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Week 1–Liberalism: Sources and Themes

We are to liberalism as fish are to water: we swim in its currents without necessarily ever stopping to consider what water is. This week we explore the medium in which we swim.

Our readings for this week are several passages from John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government [1] and selections from Yuval Levin’s book The Great Debate [2] that focus on the thought of Thomas Paine. Rather than spending any great length of time discussing many of the particulars of these arguments, I will focus rather on several common themes one finds in these introductory readings on liberalism, as well as interesting tensions between Locke and Paine that will be relevant to future discussions.

First and most centrally, both Locke and Paine begin with the construct of the “state of nature” that is intended to reveal what is most true about the human condition—our nature. This “move” already implicitly contains a set of philosophical assumptions, foremost among which is the belief that nature can be distinguished from history, or the accumulated experience and practices of humans over time. Thus, Locke and Paine reject the idea that tradition, custom, inheritance, or generational ties are a constitutive part of our natures. Rather, we can only understand our true nature by stripping the human creature bare of all these conventional and unchosen accumulations, and at least conceptually putting us into an ahistorical situation of “the state of nature.”

In this condition we are, in Locke’s view, at once likely to be most committed to our self-preservation, and, where no conflict exists between us, at least non-confrontational toward the preservation of others. However, Locke acknowledges that a state of peace will not long persist, since the state of nature lacks a neutral authority which can resolve inevitable conflicts. Locke thus oscillates between portraying the state of nature as one in which humans are minimally cooperative and at least indifferent—and so, a condition that is not as horrific as that one described in Hobbes’s state of nature—and a condition where conflict festers and exacerbates without resolution, leading to continual and escalating retribution without prospect of resolution (much like a feud). It is a condition that is not wholly unbearable, but filled with “inconveniences.” We agree to leave that condition on relatively strong negotiating terms,  forging a social contract that creates the neutral authority of the State while retaining rights to “life, liberty and Estate.”


For both Locke and Paine, several key features of liberalism follow. Political authority—and most, if not all human relationships, for that matter—are only legitimate when based upon consent. Consent can only be given by autonomous individuals, hence, individuals that are notionally always conceivably situated in the state of nature. The terms of that consent rest upon the protection of certain rights. Government does not exist to shape or form us to certain ends (i.e., political authority does not exist with a view toward human teleology); it exists to protect our individual rights to pursue our own ends, what we each individually (or, through the joining of various associations, together) see fit.

We retain the right to remake that political contract, as well as any other relationship that we freely enter. We retain the right to “exit”—whether by withdrawing from contracts that no longer serve their purpose (e.g., leaving a political arrangement to which we can no longer consent, or rejecting the inheritance of our parents, or changing religion, or divorce of a spouse); or, in extremis, by overthrowing political powers when they cease to abide by the terms of the original contract (i.e., revolution). While revolution will be exceedingly rare, it remains perpetually as a possibility, thus serving as a regulative limit upon the State’s temptation to exercise excessive power that violates our rights.

There is a tension worth noting in this regard between Locke and Paine. For Locke, the state of nature is one that is theoretically peaceful, but likely to be riven by “inconveniences.” For Paine, humans are naturally cooperative and peaceful, and only agree to the creation of the State mainly when complexity requires. In Paine’s imagining, humans are generally good by nature, and there is the strong suggestion in his work that any human inclination toward wickedness is actually exacerbated by government. (“Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one; for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries BY A GOVERNMENT, which we might expect in a country WITHOUT GOVERNMENT, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer.”) As a result, Paine in this instance anticipates the “libertarian” belief in “spontaneous order.” He is also more radical than Locke in his willingness to embrace revolution as a solution to social ills, evinced in his fervent support not only for the American revolution, but the French Revolution as well.

While the “state of nature” scenario seems to be conceived simply to advance the idea that the State is the creation of individuals, it also becomes evident that in an effective sense, individuals are a creation of the State. The state of nature in fact cannot permit the full flourishing of our individuality, lacking the stability, security, and prosperity that can be attained with the establishment of the liberal state. So, while as a matter of theory the State is an artifice, notionally the creation arising from the consent of individuals, as a matter of fact the liberal individual cannot come into being without the efforts and power of the State arrayed toward that end.

For this reason, we see arguments in both Locke and Paine that at once defend the idea of a limited but strong and powerful State. The State is limited in its ends:  it does not seek to cultivate a specific human telos. However, in achieving those limited ends, the State needs and requires extensive powers. Locke justifies the preservation of the monarchical exercise of “Prerogative” toward the end of preserving the State, which is the guarantor of liberty. “Prerogative,” he argues, can even be exercised in ways that violate the letter of the law and even the terms of the social contract, in extremis. Locke anticipates Justice Jackson’s famous phrase, “the Constitution is not a suicide pact.”  In such instances, the recourse of the citizenry is not likely to be a successful revolution, but prayer.

The right that is perhaps most central in the classic liberal tradition is property. In Locke we see the argument that government comes into being less to cease a state of war than, in particular, to eliminate “inconveniences” that prevent securing of the right to property. The State comes into existence especially to protect and advance property rights, but with a very special purpose: to allow the differentiation of the “rational and industrious” from the “querulous and contentious,” or, those who are more fitted by nature or discipline to make good use of property, and those who are more likely to complain that they don’t have as much as the former.  Locke argues that such an economy benefits everyone—most obviously the former, but even the latter, since the efforts of the “industrious and rational” increase the overall prosperity of society. While liberalism envisions a society of inequality (now based upon natural difference, rather than the artificial differences of aristocracy), it can be justified to the extent that everyone stands to benefit. Liberalism’s central wager is that economic increase will provide sufficient satisfaction to everyone in society, notwithstanding potentially titanic inequalities that such a system may generate.

Paine (as discussed by Yuval Levin) is at once an enthusiast for the ability of commerce to disrupt traditional forms of social arrangements (much as Marx will suggest at the outset of the Communist Manifesto, in which he describes the power of capitalism to make “all that is solid melt into air”), but comes to favor government activity to ameliorate the condition of the poor (or Locke’s “querulous and contentious”). Paine reflects a position that will come to define the divide between contemporary liberals and conservatives on the question of the societal benefits of “laissez-faire” vs. a commitment to basic liberal equality guaranteed by the State. However, we should notice that Paine also remains committed to the basic liberal faith and hope in the liberative effects of commerce. Like Paine, most “left” and “progressive” liberals today remain at base committed to the market as a primary engine of liberal society. That faith is reflected today in the shared commitment in both political parties for global free trade, for instance, notwithstanding debates over tax rates and levels of government assistance.

Locke and Paine are both proponents of “meliorism.” Aided by the liberation of belief from tradition (including opinion and religious belief), organized skepticism toward authority, productive property aimed at material increase, the rights to movement and self-definition, and a powerful government that comes into existence for the purpose of securing these various forms of individual liberty, liberalism at its core contains a belief in, and hope for, progress. In Locke, progress is assumed to be largely material: we can increase prosperity and prolong life, but we remain selfish and blinkered creatures. We can increase the prospects of peaceful co-existence by orienting our activities toward the economic realm and the protection of personal opinion and belief without expectation of achieving societal consensus. Paine seems more sanguine about the prospects for moral improvement and one sees incipient notion that perhaps narrow self-interest itself can be overcome with the correct social arrangements. His support for the French Revolution indicates a greater faith in establishing a more utopic society, expressed in his famous phrase, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” (NB: this quote was a favorite of the 20th-century’s most lauded conservative: Ronald Reagan).

In these passages, we see the basic commitments of classical liberalism, as well as many of the divisions it will come to manifest. In many respects, it is the basic constitutive belief of modern Western people (and, according to Fukuyama in 1991—as we will discuss next week—increasingly all humanity), whose various emphases and internal tensions inspire most of the political divisions and allegiances of our age. With few and fewer exceptions, we are all liberals.

This is water.

Patrick J. Deneen is David A. Potenziani Memorial Associate Professor of Constitutional Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

Read Patrick Deneen’s seminar introduction and syllabus here [3].

Follow @PatrickDeneen [4]

13 Comments (Open | Close)

13 Comments To "Week 1–Liberalism: Sources and Themes"

#1 Comment By Buzz Baldrin On January 28, 2015 @ 11:00 am

Researchers find a ‘liberal gene’

Liberals may owe their political outlook partly to their genetic make-up, according to new research. Ideology is affected not just by social factors, but also by a dopamine receptor gene called DRD4. The study’s authors say this is the first research to identify a specific gene that predisposes people to certain political views.


#2 Comment By Reinhold On January 28, 2015 @ 4:06 pm

The fascinating thing about Locke is he more or less gets the function and constitution of the liberal state right––a strong central authority to protect the propertied and to mediate the class conflicts which arise from such protections––but his ahistorical genesis thereof totally obscures the actual history of that development through war-making for market expansion. I would assume the motive of the state of nature argument is precisely a means of suppressing the memory of the rather horrendous origins of this arrangement and supplementing a myth of consent and mutual benefit to ultimately justify the project of expanding state and capitalist power.

#3 Comment By Darth Thulhu On January 28, 2015 @ 4:12 pm

A quibble.

You wrote:

Like Paine, most “left” and “progressive” liberals today remain at base committed to the market as a primary engine of liberal society.

I wouldn’t say most liberals are committed to “The Free Market” as an idea with inherent Value, nor as an idea worth blindly defending. Rather, most liberals conceive of markets as part of “the State of Nature”: people want things, people don’t want to pay more for those things than they have to pay, and people don’t want to sell those things for less than they have to sell. From these “State of Nature” defaults, markets naturally arise.

Many liberals are far from joyful about the realities of markets, and far from blind to their failures and periodic collapses. Regardless, markets will naturally exist, and any coherent theory of government will need to address them and decide how to engage with them.

#4 Comment By Labropotes On January 28, 2015 @ 4:30 pm

I feel cheated by the fact that as a kid taking progressive liberal arguments to the extreme, no adult had the courage to make a sound counter argument. They would have needed to express an unpopular idea or two. I know what I would say, but I am really looking forward to the argument Mr Deneen will outline. I am curious.

#5 Comment By Captain P On January 28, 2015 @ 4:42 pm

Many traditionalists (like Prof. Deneen) regard Locke as an extreme individualist, but this view leaves out the important role of duties (not just rights) in his thought. There are two far-reaching duties found in the treatises that complicate the picture of him as a believer in absolute individual property rights.

First, his duty of charity, that actually gives the needy a RIGHT TO SURPLUSAGE (straight out of the Levitical laws):

“But we know God hath not left one man so to the mercy of another, that he may starve him if he please: God, the Lord and Father of all, has given no one of his children such a property in his peculiar portion of the things of this world, but that he has given his needy brother a right to the surplusage of his goods; so that it cannot justly be denied him, when his pressing wants call for it: and therefore no man could ever have a just power over the life of another by right of property in land or possessions; since it would always be a sin, in any man of estate, to let his brother perish for want of affording him relief out of his plenty. As justice gives every man a title to the product of his honest industry, and the fair acquisitions of his ancestors descended to him; so charity gives every man a title to so much out of another’s plenty as will keep him from extreme want, where he has no means to subsist otherwise: and a man can no more justly make use of another’s necessity to force him to become his vassal, by with-holding that relief God requires him to afford to the wants of his brother, than he that has more strength can seize upon a weaker, master him to his obedience, and with a dagger at his throat offer him death or slavery.” (First Treatise, Sect 27).

Second, his duty to leave “as much and as good” for others:

“no man but [the laborer] can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others.” (Second Treatise, Sect 27).

#6 Comment By Captain P On January 28, 2015 @ 4:45 pm

Both of the duties I cited are, in Locke’s conception, natural duties. That is, the duties exist for all people, without some requirement that they consent to them. So, Prof. Deneen’s description of Locke as conceiving of ALL human relationships as depending upon consent oversimplifies in some important ways.

#7 Comment By Devinicus On January 28, 2015 @ 9:24 pm

Captain P makes an important point, but the problem seems to me to be the rather weak foundation for Locke’s “natural duties”. These duties are grounded in natural equality which is said to exist in the state of nature. This natural equality is not an equality of dignity. It is an equality of “faculties”, of the power “to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons as they think fit”.

And if I reject the existence of both natural equality (in the liberal sense) and the state of nature — the latter being pure and obvious nonsense? How does Locke convince me that I should grant him his philosophical starting point?

Jefferson stated that “all men are created equal”. How did he know this? It was, alas, “self-evident”. Which I take to mean “I refuse to defend my claim.” As does Locke.

#8 Comment By Gene Callahan On January 28, 2015 @ 11:04 pm

Great job.

I would give them some Rothbard in the libertarianism section, so they get a sense of the extreme version of the argument.

#9 Comment By Gene Callahan On January 28, 2015 @ 11:07 pm

Interesting points Captain P. I think Locke can’t quite shake off all of the old assumptions about the common good and so forth, but he is on his way there.

#10 Comment By Captain P On January 29, 2015 @ 9:37 am

Devinicus, I have to disagree with you there. Locke actually grounds his natural duties in the equal dignity of humans as mandated by God, not from faculties/capacities. This is clear in the First Treatise, which is vastly overlooked because no one cares about Robert Filmer anymore. However, he relies heavily on the creation mandate in Genesis to derive his political principles there.

First Treatise, Sec 40:

“[God gave] to man, the whole species of man, as the chief inhabitant, who is the image of his Maker, the dominion over the other creatures.” … “It [Gen. 1:28] is a confirmation of the original community of all things amongst the sons of men.”

I think a close reading of Locke reveals a very strong influence from the Old Testament, particularly in his laws on charity. The state of nature theory is obviously extremely important, but it’s how Locke grounds the foundations of POLITICAL authority, not a comprehensive moral/ anthropological theory.

#11 Comment By Labropotes On January 29, 2015 @ 11:04 am

“charity gives every man a title to so much out of another’s plenty as will keep him from extreme want, where he has no means to subsist otherwise”

Let’s look at a case. Two lost hikers begin to share the last of their food. One throws his share off a cliff into a raging river. He then turns to his friend and invokes the words of Locke, requesting his share of his partner’s relative plenty.

At what point do we consider a person responsible for his condition such that he is not entitled to a share of anyone else’s store? It seems to me that if you don’t want debtors prisons, you need to be allowed to cut off free loaders.

#12 Comment By Joan On January 29, 2015 @ 12:25 pm

“Let’s look at a case. Two lost hikers begin to share the last of their food. One throws his share off a cliff into a raging river. He then turns to his friend and invokes the words of Locke, requesting his share of his partner’s relative plenty.”

The question here is basically “What do you do when 50% of the population is too out of touch with practical reality to be considered functional?” It’s a situation that might come up for a small group, such as a pair of hikers lost in the woods or a household during a major economic downturn, but is hardly imaginable for a whole society.

#13 Comment By Tim Jackson On January 30, 2015 @ 9:27 am

‘In Paine’s imagining, humans are generally good by nature, and there is the strong suggestion in his work that any human inclination toward wickedness is actually exacerbated by government. (“Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one; for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries BY A GOVERNMENT, which we might expect in a country WITHOUT GOVERNMENT, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer.”)’

It seems Reagan was channeling Paine when he said at his first inauguration, “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”