Get back to Constitutional basics to balance freedom with securityBy Andrew Parks | 09/03/2014 4:00am
If the Constitution contained a works cited page, it would refer to the writings of a core group of political philosophers upon which the writings the Founding Fathers based their entire system of beliefs.
Those philosophers are John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Hobbes, who collectively gave birth to what is referred to as social contract theory. This theory, which is the basis for the American system of government, posits that a government derives its power to govern from the consent of the governed, with the intended goal being a liberated state in which our society functions.
This begs the question: What is liberty? Well, to answer that, we first need to understand what Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau grew their theories out of: the state of nature, or, more explicitly, the primal environment in which early man functioned before the development of the earliest communities.
In such a state, these philosophers theorized that man was perfectly free. A person was accountable only to himself, and could do anything he wanted without any unnatural consequences imposed upon him by any authority of any kind. And thus, man being perfectly free in nature meant that man had a natural right to be free, according to their reasoning.
Of course, the reality of that, as recognized by all three of them, was chaos.
When you remove the structure of morality, community and government and tell people they can do whatever they want, the result is anarchy, death and destruction. Thus, they reasoned that man gave up all or part of that natural freedom to achieve peace and order in the course of social and political evolution.
Hobbes, for instance, wrote Leviathan in an attempt to justify the monarchies of Europe; the leviathan was the sum of power embodied in a king derived from the surrendered freedoms of his populace, given up in order for the king to ensure a secure ordering of society.
The reality of that, on the other hand, was tyranny. Giving up all of our natural rights to a single power left too much room for abuse, and that was the typical result. This is why Locke, differing from his mentor, Hobbes, and in conjunction with Rousseau, rejects the notion of surrendering all rights, and posits instead the release of certain rights in the name of security, and the retention of others in the name of freedom.
This is the concept of liberty – the balance between ordered tyranny on one end, and chaotic freedom on the other. To achieve it, our natural freedom is broken down into more basic rights that are secured to us so we can maintain domain over our own lives, while the government still receives the minimum amount of power necessary to maintain peace and stability. In essence, it's the maximum amount of freedom we can have without killing, robbing or maiming each other.
Unfortunately, it seems many have forgotten this concept in the context of the modern political spectrum. Too often we hear the arguments of those who would have us give up certain economic, social and even political freedoms in the name of equality, or at least equality as they define it. And, on the other hand, we often encounter those who would have us keep a once practical set of laws that now arguably only serves to legislate morality.
There is no doubt that our citizens have the right to such opinions, but with their predominance in political discourse, one wonders if the achievement of liberty is the real goal anymore.
Perhaps therein lies the problem. Perhaps the key to restoring sanity in American politics isn’t attacking each other over different ideas and opinions, but rather reexamining our own political beliefs to determine if those beliefs serve the greater purpose of maintaining liberty’s delicate balance. Perhaps if that was the framework in which discourse took place, our deliberations would be more reasonable, and our government more productive. Perhaps it’s time to get back to basics.
Andrew Parks is a senior majoring in political science. His column runs biweekly on Wednesday.