Dr. Laurie M. Johnson

Political Thought

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Home: Political Thought Links: Parallels: Locke


Parallels: Who are Today's Lockeans?

It is difficult to find a direct parallel to Locke's political philosophy on today's political scene. Some would argue that all Americans are basically Lockeans, since almost all of us at least agree in general that individual rights exist and should be protected and respected by our government. The structure of the American government is similar to, but not identical, with Locke's vision. Others would argue that we and our government have come quite far from the simple liberalism of Locke, and that our government has far exceeded in power what Locke would have considered tyrannical, especially in the areas of taxation and restrictions on gun ownership. Libertarians could lay claim to many of Locke's positions, but so could conservatives (especially fiscal conservatives) and liberals (especially those whose focus is civil liberties). Let's examine a few issues so that we can see more clearly what a Lockean position might look like in specific public policy debates.

Gun Control v. Second Amendment Rights

Gun control and gun rights have been and remain hotly debated issues in the United States. Even though the U.S. has a number of restrictions on the sale and purchase of guns, other countries have many more. Some of these countries experience far fewer homicides and other gun fatalities than the United States. However, the Second Amendment to the Constitution gives Americans the right to "keep and bear arms." The fact that the Constitution enshrines this right, along with the fact that ours is a relatively violent society, has led some individuals and groups to call for a complete ban on certain types of guns, and much stricter regulation of other types of guns.

These advocates of gun control argue that our founders, and thinkers like Locke, would never want the Second Amendment to guarantee the right to keep any and all private weapons but only those necessary for a "well-regulated militia." They further argue that the times have changed, and our system of national defense is much different than it was in Locke's time or in the founding era. What can a family with a few handguns or shotguns do against the most typical foreign foes of today's America-terrorists and powerful countries with sophisticated conventional and even nuclear weapons? Such threats can only be met by a well-organized, highly trained and professional military with a vast amount of fire-power, which we have successfully developed. They would argue that we need to change our understanding of the constitution to fit the times. In these times, they argue, the complete freedom to own guns has encouraged a culture of violence and has led to many accidental deaths as well as murders committed in the heat of passion when a gun is all too handy. They point to other countries with more gun restrictions which have less violence as proof that their proposals would work here, too.

Advocates of gun control dismiss the concern that Locke had, that people must be prepared and able to revolt in case their own government becomes tyrannical. The government has changed a great deal, they would argue. It is democratic and responsive to the needs of the people. The idea that the people would ever want or need to revolt against such a government seems remote and antiquarian to gun control advocates. It also seems impossible-how could a people armed primarily with rifles, shotguns and handguns be any threat to the United States military?

Advocates of a "strict construction" or more literal interpretation of the Second Amendment argue that the founders, inspired by Locke and other thinkers, intended for every law-abiding person to be able to keep and bear arms. The purpose, they argue, is not only defense against foreign enemies, and issue more relevant and realistic in those days, but also defense against one's own government. Indeed, gun rights advocates can and do use Locke's reasoning as proof of the fundamental importance of having a citizenry which is not disarmed and thus easily dominated by the government. While the federal government is much better armed than any individual or group of private citizens, these citizens could still resist the government should it ever become tyrannical, and could even more effectively resist local authorities trying to carry out tyrannical orders. In the twentieth century, sometimes a people that resists much greater powers can win the day by gaining the sympathy and support of more people and other countries, as happened in Vietnam, or by shaming their own country's military into disobeying their orders to oppress their own people, as happened in the former Soviet Union. Even weak resistance is not always futile.

Furthermore, gun rights advocates contend that a more realistic threat these days is crime. They argue that America's violent culture is not caused by the presence of guns, but that law-abiding people need guns in order to protect their persons and their property. Like Locke, they argue that a person must have the absolute right to protect themselves if the government cannot--often the case when a break-in occurs in the middle of the night, for instance. They present evidence that states which allow individuals to carry concealed weapons for self-protection have less crime (i.e., knowing that the victim might be armed deters criminals), and they produce examples where women in particular have been saved from death by their ability to use a gun in self-defense. The famous saying of the National Rifle Association (NRA), "Guns Don't Kill People, People Kill People," is meant to convey the idea that crime is not caused by guns but by violent people and will not be reduced by regulating guns, but may very well be increased as more and more innocent people become defenseless.

"Separation" of Church and State?

In his Letter Concerning Toleration, Locke makes it clear that he is for disestablishment, that is that there should be no state-established church, as the Church of England, which receives tax dollars for its support and special privileges from the government that other churches and religions do not receive. In Locke's time establishment also meant the persecution and outlawing of other religious groups. In Locke's view, there was nothing wrong with a government official publically expressing his personal religious views, but he should never veer into imposing those views on others by any sort of official action.

Hardly anyone in America will argue that government should establish a religion. In that sense almost everyone respects and advocates the "establishment clause" of the First Amendment to our Constitution. The question Americans debate is whether and what kinds of religious ideas, images, principles, etc., should be presented in publically owned and operated institutions.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is the principal organization which advocates a strict separation of church and state. In principle, this organization would call for the removal of all religion from the public square. "In God We Trust" would be removed from coinage and paper money, displays of the Ten Commandments in public places such as courts and city halls would be forbidden. Parochial schools would not be able to receive any federal funding because this would amount to the government supporting religion. In short, the ACLU interprets the First Amendment to mean government must not mingle with or support religion in general, not just one "official" religion in particular. Advocates of complete separation argue that this kind of distance between government and religion is necessary to ensure that people are completely free to believe whatever they will, or to not believe, without any interference or pressure from government, even in symbolic form. The U.S. Supreme Court has largely followed this expanded interpretation of the First Amendment's establishment clause. Although it has not yet approved any of the examples given, it has struck down some once-common practices such as prayers in public schools, Christmas displays in city parks, and public funding of books with religious content in parochial schools.

Those who oppose such decisions argue that the Establishment Clause was meant simply to prevent the establishment by the federal government of one religion or church and the exclusion of others. They point to the history of England and the early colonial history in America to show that this was the common understanding of "establishment" at that time. They provide evidence that the American founders themselves accepted such practices as national days of prayer and fasting, prayer before congressional sessions, and federal funding of religious schools. Turning their attention to the present-day, they argue that the type of exclusion of religion from the public square that the ACLU desires amounts to a violation of another clause of the First Amendment, the Free Exercise Clause which guarantees the rights of Americans to freely exercise their religious beliefs. Advocating that religious beliefs be the only ones officially excluded from public places amounts to putting religious speech and practice into a special category that can be suppressed by government. They argue that this exclusion is clearly not what thinkers like Locke or the American founders would have desired, because they were concerned with keeping religion free and healthy.


Libertarians are freedom-loving people. They have expanded Locke's notion of individual freedom, probably far beyond what Locke himself would have considered viable or wise, yet they use the same type of logic that Locke used to support religious freedom and property rights. They believe that it is not the government's business to regulate in any way our personal decisions, unless those decisions can harm another person.

Libertarians believe, as did Locke, that our bodies are our most fundamental and inalienable property. Therefore we should be able to do anything with our own bodies, again, so long as in the process we do not harm others in any real way. Thus, libertarians often promote an end to laws against certain types of abortion, prostitution, drug use, certain forms of gambling, same-sex relationships and marriages, and seat-belt free driving. It is not that libertarians are necessarily advocating these activities, but that they see no reason why government should be involved in regulating our personal and moral choices. Libertarians believe that adults can make up their own minds and that, given enough freedom, they will behave wisely, because certain actions have bad consequences. Indeed, libertarians often point out that the government's influence is doubly perverse-first, it outlaws practices like these, and then through its vast power it creates programs which soften the blow of the natural consequences that befall people when they make these bad choices. Thus, government inadvertently encourages the very self-destructive behavior it hopes to discourage.

Libertarians advance a vision of very limited government and thus of much lower taxes. Libertarians believe that the power to tax is the power to enslave and even to kill. That is, the more of our money the government has, the more power it has over us-to make us do what it wants, to make us pack up and go to war, if necessary. The tax code itself is a mild example of what libertarians see as government coercion. The code encourages certain behaviors such as buying a home and having children by giving people deductions, and discourages other behaviors, such as marriage and stay-at-home parenting by penalizing these activities. Why should the government be making these decisions for us? Libertarians resoundingly answer that it should not. For libertarians, the primary purpose of government should be providing for national defense and for the enforcement of laws against real crimes such as theft and murder. Needless to say, libertarians are strong gun-rights advocates.

Those who argue against the amount of freedom libertarians want have a tougher task. They have to convince us why we should not always be able to make our own choices about those things that appear to be personal, private and not harmful to others. They first tackle the libertarian assumption that these types of activities are purely private and not harmful to others. Whether to be a prostitute, and whether to purchase the services of a prostitute appear to be personal choices, but in the real world they have certain harmful consequences to others-especially to the families of those who choose to use prostitutes. Similarly, drug use seems like a personal choice, but it can be so harmful to the individual that he or she loses a job, and the dependent family must be supported by the taxpayers. In other words, individuals do not live in a vacuum. They are members of families, groups and society itself. Their personal choices have ramifications for the rest of us.

Opponents of the libertarian position may argue that government should indeed have a role in shaping our choices for our own sake. Government is the personification of society and community-it cannot help but send moral messages to people either by ignoring or by taking proactive measures. Human beings are social creatures, and not just isolated individuals, and there is a role for the larger society to play in "socializing" or civilizing them. One of the many ways in which this role is fulfilled is through laws. Laws against socially unacceptable behavior such as prostitution and gambling help people to control themselves and thus be better and more responsible citizens and better and ultimately happier individuals.

The issue of abortion falls into a murky territory for both sides of this debate. Some libertarians actually call for outlawing abortion, because in their minds abortion is the killing of another human being with the same absolute right to life as any other human being. Other libertarians call for abortion to be completely legal at all stages because a woman's body is her own property and government must not in any way tell her what to do or not do with it. Opponents of the latter libertarian position would argue that legalized abortion perpetuates a "culture of death" which creates attitudes toward human life in our society that produce other problems such as higher suicide and murder rates. They might also argue that abortion often harms the woman who "chooses" it, either physically or, more often, psychologically. Because of this harm, the government should regulate abortion and at least make sure that a woman who chooses abortion is making an informed and thoroughly considered choice. Laws in many of the states which call for waiting periods, full medical and adoption information, and parental consent reflect these social and personal concerns.




Dep't of Political Science
Kansas State University
Primary Texts Certificate