For high school or undergraduate college students, it is probably difficult to imagine how the dusty old books they are forced to read are relevant to their lives. Who can blame the average teenager for caring little about what lights up the face of his eccentric professor, regardless of the passion said professor may exhibit for Aristotle, Cicero, Aquinas, or Locke? Yet, despite the understandable lack of interest in the worldview of philosophers of several hundred years past, this is probably the last real chance the young student will have to consider them. Once out of school and faced with the realities of life and making a living, there is little time or motivation for one to go back and explore the world of ideas. Ideas and philosophy are for dreamers. This is how a society forgets what it is trying to do.
The enlightenment that inspired our founding fathers was a period of explosive creativity and learning. Newton, Bacon, Sidney, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Smith – these giants were all children of the enlightenment that inspired Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and the rest to create a society based upon reason which recognized that all men were created equal. Today, we tend to think about both the enlightenment and our founders as if they all shared one, homogenous philosophy and one vision of man and society. However, this is far from true.
“The enlightenmnet” did not produce one archetypal philosophy, but three. They were all quite well known to our founders, but only one of them informed the philosophy of liberty that made America the freest, most prosperous nation in history. It has been the gradual erosion of those founding principles and their replacement by tenets of the rejected philosophies that has led America to the edge of ruin.
The first to talk about “the social contract” during the enlightenment was Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes believed that man in the state of nature (the absence of government or any higher authority) was in a state of perpetual war, or as he put it, “war of everyone against everyone.” This was the result of Hobbes assertion that in that state, man had “a right to everything,” following from his opinion that reason dictated only that man is restricted from doing anything to harm himself. Thus, for Hobbes man was ultimately a depraved creature who needed a strong government – an absolute ruler – to save him from himself. While for Hobbes the law of nature dictated that man should seek peace, man would never find it by employing reason, which would only ensure that he tried to preserve his own life against the “violent death” that threatened his every living moment. The purpose of government, then, was to protect man from his own depraved nature and that of his neighbors with a strong, paternal hand, sanctioned by God.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s vision of man and the purpose of government was quite different from that of Hobbes. Rousseau asserted that the idea of a “state of nature” was a purely academic one, having likely never actually occurred in human history. However, he did use the idea of a state of nature as a philosophical tool to develop his ideas about man in society and the purpose of government. For Rousseau, man had to give up his natural rights when entering society, and while society granted him individual rights, they could be set aside when the needs of society outweighed them. In his own words,
“Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will, and, in our coporate capacity, we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole.”
Therefore, government’s purpose for Rousseau was to accomplish the “general will” and achieve the common good, which included economic equality, as Rousseau recognized man’s property rights to end at what he needed to survive. “Having his share, he ought to keep it, and can have no further right against the community.”
John Locke represented yet a third philosophy of man and society. Locke’s view of man in the state of nature was vastly different from that of Hobbes, as was his definition of reason. As he said,
“The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.”
So, for Locke, reason did not merely dictate self-preservation, but the Non-Aggression Principle as well. While Locke recognized that man was not safe from harm from other people in the state of nature, he believed that the laws of nature preceded man and society, and thus individual rights were inalienable. Man did not give up those rights when entering society, but instead entered society solely for the purpose of defending them. He had a right to as much property as he could legitimately acquire, whether that resulted in more property than possessed by his neighbor or not. So long as he did not harm another in their “life, health, liberty, or possessions,” he was free to “order his actions as he pleased.” The purpose of government for Locke was to protect life, liberty, and property as the societal extension of the individual right of self defense. This was also government’s strict limit.
It is interesting to consider how these three philosophies played out during the 18th century. In America, our founders chose the philosophy of Locke, specifically excluding the other two in writing our Declaration of Independence. However, our founders were not of one united mind on their vision of the most effective form of government. In fact, there was a deep divide between two factions, led by Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, respectively. Jefferson believed in the philosophy of Locke, whom he on more than one occasion named (along with Newton and Bacon) “one of the three greatest men who ever lived.”
Hamilton’s view of man and society was much more Hobbesian. As Jefferson put it, Hamilton was “honest as a man, but, as a politician, believing in the necessity of either force or corruption to govern man.” To Jefferson’s assertion that Locke, Bacon, and Newton were the greatest men the world had ever produced, Hamilton replied, “the greatest man that ever lived was Julius Caesar.” While Jefferson asserted that the power of the government was limited to defense against aggression, Hamilton advocated a “more vigorous government,” with the ultimate instrument of control at its disposal – a central bank.
This was the great struggle of ideas in early America. Very generally, it was a struggle between Hobbes and Locke. While Hamilton was able to accomplish many of his goals while serving in Washington’s cabinet, Jefferson’s vision ultimately prevailed by he and his successors winning the presidency, paying down the national debt, and eliminating the central bank (an accomplishment that had to be repeated by Jackson a few decades later). It was his Lockean vision that dominated, albeit under constant challenge, during the great century of innovation and prosperity that followed.
Rousseau’s philosophy did not find footing in early America, but did in France. While America’s revolution was based upon Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, drawn from Locke’s Life, Liberty, and Property, France’s revolution was based upon Liberty, Fraternity, Equality. It is no accident that one revolution was wildly successful and the other devolved into a bloody reign of terror and eventual despotism. The French had the same results trying to achieve economic equality through the force of government that later collectivist societies would under communism.
While America lived by Locke’s principles, she enjoyed a meteoric ascent, leading the industrial revolution and creating much of what we now call the modern world. The explosion of prosperity for common people that occurred during America’s first century has been unequaled in human history. Indeed, while many are quick to point out that mass production was invented in America, let us not forget mass consumption – the enjoyment by the common people of the bounty that living by Locke’s principles of freedom and individual rights had provided.
By now, the relevance of these three philosophies should have jumped off the page. While all three competed during the enlightenment, only two have informed the political parties in America for the past century. It is no coincidence that today virtually all Americans feel that they must vote for “the lesser of two evils” when choosing representatives in their government. It is because they are choosing between the Hobbesian Republicans, with their strong, central government, sanctioned by God to save people from themselves, and the Rousseaian Democrats, still striving to use the force of government to achieve their perverse vision of economic equality, despite the tens of millions that have died as a result of that same vision. Gone are the individual rights, liberty, and Non-Aggression Principle of Locke, and with Locke’s philosophy has gone America’s greatness.
Most ominously, the two parties that previously followed either Hobbes or Rousseau are now merging together into a terrifying hybrid, finding common ground in their mutual belief in the absolute sovereignty of the state over the individual. While they may have appeared radically different in decades or centuries past, these two philosophies have always had this in common. In the end, that makes them for all practical purposes the same.
However, all is not lost. While Locke has completely disappeared from the American ethos, his philosophy can never really die. Very soon, the artificial society created by the Hobbes/Rousseau hybrid is going to collapse upon itself, a victim of its own systemic flaws. The supreme justice in the universe is that society cannot violate natural rights indefinitely. Just as market forces eventually reassert themselves in economics, natural law eventually does so in the organization of society as a whole. When the use of force can no longer sustain society, as it ultimately never can, voluntary exchange will take its place. As the illusion of legitimacy disappears from the present paternal state, the Non-Aggression Principle will reemerge to replace it. Do not fear the coming collapse. Embrace it. When the moment comes, let us seize it and shout joyously, not for equality or security, but for liberty.
 Property being implicit in “the Pursuit of Happiness”
 Tragically, the cause and effect relationship between the economic policies that accompany a government striving to achieve economic equality (at the point of the sword) and the subsequent famine, war, and destruction that result still eludes us. It was demonstrated in France in the 18th century, Russia in the early 20th and China later in the 20th, yet history seems to have taught us nothing. The voices crying for government-enforced equality, perhaps this time under the guise of “spreading the wealth,” are louder than ever.
Tom Mullen is the author of A Return to Common Sense: Reawakening Liberty in the Inhabitants of America.