhere but to Heaven."

I'm not kidding, that's what Locke says. The nobleman, the Earl of Shaftsbury, must have been pleased with his child-minder!

But it gets worse. "The legislative can never revert to the people whilst the government lasts; because having provided a legislative with power to continue for ever, they have given up their political power to the legislative, and cannot resume it."

Really? Where, and when, exactly did man consent to get 'Shafted' by government.

But can we please perhaps vote a government out which has abused and exceeded its mandate?

Well, "if [the people] have set limits to the duration of their legislative, and made this supreme power in any person, or assembly, only temporary; or, else, when by the miscarriages of those in authority it is forfeited; upon the forfeiture, or at the determination of the time set, it reverts to the society, and the people have a right to act as supreme, and continue the legislative in themselves; or to erect a new form, or under the old form place it in new hands, as they think good."

So here is the first big problem. If the government has abused its mandate to please the majority who, for example, want the minority to be compelled to hand over large amounts of property to the majority, how do you get rid of the government?

You can only do so if you can get the majority to relinquish its iron grip on your possessions! Remember, it's all about the "greater force" of the "consent of the majority." How likely is that?

The other possibility Locke envisages is the people expelling the government. But this he reserves only to the case where government uses force upon the people without authority and in breach of its mandate. Then, says Locke, "the people have the right to remove it by force."

Fat chance!!

By this time, government has, by majority consent, usually reserved most or all force to itself. So the aggrieved have to overcome two obstacles: the majority; and if they can achieve that, the power the people have vested in government. And, of course, all governments make insurrection a criminal offence, even a treasonable offence, entitling government to suspend all 'rights'; in the common good, and for the preservation of law and order, of course.

Locke himself describes this state as "a state of war with the people."

Now, anyone thinking this through should quickly see that placing government in the hands of a majority, and endowing it with absolute authority to use force, makes it impossible to remove government so long as it attracts majority support, no matter how much it tramples over its original mandate. And the easiest way to maintain majority support is to take from the minority and give to the majority. But we are not talking here about some tiny proportion of the people having their freedoms trampled on. Usually it means 50% or more of the people, as any Western democratic election shows.

Even providing that "a well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed," as in Amendment II of the United States Constitution, does not come close to curing this mechanism of oppression.

The well regulated Militia would have to be a rival army equal to, or more powerful than, the government forces, to be effective in such a circumstance. Government can also simply define what this Militia may comprise, as it does, or simply maintain that the military forces of the state are that Militia.

Most governments also simply restrict the "right of the people to keep and bear arms."

Any half-wit should know that no government is going to allow an effective rival army to exist to act as a regulator of its affairs and power.

If we follow Locke's 'reasoning' through therefore, we discover that man has consented to surrender his freedom in order to attain those basic securities necessary to remedy the defects of man's state of nature, what I call his condition of freedom, the three rather insignificant "defects" of his freedom, only to find he will be subject to the whim of the majority, backed up by a force that he has no hope of challenging. In man’s condition of freedom, the principal threat came from those of relatively equal strength to himself; under Locke's formula, the threat is from an immensely more powerful entity, supported by an easily manipulated majority.

Who in their right mind would consent to such an inversion of threat?

'Nanny Boy', Shafter's child-minder and 'companion' - companion? Hmm? - reinforced his vision of tyranny in a piece of drivel called A Letter Concerning Toleration.

Nanny Boy poses himself a hypothetical question: "What if the [government] should enjoin any thing by his authority, that appears unlawful to the conscience of a private person?"

Well, Nanny Boy says this is unlikely to happen - because remember, there are such great people in government as Shafter - but if it does, we should follow our consciences and bear the consequences of the unlawful law.

But he goes even further. A private person - note, no longer a free person - should "abstain from the actions that he judges unlawful; and he is to undergo the punishment, which is not unlawful for him to bear; for the private judgment of any person concerning a law enacted in political matters, for the public good, does not take away the obligation of that law, nor deserve a dispensation."

To compensate for the loss of freedom, Locke offers us religion. As long as we are all free to follow our own religion, we should be grateful. So our freedom has been reduced to freedom of religion. But that itself depends on government 'tolerating' our religion.

Nanny Boy thus distinguishes between "political society" and "the care of each man's soul." And the care of our souls must be "left entirely to every man's self."

And "political society is instituted for no other end, but only to secure every man's possession of the things of his life."

It is the duty of government, says Nanny Boy, to safeguard men's lives and their property. "Therefore the [government] cannot take away these worldly things from this man, or party, and give them to that; nor change propriety amongst fellow subjects (no not even by a law), for a cause that has no relation to the end of civil government."

Then Nanny Boy poses another hypothetical question. What if government does make laws taking away from one person and giving to another? What if government makes laws "to enrich and advance [it's] followers .. with the spoils of others. What if the [government] believe[s] that [it] has a right to make such laws, and that they are for the public good; and [it's] subjects believe the contrary? Who shall be judge between them?"

"I answer," says Nanny Boy, "God alone."

So there we are! By 'consenting' to relinquish only a tiny fraction of our condition of freedom, so as to have a common mechanism to protect that freedom, Nanny Boy leads us into servitude. Our only remedy is to appeal to Heaven, and to God.

This all brings me to 'rights'. What a convenient and devious little device.

Nanny Boy refers to 'rights' as "civil interests."

These "civil interests" are the governments business, says Nanny Boy, which must be distinguished from "religion", which is not the government's business.

Government "neither can nor ought in any manner to be extended to the salvation of souls." This is reserved for "religious society", the end of which "is the public worship of God, and by means thereof the acquisition of eternal life."

But the government even has a part to play here. This is where Nanny Boy throws us the crumbs left over from our freedom. It is the "law of toleration". The government's "duty in the business of toleration" is "certainly very considerable."

So, together with our "civil interests," the "law of toleration" in respect of religion constitutes the sum total of our 'rights'. That’s all that is left of our freedom; which is nothing!

But what exactly are these 'rights', this combination of our "civil interests" and "law of toleration."

Man's 'rights', says Nanny Boy, are "life, liberty, health, and indolence of body; and the possession of outward things, such as money, lands, houses, furniture and the like."

Anyone violating these 'rights' is "checked by the fear of punishment."

That punishment is deprivation of that person's civic interests. Taking away from him in proportion to what he has taken from another.

According to Nanny Boy, government should be restricted to remedying these violations. That is the end of civil government.

So when Locke says the government cannot take property from one person and give it to another "for a cause which has no relation to the end of civil government," this is what he means. Civil government should be restricted to restoring to one person what has been taken from him by another. It does not entitle government to take from one person and give to another because government thinks 'justice' requires a different distribution of wealth between people; or because government believes that everyone should be 'entitled' to health care; or because government thinks people should be 'entitled' to an income in their old age; and so on. Those things are specifically excluded, even by Locke. It is no business of government, says Locke, to take from one person and give to another because one person has provided for his health, old age, and so on, and another hasn't.

On that I agree with Locke. Freedom includes, and necessarily implies, freedom to screw up. It does not mean freedom to screw up, and then require another to pay to sort out the mess.

But let me return to the other element of Nanny Boy's 'rights'. That is tolerance.

In short, Nanny Boy says we have a 'right' to expect the government to tolerate whatever religion we wish to pursue in order to save our souls.

But there are certain exceptions: "opinions contrary to human society, or those moral rules which are necessary to the preservation of civil society"; religions which pay allegiance to other governments; and atheists.

So it is this hodgepodge of 'rights' that today supposedly constitutes our freedom.

But these 'rights' are a dismal failure. They do not enhance our freedom, they undermine and diminish it. They are a charter for oppression and tyranny.

They constitute a tyranny of 'rights'; the enslavement of man; the enshrinement of ignorance and oppression.

They are the enforcement of pity, sympathy, and compassion. They are charters for abuse, open to what Nietzsche called “interpretation”.

And this is all because Locke, and his imitators, started from the wrong end. They sacrificed man's freedom for 'rights'. Whereas they should have preserved man's condition of freedom absolutely, subject only to those principles men freely and universally agree to adopt. Not by majority consent, but by universal consent.

So Locke took the same ‘social contract’ approach as Hobbes - that man is compelled by the State and society to act in the common good. But he also mobilizes God who, by dispensing rewards and punishments in eternity, knocks some further sense into man.

As Schweitzer says, "the essential point of distinction between them is that with Hobbes society alone plies the whip, while with Locke God and society wield it together."

Neither could see that before we cede any authority to someone else, including government, we all need to agree on the principles to which they must adhere in exercising that authority.

Now I should give credit where credit is due. Locke did establish rudimentary procedural safeguards against abuse of power by government; he just couldn’t come up with any “ideas” when it came to finding substantive safeguards to protect individual freedom. So he gave us the booby prize – ‘rights’. And now we are showered with ‘rights’.

But we do not build a temple of freedom by stacking one right on top of another like bricks; instead, we build ourselves a prison, a prison governed by a tyranny of rights.

Thanks a bunch, Nanny Boy!

 

 

Home | Articles  | Books | Biography | Contact

Copyright© Joseph B.H. McMillan,2014