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Locke, Consent, and the Rights of Posterity

February 20, 2011

Another “springtime of peoples,” like the period of revolution in 1848 Europe, may be reappearing today in the Middle East. As a concept of rule based on strict autocracy and religious conservatism was established at the Congress of Vienna by European leaders at the beginning of the 19th century, the middle east has long been governed by conservative religious institutions and autocracy. Now a spur of revolutions has begun. This fervor started in Iran during the “Green Revolution,” and has since spread to Egypt and now to Libya, where protesters against the military dictatorship have been violently repressed.What common factors do these revolutions possess? I would argue the presence of a younger generation, who entered a world with access to Western conceptions of freedom, democracy, and rule by consent of the people.

We have explored the issue of consent in all  of our readings. From Plato and Tacit Consent, to Hobbes’ consent and contract, and now to John Locke’s notions of consent. Locke makes one key observation, though small, that is especially relevant to the current wave of revolution. Locke argues that although man can consent to be bound to a government, this consent cannot be passed down to posterity. He states “any act of the father can no more give away the liberty of the son, than it can of anybody else” (Second Treatise of Government. Bk II. Ch VIII). As new generations emerge in the middle east, they are unbound by past generations consent and have increasing access to the message of democracy.

It is rapidly becoming a young person’s world. Sons and daughters are rejecting past generations notions of conservatism and consent to antiquated and often repressive political systems. They do not feel bound by tradition. As Locke observes, societies often forget and forsake their origins. He argues that new political systems are created by the consent of individuals to make one society. Well, today’s youth are uniting in consent in discontent with their current political systems and demand change.

As young (mostly bourgiousie) college students, we may not need a revolution. But let us allow these revolutions and Locke’s Treatise remind us that we are not bound by consent to the political status quo. We have the right to demand change. In many ways we have the obligation to do so. As Leaders and Best we have the capability to change any injustice, corruption, or inefficieny that exists in our political system.

Our world is becoming increasingly competitive. To keep America prosperous we need to adapt. Perhaps the fervor for revolution in the middle east can inspire a fervor for progress here at home.

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