Thoughts On Liberty: Locke, Montesquieu and de Tocqueville

All this secession talk is making me giddy. I think it is mostly symbolic but does indicate the dissatisfaction that many Americans feel with the current state of governance and how similar that feeling is to the sentiments that led to the very founding of our country.

Time for some lazy re-posts because what we are going through today is really nothing new.

From January 29th of this year:

What is liberty? Why do so many people not understand its worth and how do we preserve that which so many seem not to value?

I’ve been reading a lot of John Locke recently. Mark Levin extensively examines Locke, Charles Montesquieu and Alexis de Tocqueville in his latest book, Ameritopia. Levin has inspired me to revisit these three men, two of which never saw post-Revolutionary War America yet these men were intimates of our county as if they were among the Founders.

Montesquieu died in 1755, Locke in 1704 but before they did, they contributed their DNA to our country in the form of the ideals that they developed and the influence that those ideals of freedom, liberty and law had on our Founding Fathers. These men knew America even before she was born.

Locke’s writings have inspired me to give good and proper consideration to liberty and how it is being stripped from us a little at a time. Our culture is so drunk with modernity and mind-numbingly drugged by the opiates of the relative ease and comforts of our sedentary lives that we hardly notice, or even seem to care, that we are suffering the equivalent of being flayed alive – having the very skin peeled from our bodies as we watch.

I ran across a quote from Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government, specifically in Chapter IV, Section 23:

This freedom from absolute, arbitrary power, is so necessary to, and closely joined with a man’s preservation, that he cannot part with it, but by what forfeits his preservation and life together: for a man, not having the power of his own life, cannot, by compact, or his own consent, enslave himself to any one, nor put himself under the absolute, arbitrary power of another, to take away his life, when he pleases. No body can give more power than he has himself; and he that cannot take away his own life, cannot give another power over it. Indeed, having by his fault forfeited his own life, by some act that deserves death; he, to whom he has forfeited it, may (when he has him in his power) delay to take it, and make use of him to his own service, and he does him no injury by it: for, whenever he finds the hardship of his slavery outweigh the value of his life, it is in his power, by resisting the will of his master, to draw on himself the death he desires.

In shorter form, Locke states:

  • Man cannot exist without freedom from absolute and arbitrary power.
  • No person can give more power than he has himself, nor can he assume the same over another.

In considering our modern condition, there are many who are either too lazy to even contemplate this condition, find such thought unnecessary or capricious, or simply are not intellectually curious enough to understand this fundamental requirement of liberty in America.

I find that simply astounding on the one hand and soul wrenchingly disappointing on the other.

Webster defines “liberty” as:

The quality or state of being free: a : the power to do as one pleases b : freedom from physical restraint c : freedom from arbitrary or despotic control d : the positive enjoyment of various social, political, or economic rights and privileges e : the power of choice.

Locke proposed that liberty was an individual concept and that only the individual could allow his liberty to be taken from him. He believed that this was the necessary condition for freedom.

Most of the “progressive” attacks on liberty are Hobbesian (Thomas Hobbes, 1588 – 1679) in nature. Hobbes believed that man behaved as an animal and he always reverted to his animal pedigree. As such, he must be governed be fear and force as peaceful relationships do not come naturally and must be forced.

A few simple examples indicate how far we have come and how much more the learned men of over 300 years ago understood about being free than we do today.

For example:

Gun laws: Whether or not you agree that the Second Amendment defines a constitutionally protected right to keep and bear arms, what is inarguable is that the restriction of ownership, possession or use of a firearm by a law-abiding citizen is an erosion of liberty.

By what right does a governmental authority presume to prevent the ownership of a method of security? Gun control advocates propose that by withholding firearms from all citizens will stop crime but the root of the argument is not that they want to reduce crime; it is that they simply do not trust the individual to be reasonable or intelligent enough to use the weapon appropriately. A restriction of such is a passive reduction of liberty – a choice taken from me, a law abiding and rational person.

A recent example of an active variety of the destruction of liberty is the Obama administration declaration that under ObamaCare, all health care providers, including Catholic hospitals, must provide sterilization, abortifacients and contraception methodologies/services.

The nation’s Catholic bishops called “literally unconscionable” a decision by the Obama Administration to continue to demand that sterilization, abortifacients and contraception be included in virtually all health plans.

On Friday, the Obama Administration issued a statement re-iterating the “contraceptive mandate” requiring all insurance providers cover the full range of FDA-approved drugs and devices would remain intact.

This mandate, issued in August, includes drugs that work after conception to destroy life rather than prevent it. The statement included a postponement of one year for religious groups that do not already carry contraceptives and additionally would not be exempted under last year’s narrow definition of “religious employer.”

The bishops condemned the narrow religious exemption saying it will not be expanded but only allow for a one-year delay by religious employers are forced to comply.

Forcing the Catholic Church to act against their beliefs has the same chilling effect as denying them a choice.

Many years ago, I was charged with the responsibility to effect a turnaround at a business that had been beaten down by competition and ineffective management. The people were so used to losing and so used to the beatings that they took from senior corporate leaders that they forgot how to compete and win and they lost hope. There was a vicious downward spiral established, the more the business failed, the tighter the corporate leaders tightened the noose and the more freedom the remote location lost. The more mistakes that they made, the fewer and fewer decisions they were allowed to make leading to less and less control they had over their own destiny.

I worked with the site leaders for several months to understand the issues with this process and found that even though they knew what to do and were fully capable of doing it, they had become as defeated as a dog that has been beaten on a regular basis – a dog like that will recoil from an outstretched hand because the first thought the dog has is that the hand is going to strike, not to pet and comfort. People, subjected to negative stimuli, will exhibit the same behavior.

The following presentation is part of a meeting that I held with the local leadership teams, all the way down to the line supervisors and the team leads – it was also shared with all of the employees after I was sure that the managers understood.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The basics of what I told them were these:

  • We must drive a stake in the ground to start the turnaround
  • I can unlock and open the cell door but I can’t force you to walk through

–      We need to accept the freedom to change and we have to stop pulling the unlocked cell door closed on ourselves

  • History can’t be changed – but the future can
  • I’m asking for your commitment to help make the needed changes

Government is similar to that business, as the corporate office stripped as much liberty from the remote site as they would let them take, so government will strip the citizens of it. In the business, it only stopped when 1) I had convinced the local team that they could win and should have the confidence of their convictions and experience and 2) I called corporate and told them to back off and allow my team to run the business.

The business has now enjoyed three very successful years under some very difficult conditions and is determining its own future.

I have stated before that with every law passed, with every regulation promulgated, a little liberty dies, that we are, in fact, building a prison of our own design…but we can stop it if we choose. It isn’t completed.

12 thoughts on “Thoughts On Liberty: Locke, Montesquieu and de Tocqueville

  1. Another good article, but you’re slightly off base on the gun control. It doesn’t have to do with the fact that government doesn’t trust citizens with firearms, but the fact that if government can do away with private ownership of firearms, then they have free reign to do pretty much whatever they want. The Second Amendment is the bulwark which protects the rest of our rights. That’s why Progressives have been steadfastly trying over the last century to hamstring our Second Amendment rights. The NFA 1934, GCA 1968, Jim Crow laws to name a few, although the Jim Crow laws were mainly to keep Blacks from owning firearms.

    If Miller had shown up at the Supreme Court back in 1939, we might not have all these gun restrictions we have today.

  2. “Men, in a word, must necessarily be controlled either by a power within them or by a power without them; either by the Word of God [Locke] or by the strong arm of man [Hobbs]; either by the Bible or by the bayonet.” [added by me]

    — Robert Winthrop , (Source: Robert Winthrop, Addresses and Speeches on Various Occasions (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1852), p. 172 from his “Either by the Bible or the Bayonet.”)


    Good post. I like it, but it does confuse me a bit. But no matter.

    You might want to look into Locke’s defense of Christianity and how he said science actually supported the faith. Then look at the effect that Blackstone had on the founders. Blackstone and Locke are intimately tied, and BOTH draw their thinking from Biblical sources. They argued that liberty comes from God and is the natural order of this world. To them, the Bible was “the instruction manual” on that natural order. Our founders were well aware of this fact, and they embraced it. Contrary to what the Progressives would have you believe, this nation was founded – not on the religion — but on the principles of Christianity. No other nation aside from that of Israel can lay claim to having founded itself on the Word of God.

    Also, look at Locke’s notion of liberty. He did not hold that it means the freedom to do whatever we wish. He argues that there are duties to others inherent in our Natural Rights. These duties comprise the essence of Natural Law. This is part of what the founders understood “the pursuit of happiness” to mean.

    As for the second Amendment, Mr. G is correct: the founders argued that it should be the first because it is the only means to insure the rest. Keeping and bearing arms is inherent in the right of self-defense, one of the primary rights of all individuals as it is the means by which we preserve our right to life, liberty and- above all – our free will.

  3. Gents, I will try to refine the post. The illustration on gun rights was meant to illustrate one thing – that a lawful citizen can have the choice to own a gun taken from them as long as they allow it to happen but I still can make the case that modern laws are designed to keep guns out of the hands of the public because the government doesn’t trust the individual to use them.

    The banning of the 100 watt incandescent bulb might have been a better illustration.

    B: this is where I get frustrated with you because you 1) insinuate that I am not as smart as you are and/or haven’t read or understood the subject matter in support of what I’m writing about or 2) you appear to assume things that I don’t write about or 3) you assume that your answer is the only answer. This is why I got perturbed on the Romney thing. The insinuation was that I was compromising my principles to vote for him. I don’t – I compromise nothing – my vote is not how I intend to live, it is a tool to manage government. I’m never going to get everything I want and neither is anybody else. For some, Ron Paul is the perfect candidate but he won’t get elected – so the Paulistas don’t get what they want even if they vote for him…

    For the record, I would wager that I am at least as intelligent as you and probably as widely read. It is apparent that I don’t have the same amount of time to dedicate to the actual study as you but I can assure you that you haven’t mentioned a historical treatise or text yet that I haven’t read at some point in my life, some 30 years ago as I was forming my political belief system.

    I am studying a theme on individuality and its relationship to freedom and liberty. I never said that Locke didn’t think that man was governed by natural laws, I wasn’t writing about that. I also never excluded God. Locke’s writings presuppose a rational man with a conscience based in a belief in God, not the irrationality and post-modern man we see today.

    My only points were that many don’t even care about liberty as long as their bellies are full of food bought with food stamps, the cable bill is paid by the Earned Income Credit and they get a free cell phone courtesy of the taxpayer. The other point was that only you can allow your liberty to be taken from you and these people already have.

    That’s it. I was not trying to write a compendium of Locke’s philosophical basis. I was already at 1900 words on that post.

    I still love you though.

    • Let’s face it, we all know who the most intelligent one is around here. I’ll be signing autographs tomorrow. 😉

      I enjoyed your post. Didn’t have time to read it yesterday. Seems to me these fellas espouse a lot of the same ideas as the Greek philosophers……

      • Thats where a lot of it came from. Locke’s works are tempered with experience…that is the one thing that he stated was the key to understanding the human condition. He said:

        No man’s knowledge here can go beyond his experience.

        • You would probably dig this book I picked up at the Salvation Army. It’s called Great Dialogues of Plato. It includes The Republic, Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Ion, Meno and Symposium. Unfortunately, I’m easily distracted and have the bad habit of skipping around. So, I’ve only read certain parts….

          But, hey, at least I can find a good deal! 🙂

    • “B: this is where I get frustrated with you because you 1) insinuate that I am not as smart as you are and/or haven’t read or understood the subject matter in support of what I’m writing about or 2) you appear to assume things that I don’t write about or 3) you assume that your answer is the only answer.”

      Fair criticisms. I didn’t mean to post in the voice with which you read it, but I accept your critique. Will try to work on it, but I don’t have much hope that I will figure out how to do better – not with the written word.

      “This is why I got perturbed on the Romney thing. The insinuation was that I was compromising my principles to vote for him. I don’t – I compromise nothing – my vote is not how I intend to live, it is a tool to manage government.”

      But that, my friend, is where I get lost with you: how you vote is – by definition – how you live your life. So, to me, I see a disconnect here that I simply do not understand. But I’ll drop it as I see I am doing more harm than good.

      • If you believe that you understand nothing about me or life outside your bubble. I would support Santorum today if I thought for a minute he could get elected. I thought Cain might but by this point, he could well have been an also-ran as well and I would have to rethink the whole deal.

        The difference between you and me is that you want it now, I don’t think that is possible. It isn’t people like us who will decide in 2012, it is the middle – there are only about 12% of the voting population that identify as “conservative” out of the 42% or so who say “Republican”. The middle must be persuaded and there are no Republicans today making a compelling argument as to why a former Obama voter should flip the lever for them other than they are the not-Obama. Our guys are too busy trying to out-conservative each other.

        I still believe what I said (or I wouldn’t have said it):

        Some absolute rules of politics are these: 1) you can’t govern if you can’t get elected, 2) you can’t change government from the outside, therefore, 3) electability is important, 4) true political change is a long term proposition and 5) we need the presidency AND control of Congress to make any structural changes. This may appear to create a “Sophie’s choice” sort of thing for conservative Republicans who will have to choose a candidate by electability over being a perfect conservative but only if we singularly focus only on the next election. I know many people who voted for Bob Barr in 2008 because they couldn’t stomach voting for McCain but voting for an unelectable candidate is a guarantee to get a Democrat elected. Even a 60% conservative Republican is better than any Democrat.

        Reagan won because he was able to show a conservative world in stark contrast to the incompetent and ineffective world of Carter. I’ve talked to several former Obama voters – they see all of our guys as “conservatives” but Newt as an arrogant ass, Santorum as a theocrat, Paul as a crank and Romney as reasonable – I get that he is a “progressive” but I also get that these folks at least would consider voting for him where the other three inspire a reflexive Obama vote.

        I don’t think that is fair to the other candidates but that is why I’m doing what i plan on doing…again, if Newt or Santorum makes it to the finish line, I’ll vote for them. ABO, remember?

        If you can’t see that in the face of the polls and the news, I can’t explain it any clearer that that. We are screwed – the only difference is with one, you get to choose dinner, the other you just get the check.

  4. Maybe instead of ABO, it should Somebody Besides Obama.
    As far as influencing Obama voters to switch allegiances, it can be done, living proof is writing these words.

    And Ron Paul could beat Obama, and he scores higher against the current president than Santorum:

    In a recent CNN/ORC Poll published days after the New Hampshire primary, 46 percent of the registered voters polled answered that they’d vote for Ron Paul when asked this question:

    “If Barack Obama were the Democratic Party’s candidate and Ron Paul were the Republican Party’s candidate, who would you be more likely to vote for–Obama, the Democrat, or Paul, the Republican? If unsure, as of today, who do you lean more toward?”

    Obama scored just two percentage points higher in the same poll. Given that the margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3 percentage points, the results show that Ron Paul could remain incredibly competitive with the presidential incumbent, Obama. The same can’t be said about all Republican candidates.

    Romney score a point or two higher than Paul.

    • “And Ron Paul could beat Obama, and he scores higher against the current president than Santorum:”

      And all the Paulbots said (yes, those same ones, whom some believe to be Jew-hating, pacifist-loving, throwing-our-vote-away-to-Romney-since-we’re-not-for-Newt ones)


  5. Pingback: Heirs of Thomas Paine « The Rio Norte Line

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