My Political Ideological Journey Part #1: The Role of Government and the Basis of Government Authority

(Note: this is the first of a handful of posts that cover my evolving interests and thoughts regarding political theory.)

As far as I can remember, my interesting in political theory began in high school. The pivotal book that directed me towards considering the role of government was “The Second Treatise of Government” by John Locke. Looking back at this book, there’s quite a bit that Locke states which I disagree with. However, this book does a good job of guiding its readers to consider the appropriate role of government and the basis upon which government derives its authority.

Locke introduces this topic by saying, “To understand political power right, and derive it from its original, we must consider what state all men are naturally in, and that 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” (Chapter 2, Section 4). Locke begins by asking his readers to consider the state of the world prior to the introduction of government. After all, government is not an eternal entity and had to be created at some point. If nothing else, this thought experiment guides Locke’s readers to contemplate why people would institute government, which would imply its original purpose and role.

Continuing, Locke argues that government was formulated based on voluntary individual decisions, motivated by self-preservation (Chapter 15, Section 171):

Political power is that power which every man having in the state of nature has given up into the hands of the society, and therein to the governors whom the society has set over itself, with this express or tacit trust, that it shall be employed for their good and the preservation of their property. Now this power, which every man has in the state of Nature, and which he parts with to the society in all such cases where the society can secure him, is to use such means for the preserving of his own property as he thinks good and Nature allows him; and to punish the breach of the law of Nature in others so as (according to the best of his reason) may most conduce to the preservation of himself and the rest of mankind; so that the end and measure of this power, when in every man’s hands, in the state of Nature, being the preservation of all of his society- that is, all mankind in general- it can have no other end or measure, when in the hands of the magistrate, but to preserve the members of that society in their lives, liberties, and possessions, and so cannot be an absolute, arbitrary power over their lives and fortunes, which are as much as possible to be preserved; but a power to make laws, and annex such penalties to them as may tend to the preservation of the whole, by cutting off those parts, and those only, which are so corrupt that they threaten the sound and healthy, without which no severity is lawful. And this power has its original only from compact and agreement and the mutual consent of those who make up the community.”

Locke, in this quote, argues that government’s power is derived from the voluntary submission of individuals. Implicit in this argument are two key points. First, a state of governance is a contractual position, which allows individuals to leave government authority at any point in time. Second, government’s only purpose is the protection of individual life and property. These were both key factors in my viewpoint of the role of government and greatly shaped my thinking going forward. Like I mentioned before, I have some issues with a few of his ideas. That being said, this book was helpful in getting me to think about political theory and the role of government.

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I’d love to hear what you think of this post and my early thoughts on the role of government. Feel free to leave a comment or send me an email. Thanks for reading!

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