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Would Locke Think that America’s Government is Becoming Illegitimate?

March 21, 2011
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Over the last decade, and even longer than that, the United States has been on a defense spending rampage. This has happened specifically under President George W. Bush, but dating back to Ronald Reagan. And I would think that the clear goal of the spending increases are to protect Americans and their property from hostile nations as well as future terrorist attacks. But could all of this defense spending be doing the opposite? Could the unchecked spending ultimately make it more difficult for Americans to protect their own property?

In theory, America could end up defaulting on its foreign debt, making it very tough for the government to borrow money, and even tougher to spend it on things like national defense, Social Security, or Medicare. According to Locke, in his Second Treatise of Government, the main purpose of the government is to protect the property of the people, which is something that everybody has a right to. Locke also says if the government does not protect that right, or does not represent the interests of the people, the people have the right to rebellion.

Suppose for a moment that the United States continued borrowing more from other countries to pay its debt that is coming due soon, and that eventually, the government had to default on its debt, making it nearly impossible to spend on anything for possibly the next fifty years, including national defense spending. This would leave million of Americans, and their property susceptible to an attack. Although this is a highly unlikely, this situation is still within the realm of possibility. In this scenario, would the American people have a right to rebel against the government?

A realistic case is to look at the recent trend of family farms. Lately, very few people have been able to afford the higher prices to buy organic, local milk, instead of large names Anderson Erickson because so many Americans are struggling themselves. Unemployment in the United States is still hovering around 10% and many families are stretched thin. Small farms that cannot sell their milk, and are not making any profit, can no longer operate and support their own family. Many of these farmers are then foreclosed on by the bank because they cannot pay back their loans that were originally taken out to operate the farm. Or, they are forced to sell their land to larger companies, putting themselves out of a job. The government could help nip the issue by manipulating fiscal and monetary policy to ultimately fight unemployment, and even foreclosures. Since about 2009, the government has taken a true Keynsian response to fight this long recession, but we are still waiting to see true results. But, would Locke believe that small farmers, whose land is constantly being foreclosed upon, have the right to rebel?

In neither of these situations do I believe that rebellion is justified, according to Locke. In the first scenario I do not believe that rebellion would be justified because many people do not put labor into their land, or house, which in Locke’s perspective would make the ownership of that property illegitimate in the first place. And in the case of many family farms, although the farms that their families have been laboring on for generations are being foreclosed on, the government is still trying to represent them and their interests. I do not believe that running a national debt of $14 trillion would make the government illegitimate, according to Locke. As I think of possible scenarios in which the people of the United States would have the right to rebel against the government, I cannot come up with many realistic scenarios in which this is an actual end. Is there a plausible scenario that could occur in the near future that, according to Locke, would make the government illegitimate and give the people the right to rebel?

2 Comments
  1. Brian Wandschneider permalink
    March 21, 2011 10:59 PM

    I’m guessing you’re in econ 102 based on that post, but in response to your question, I think a move towards socialism would give people the right to rebel, under Lockean principles. As the government acquires more and expands their control to different sectors of society, they take property from private individuals. If the government controls land, industries, or other things that were once held by the people, that may be considered taking individual’s property. As you said, the main point of government for Locke is to protect the property of the people, and when this does not happen people have the right to rebel. The government controls some of the banks, is moving more towards the takeover of health care, and owns billions of dollars of mortgages from private individuals. The government has bought the mortgage-backed securities to protect the housing market, and now controls the rights to some people’s houses. At this rate, the government will continue to intervene and take over property that was once owned by private people, and that could potentially be reason to revolt.

  2. jdeclaire permalink
    March 24, 2011 4:36 PM

    I do think that, under Locke’s views, the people have a right to rebel against the government. For one, as Brian said, more socialism in a government gives more power for the government to have greater control over the people. Therefore, property, which is the most important aspect of Locke’s principles, will essentially be completely controlled by the government. In both of these situations, socialism is becoming more and more prevalent, causing the government to take the “property” away from the people. For the family farms, the government is literally taking land from farmers. They are directly taking away the physical property of the people. In the other scenario, the government is not looking after the most important “property” of people, their body. As you said, people would be more susceptible to an attack, putting them at increased danger. In my opinion, a rebellion in these circumstances is absolutely unnecessary and uncalled for. No one is intentionally being harmed or mistreated, so there is no need to rebel.

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