Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Week 1–Liberalism: Sources and Themes

What John Locke and Tom Paine reveal about the origins of an ideology that surrounds us like an ocean.

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 and selections from Yuval Levin’s book The Great Debate 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.



Become a Member today for a growing stake in the conservative movement.
Join here!
Join here