The Forgotten Right: John Locke and The Right of Resistance

American politicians today seem to think themselves invincible sovereigns who can toy with the fates of three hundred million people and there is nothing the latter can do about it.  They blow the taxpayers’ money with no regard for the country’s future, endlessly meddle with the economy, and brazenly flaunt The Constitution that grants them any power to begin with.  The same hubris that causes politicians to ignore the laws of economics leads them to ignore political history.  This is not just to the nation’s peril, but to their own.

While reading an academic article constructively criticizing Karl Popper’s “The Open Society and Its Enemies,” I encountered an extended section on John Locke and his contributions to solving problems of sovereignty, political order, and legitimacy. The implications of the passage are worth noting because Locke’s principles are foundational in their influence on The American Constitution. (Along with Montesquieu’s principles of divided powers.)

I quote at length “Never Ask Who Should Rule: Karl Popper and Political Theory” by Andreas Pickel (1989):

The theory of sovereignty in Locke’s constitutionalist formulation demonstrates, however, that it can provide a basis for an adequate and logically consistent solution to the problem of the institutional control of the rulers – in addition to the problems of order and legitimacy. […] The specific problematic for which Locke developed his theory of sovereignty can be characterized as containing all three fundamental problems of political theory in a prominent and acute form. [The problems of institutional control of the sovereign, political order, and legitimacy. Ed.] In one sense, the problem of institutional control was perhaps the most fundamental of the three since Locke sought a solution to the problem of the right of resistance in a mixed constitution. (101-102)

This is significant because it seems to have been forgotten by our would-be rulers that The Constitution is the only basis of their legitimacy.  The Constitution was formed to allow a specific government, comprised of sovereign citizens, to solve certain problems using the limited powers granted to it.   It was not a mandate to rule over anyone.  And just as The Constitution was incorporated as a grant of legitimacy given to the government on behalf of the people, that grant of legitimacy can be taken away. The right of resistance can be invoked at any time, not as a form of sophistic bluffing, like the left likes to invent rights out of thin air, but as a matter of the people defending themselves from a tyrannical, that is to say, illegitimate government.

The article continues:

By vesting constituent power (ultimate sovereignty) in the People rather than in Parliament, Locke was able to assign legislative supremacy (delegated sovereignty) to Parliament as the representative of the People and partial supremacy to the king as the bearer of executive power. “The People was the latent and, on the dissolution of the government, the active sovereign; the legislature was the supreme organ of government so long as government endured, but could be dissolved by the People at any time; the executive power, held on trust, was supreme only so long as it operated within the legislature’s law. (102)

The wanton acts of disregard by this executive branch, such as the appointment of unaccountable “czars” without Senatorial advise and consent; the violations of the citizens’ sovereignty by allowing for open borders, thus diluting the people’s say over their own affairs; taking the nation to war without Congressional authorization under the aegis of the authority of an international body; the interference in the private affairs of businesses, such as the nationalization of GM with taxpayer money and depriving the bond-holders of their contractual dues; the pressuring of the firm BP to pay out compensation without due process; the countless violations of property in transferring money from one set of citizens to another, such as the so-called “stimulus”; intentionally diluting the value of the currency, which robs citizens of the value of their property and labor; and the attempt to impose a legislative and executive decree of nationalized healthcare that flies in the face of all conceptions of limited government, directly provoke the question of whether the government is legitimate, and indeed, whether the right of resistance should be invoked and the government dissolved.

Granting that Locke’s influence on The Constitution that brought the American government into being might be a bit too obscure to modern politicians, perhaps this passage might be a a bit more familiar:

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

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 these 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, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. — Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

The train of abuses of the British government pale in comparison with those of the current American government. Unless the government seeks a crisis of legitimacy, the politicians had better cease serving themselves and start serving the interests of the citizens who provisionally grant them power.

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9 thoughts on “The Forgotten Right: John Locke and The Right of Resistance

  1. Now i finally understand why during my freshman year at The University of Chicago, Locke’s “Two Treatises of Government” was required reading.

    But I wonder that if the statistic I recently saw is correct – that only 38% of high school students could identify George Washington as the first president of the United States – if there is any hope for us.

  2. So long as the people do not care to exercise their freedom, those who wish to tyrannize will do so; for tyrants are active and ardent, and will devote themselves in the name of any number of gods, religious and otherwise, to put shackles upon sleeping men.

    -Voltaire

  3. Our Constitution, in theory, enumerates powers delegated to the government while reserving everything else as rights of the states or of the people. But our Supreme Court has eviscerated the concept of enumerated powers and the sovereignty of the states as shown, for example, by the institution of a Federal minimum wage, implementation of the Social Security Act, a broadening of the Commerce Clause to make any individual economic action fall under its regulatory power, and the implementation of Obamacare, to name a few.
    So this article is correct in saying that our Constitution does, in theory, give us the right to alter or abolish a government that is destructive of our inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. However, the meaning of our Constitution has been fundamentally altered by the Supreme Court, and we can no longer turn to the Constitution as a source of our rights. It is now a document that means what the Supreme Court says it means, and not what we citizens think it means. If we feel that our government is destructive of our inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, we will not find relief in the Supreme Court. Rather, I think it would take a bona fide revolution, something most of us are loathe to contemplate. One might hope that individual states’ actions of nullification might become a way of reigning in a lawless Federal government, but the Civil War stands as testimony to the resistance that would be encountered for any state or group of states wishing to secede.

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