John Locke, American Individualism and The Declaration of Independence

by | Sep 4, 2016 | LAW

We owe to John Locke and those other thinkers complementary to his political philosophy of man, society and government all the freedom and prosperity that mankind has known and enjoyed over the last 300 years, beginning in Europe and North America and then spreading imperfectly to other parts of the world.

“Individual rights precede government; they are not given or bestowed by government. They are unalienable, that is, they belong to each and every individual as a human being, and no political power or authority may claim the legitimacy to abridge or abolish them.” – Richard M. Ebeling


Personal and economic freedom are under attack in the United States and in many other parts of the world. It is seen most clearly in this year’s contest for the White House in the U.S. presidential election. In all the rhetoric about America’s political, social and economic problems that is heard from the lips of the Democratic and Republican Party candidates for the presidency there is one phrase that is hardly ever mentioned or considered important: the liberty of the individual.

Neither Clinton nor Trump Place Any Value on Liberty

Hillary Clinton’s mantra focuses on redistributive entitlements; racial, social and gender group privileges or burdens; and social engineering of human relationships based on superimposed collective identity politics. Deceptions, lies, and an arrogant self-righteous tone of tolerant caring about others as she pursues personal power and wealth are the hallmarks of her disgraceful character.

Donald Trump’s verbal outbursts and often-disconnected streams of consciousness drone on about lost and regained national collectivist greatness; nativist job entitlements against immigrants looking for a better future; and bullying businesses to operate their companies where Trump thinks they should be located. His rude insults and threats are directed against anyone who falls into his disfavor, while wrapped in a disregard for or ignorance of Constitutional constraints and respect for civil liberties under the Bill of Rights.

Regardless of which one ends up sitting in the White House Oval Office, government intrusion, control, and manipulation of aspects of everyday personal and economic life will continue to prevail and grow in dangerous and damaging ways. Individual liberty will diminish and the potentials for economic growth for human betterment will be reduced. Dark days are likely ahead, whether it is Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump who wins in November.

Liberty as the Founding American Principle

What both major political parties and their respective presidential candidates have clearly done is turn their backs on the principles and ideals of the American founding as expressed in the Declaration of Independence and institutionally embodied in the U.S. Constitution.

Neither the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution talk about or refer to group rights or collective entitlements. The American philosophical spirit is captured in those memorable and moving words:

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among them are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness – That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed.

Individual rights precede government; they are not given or bestowed by government. They are unalienable, that is, they belong to each and every individual as a human being, and no political power or authority may claim the legitimacy to abridge or abolish them. Governments have no power or authority other than those assigned to them by the individuals within a political jurisdiction, and its moral legitimacy is only valid and justifiable for as long as those who hold political office use their assigned powers to secure and protect the citizenry’s individual rights, and not violate them.

It is worth recalling this founding idea and ideal considering how little it is understood, appreciated or fully practiced in contemporary America. It is perhaps appropriate, in turn, to remember the person whose writings served as much of the inspiration and reasoning behind those words expressed in the Declaration of Independence: the British philosopher, John Locke.

John Locke and Religious Tolerance

John Locke was born 384 years ago, on August 29, 1632 and he died on October 28, 1704, at the age of 72. Though he made his living for many years as a medical doctor, his fame is derived from a series of books that he wrote, especially his Letters on Tolerance (1689-1692), and his Two Treatises on Government (1689).

Locke defended religious freedom on the following grounds:

First, men, including kings and their ministers, are fallible creatures who could not say that they know for certainty what God’s word and will might be for all of mankind;

Second, if they try to impose their interpretation on others through the force of political power, they merely create anger, resentment, and resistance on the part of those being made to give public statements of belief and allegiance to that which they did not really in their hearts and minds believe to be true;

Third, this will lead – as it had – to wars and conflicts that can tear apart society and being even more destruction and death;

Fourth, there was no workable alternative than to accept tolerance for all men to find God in their own way, and to use reason, persuasion, and example to win over others to one’s own beliefs;

Fifth, thus, it is necessary to separate religion from the arena of politics and political control.

Locke’s defense of tolerance and freedom of thought and conscience resonates today as much as in his own time, given the attempt by American “progressives” to straightjacket people’s minds within the confines of an increasingly dogmatic “political correctness.” And the horrifying acts of terrorism and murder by theocratic fanatics determined to either convert or kill any refusing to follow their own narrow definition of the Islamic faith.

Locke’s Criticisms of Monarchs and Majorities

John Locke, however, became most famous for his argument against the claim of absolute monarchy, and his defense of individual liberty and limited political power. He made his case in his Two Treatises on Civil Government (1689).

In the first Treatise he challenged the notion of the “divine right of kings,” and insisted, instead, that political authority comes from the governed, and is not an independent and “absolute” power belonging to kings above the people ruled.

But it was in the second Treatise that he presented his “positive” argument for the origin of the “natural rights” of man and the basis of limited and free government against monarchs and unlimited democratic majorities. He asked the reader to follow him in a “mental experiment” and imagine an original “state of nature” before the formation of “society” or the creation of government. In this “state of nature” each man is independent and a “sovereign” over his own life. He lives as he wants and uses the resources that he finds for his own purposes.

Individuals Have a Natural Right to Their Life and Liberty

But man is not alone in this “state of nature” because other men populate the world, as well. While there may be no organized political authority to promulgate and enforce laws among men, there is, still, a “law” that men should respect amongst each other.  Our “reason” and our knowledge of God would make each realize that every man, as a creature of God, has been given life by that Creator and has a “natural right” to it, which each should respect and not attempt to violently take away.

As John Locke articulated this fundamental principle in his Second Treatise on Government:

To understand political power aright, and derive it from its original, we must consider what estate [condition] 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 . . .

But though this be a state of liberty, yet it is not a state of license; though man in that state have an uncontrollable liberty to dispose of their own person or possessions . . . The state of Nature has a law of Nature to govern it, which obliges everyone, and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind who will but consult it, that being equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions; for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent and infinitely wise Maker; all the servants of one sovereign Master, sent into the world by His order and about His business; they are His property, whose workmanship they are made to last during His, not one another’s pleasure.

And being furnished with like faculties, sharing all in one community of Nature, there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us that may authorize us to destroy one another, as if we were made for one another’s uses.

Locke on the Logic and Ethics of Private Property

Locke argued that to sustain and preserve his life, each man has a right to draw from the “common” resources of the earth those that he productively extracts and uses by “mixing” with it his mental and physical labor. This combining of his “labor” with the “land” is the basis of all legitimate and ethical appropriations and possession of property. This establishes his “natural right” to property, as an extension of his “natural right” to his own life.

Locke explained this in fairly clear words:

Though the earth and all inferior creatures be common to all men, yet every man has a ‘property’ in his own ‘person.’ This nobody has any right to but himself. The ‘labor’ of his body and the ‘work’ of his hands, we may say, are properly his.

Whatsoever, then, he removes out of the state that Nature hath provided and left it in, he hath mixed his labor with it, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state of Nature, it hath by this labor something annexed to it that excludes the common right of other men. For this ‘labor’ being the unquestionable property of the laborer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to . . .

In the complex social system of division of labor few men independently produce all the goods they desire or the food needed to sustain and improve their life. Instead, in a free market we collaboratively participate in specialized lines of production with others through competitive processes of exchange. We negotiate and receive the wages or prices that reflect what others consider our contributions to be worth in the manufacture of products or services they desire to acquire. And we, in turn, through this market process partially determine what those other’s labor and products are worth to us and other consumers.

Whether in the simple methods of self-sufficient production or in the complexity of modern market association with its specializations of work and reward, each individual in a truly free society is viewed and respected as a self-governing and sovereign human being with that inherent and “natural right” to his life, liberty, and honestly produced or acquired property

The Individual’s Right of Proportional Self-Defense Against Aggression

Unfortunately, men do not always respect each other’s lives or property. They sometimes resort to violence to take what honestly belongs to another. In such circumstances, each man has the right to a self-defense of his life and property. However, John Locke reminded his readers that even when wrapped up in the “passions” of the moment when defending oneself against the aggression of another, no man may be arbitrary or disproportionate in the violence or “cruelty” used in responding to an aggressor.

One should and must impose no more counter-violence than an unbiased “third party” would use, if he were protecting you, instead of you having to defend yourself.  It may be necessary, in defending oneself, to take the life of the attacker, but this, too, should only be a response proportional to the seriousness of the attack and the threat.

It is precisely due to the heated passions and emotions of such moments that there arises the problem of a man having to take upon himself the role of policeman, judge and jury. His own interest in the circumstances often precludes his ability to be an unbiased “reasonable man” attempting to evaluate and act with an unbiased eye.

It is also the case that in that “state of nature,” a man, by himself, may not possess the physical strength and the needed resources to successfully hold off threats and attacks against his person and property.

Individual Self-Defense and the Reason for a Limited Government

It is these problems and limitations in man’s ability to defend himself, as well as being a fair judge in meting out justice, than men see the necessity and benefit from joining together for mutual protection and enforcement of just law.  The primary duty of any government that is established by the mutual agreement of men is to protect each member’s “natural right” to his life, liberty, and property.

In making decisions among themselves to fulfill this task, each member agrees to abide by the decision of the majority – since any other alternative either implies the minority deciding for the majority, or everyone having to unanimously agree (which places heavy burdens on always reaching mutually beneficial agreement).

Unlimited, Arbitrary Government is Tyranny

But majorities do not have an unlimited right to decide for individuals; otherwise they might tyrannically impose laws on a minority with the same potential arbitrariness and disregard as an absolute king.

In John Locke’s own words, once more:

The legislature [cannot be] absolutely arbitrary over the lives and fortunes of the people . . . For nobody can transfer to another more power than he has in himself, and nobody has absolute arbitrary power over himself, or over any other, to destroy his own life, or take away the life or property of another . . .

This power . . . is limited to the public good of the society. It is a power that hath no other end but preservation, and therefore can never have a right to destroy, enslave, or designedly to impoverish the subjects . . .

The supreme power cannot take from any man any part of his property without his own consent . . . For I have truly no property in that which another can by right take from me when he pleases without my consent. Hence it is a mistake to think that the supreme or legislative power of any commonwealth can do what it will, and dispose of the estates of the subject arbitrarily, or take any part of them at pleasure.

Hence, even a government reflecting the consent of the governed and manned by freely elected representatives of the citizenry must be restricted and restrained by law, custom and constitution to a defense of each person’s rights and not a violator of them, no matter how large or vocal the majority might be that wishes to silence, plunder or enslave a free individual possessing those inherent rights belonging to each and every human being.

Though a variety of ancient and more contemporary thinkers and writers influenced the American Founding Fathers, it remains a fact that John Locke’s imprint is undeniable in reading through those famous words in the Declaration of Independence.

The Radical Nature of Individual Rights

John Locke’s political ideas, when taken seriously and put into practice, implied the end to political and economic collectivism and tyranny. It declared the rationality of human freedom based on reasoned reflection on human nature and the human condition.

Which one of us does not desire our own life to be respected and left peacefully unmolested by others? Which one of us does not want to shape the direction and destiny of our own life and not reduced to a tool in the discretionary political hands of absolute monarchs or unrestrained majorities? Which one of us does not share a fundamental common sense that if we have honestly and peacefully produced something through the enlightenment of our reason and the effort of our labor, it should be recognized as our rightful property to use in any way not in violation of the equivalent individual rights of any other in society?

John Locke’s ideas helped to overthrow the notion that governments could demand the coerced obedience and sacrifice of individuals to a cause or purpose to which they have not given their voluntary consent. Governments no more have an ethical right to plunder or redistribute the private property of innocent citizens than a band of ordinary marauders and murders doing so by assaulting people going about their peaceful and productive everyday affairs.

John Locke’s ethical and political individualism served as a cornerstone for the great American experiment in self-government, both in the sense of individual freedom and constitutional restraint. The principle and ideal of individual rights preceding and transcending political power and personal plunder was also the irresistible ethical force that challenged and finally helped to bring about the end to that crudest and oldest form of tyranny: human slavery.

We owe to John Locke and those other thinkers complementary to his political philosophy of man, society and government all the freedom and prosperity that mankind has known and enjoyed over the last 300 years, beginning in Europe and North America and then spreading imperfectly to other parts of the world.

This is the philosophy of liberty that is threatened with further loss in this year’s presidential election in the United States.  Neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump champions or cares about the individual and his right to live his life as he freely chooses in peaceful and voluntary association and exchange with others in society for mutual gain and betterment.

They represent throwbacks to the tribal and political collectivisms of bygone ages that the ideas of John Locke and the American Founding Fathers heralded the end to.  All friends of freedom, therefore, are called upon to redouble their intellectual efforts to oppose and defeat the continuation of this reactionary return to the dark despotisms of the past.

Dr. Richard M. Ebeling is the recently appointed BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel. He was formerly professor of Economics at Northwood University, president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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