Philosophical origins of american government
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Study Guide Questions

  • Cars and trucks used to emit large quantities of pollutants, resulting in air pollution that was both unpleasant and unhealthful. In the 1970s, it became possible to reduce such pollution greatly by installing fairly inexpensive pollution-control devices on car and truck engines. Suppose in fact that everyone prefers (a) the state of affairs in which everyone pays for and installs the devices and the air is clean to (b) the state of affairs in which no one pays for and installs the devices and the air is polluted. Would (almost) everyone voluntarily install the devices? Would a law requiring everyone to install the devices pass in a referendum?

  • On the whole human existence is happier and more prosperous if people are willing to undertake productive, future-oriented, “investment” activities — that is, to undertake burdensome and unpleasant activities today that can provide rewards for tomorrow, e.g., to clear and cultivate land that can provide food later. Under what conditions are people more or less likely to undertake such activities?

  • Governments impose taxes on people, stop people from doing some things they want to do, and make people do other things they don’t want to do. Can this be justified? If so, by what kind of argument?

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  • Anarchy (literal meaning): the state of affairs in which there is no government, i.e.,

    • no (man-made) law governing human affairs and, more specifically

      • no legislature to make laws;

      • no executive to execute laws;

      • no court system to apply laws;

      • no police to enforce laws.

  • Anarchy (common connotation): social chaos, disorder, violence, plunder, etc.

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Normative vs. Empirical Statements

  • Normative: what ought to be

  • Empirical: what actually is

  • The political philosophy of anarchism makes this normative claim: There ought to be no governments.

  • However, most political theorists (and most ordinary people) would make the following empirical claim:

    • Anarchy (in its literal sense) produces anarchy (in the sense of its common connotation).

  • Three different disciplines:

    • Physics (like other natural sciences) is strictly empirical.

    • Ethics (or moral philosophy) is strictly normative.

    • Political theory/science (and social science generally) distinctively mix empirical and normative elements.

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Legitimacy of Governments

  • A government is normatively legitimate if the people over which it claims authority ought (according to some normative political philosophy or doctrine) to obey its rules/laws.

    • According to anarchism, no government is normatively legitimate.

  • A government is empirically legitimate to the extent the people over which it claims authority actually believe that they ought to obey its rules/laws.

    • Even an (honest) anarchist would agree that the U.S. government has a relatively high degree of empirical legitimacy (unfortunately, given his normative views) .

  • A side point: a government effective to the extent that the people over which it claims authority actually do obey it rules/laws.

    • Otherwise, it is a “failed state” producing anarchy.

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Divergent Theories of Normative Legitimacy

  • The Divine Right of Kings: kings are authorized to rule on earth by God, which makes their rule legitimate.

    • “Delegation from above”

    • Rebellion against the king is rebellion against God.

  • Consent of the Governed: legitimate governments are authorized to rule by the people over which they rule.

    • “Delegation from below”

  • Governments by their nature impose rules, prohibit activities, conscript people, levy taxes, and generally force people to do things they would not voluntarily do.

    • So we may have a paradox of consent: why would people consent to have rules, prohibitions, taxes, etc. imposed on them?

    • Answer: because the alternative (anarchy) is worse.

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Social Contract Theory

  • England during 1649-1700 was in a era of revolution, regicide, civil war, and political disorder.

    • Claims of divine right had largely lost their persuasiveness.

  • Political philosophers, notably Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, sought a rational basis for legitimate government.

  • Their basic argument:

    • social contract theory (“consent of the governed”)

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The State of Nature

  • Both Hobbes and Locke begin with a “thought experiment.”

    • They imagine a state of nature, i.e., the complete absence of political institutions and laws.

      • This is a state of “natural liberty.”

  • Locke: To understand political power aright, and derive it from its original, we must consider what estate 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.

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Consequences of a State of Nature

  • Locke also takes note of the paradox of consent: If man in the state of Nature be so free as has been said, if he be absolute lord of his own person and possessions, equal to the greatest and subject to nobody, why will he part with his [natural] freedom, this empire, and subject himself to the dominion and control of any other power?

  • But as Locke immediately adds: To which it is obvious to answer, that though in the state of Nature he hath such a right, yet the enjoyment of it is very uncertain and constantly exposed to the invasion of others; for all being kings as much as he, every man his equal, and the greater part no strict observers of equity and justice, the enjoyment of the property he has in this state is very unsafe, very insecure.

  • The state of nature is simply another term for anarchy in its literal sense.

  • However, both Locke and (especially) Hobbes further argue that anarchy has bad consequences (disorder, insecurity, etc.).

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Hobbes: The State of War

  • Hereby it is manifest that during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man [in contrast to international war].

    • For war consists not in battle only, or the act of fighting, but in a tract of time, wherein the will to contend by battle is sufficiently known: and therefore the notion of time is to be considered in the nature of war, as it is in the nature of weather. For as the nature of foul weather lies not in a shower or two of rain, but in an inclination thereto of many days together: so the nature of war consists not in actual fighting, but in the known disposition thereto during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary. All other time is peace.

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Hobbes: The State of War (cont.)

  • Why does the state of nature produce a such state of war?

    • NATURE hath made men so equal in the faculties of body and mind as that . . . when all is reckoned together the difference between man and man is not so considerable as that one man can thereupon claim to himself any benefit to which another may not pretend as well as he. For as to the strength of body, the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest, either by secret machination or by confederacy with others that are in the same danger with himself.

    • From this equality of ability arises equality of hope in the attaining of our ends. And therefore if any two men desire the same thing, which nevertheless they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies; and in the way to their end . . . endeavor to destroy or subdue one another.

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Hobbes: The State of War (cont.)

  • And from this diffidence of one another, there is no way for any man to secure himself so reasonable as anticipation; that is, by force, or wiles, to master the persons of all men he can so long till he see no other power great enough to endanger him: and this is no more than his own conservation requires, and is generally allowed.

  • Also, because there be some that, taking pleasure in contemplating their own power in the acts of conquest, which they pursue farther than their security requires, if others, that otherwise would be glad to be at ease within modest bounds, should not by invasion increase their power, they would not be able, long time, by standing only on their defense, to subsist.

  • So that in the nature of man, we find three principal causes of quarrel. First, competition; secondly, diffidence; thirdly, glory.

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    Hobbes: The State of War (cont.)

    • The consequences of all this are disastrous.

      Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man, the same consequent to the time wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

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    Hobbes: The Social Contract

    • The solution to the state war is clear: a social contract or covenant between every man and every other man, in which everyone agrees to

      • renounce their natural freedom, and

      • authorize a single person (or perhaps a body of men) to act as a governor to enforce a state of peace.

        • The governor requires resources, needs to impose taxes, enforce regulations, etc.

    • Text of the social contract:

      • I authorize and give up my right of governing myself to this man, or to this assembly of men, on this condition; that thou give up, thy right to him, and authorize all his actions in like manner.

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    The Social Contract (cont.)

    • A social contract creates a Commonwealth or Leviathan:

      • one person, of whose acts a great multitude, by mutual covenants one with another, have made themselves every one the author, to the end he may use the strength and means of them all as he shall think expedient for their peace and common defense.

    • Note that the social contract is not

      • between the people and the ruler, but

      • among the people, who thereby authorize the ruler to rule.

    • A commonwealth may be created by acquisition as well as by institution.

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    Locke’s State of Nature

    • Locke’s social contract theory is similar in basic structure and logic, but differs importantly in detail.

    • In Locke’s view, the state of nature is “inconvenient” and does not promote safety and happiness, but it is not as disastrous as Hobbes’ state of nature.

      • People could do better (under a good government), but they also could do worse (under a bad government).

      • So consenting to establish a government could make people better but it could also make them worse off (depending on the nature of the government).

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    Locke’s “Contingent Consent”

    • To Locke, the wrong kind of government, e.g.,

      • tyranny, or

      • kleptocracy

        is worse than no government at all.

        Preferences for different situations


        good government good government

        bad government anarchy

        anarchy bad government

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    Locke’s Law of Nature

    The state of nature has a [normative]law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one, and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions.

    Every one as he is bound to preserve himself, and not to quit his station willfully, so by the like reason, when his own preservation comes not in competition, ought he as much as he can to preserve the rest of mankind, and not unless it be to do justice on an offender, take away or impair the life, or what tends to the preservation of the life, the liberty, health, limb, or goods of another.

    • This law of nature is ascertainable by human reason.

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    Locke’s Law of Nature

    • But while everyone (even in the state of nature) understands the law of nature, this law of nature by itself does not offer people real protection and security.

      • The great and chief end, therefore, of men uniting into commonwealths, and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property; to which in the state of Nature there are many things wanting.

        • First, there wants an established, settled, known law, received and allowed by common consent to be the standard of right and wrong, and the common measure to decide all controversies between them.

        • Secondly, in the state of Nature there wants a known and indifferent judge, with authority to determine all differences according to the established law.

        • Thirdly, in the state of Nature there often wants power to back and support the sentence when right, and to give it due execution.

      • In the state of Nature every one has the legislative, judicial and executive power of the law of Nature.

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    Locke’s Social Contract

    • In Locke’s theory, rational people in the state of nature will not agree to an social contract that (like Hobbes’ contract) sets no limits on the powers of the government.

    • But they will agree

      • to give up some (but not all) of their natural freedoms;

      • to delegate some (but not all) powers to the government; and

      • they thereby authorize the government to do some things (but not other things).

    • In general, they will consent to a limited government but not an unlimited government (like Hobbes’ Leviathan).

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    Limited vs. Unlimited Government

    • A limited [Lockean] government ought not (normative) but in fact can (empirical) overstep its limits and “abuse its powers.”

      • In contrast, an unlimited [Hobbesian] government by definition has no limits it can overstep.

    • Therefore, a limited government should incorporate “checks and balances” that will make it less likely to abuse its power.

      • In contrast, Hobbes wants no checks on Leviathan, as they would impede its ability to enforce peace.

    • If such checks are unsuccessful, and a limited govern-ment in fact systematically abuses its powers, the people retain a right of revolution to overthrow the abusive government and replace it with another.

      • In Hobbes’ social contract, there is no right of revolution, as it would take people back into a state of nature (and war).

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    Limited vs. Unlimited Government (cont.)

    • A social contract establishing a limited government will be relatively long and complicated. It must describe

      • what specific powers are delegated to the government;

      • what specific powers (or rights) are retained by the people;

      • what the structure of the government is to be,

        • and this structure may be made deliberately complicated so as to incorporate “checks and balances,” and

      • the procedures the government must follow its exercising its limited powers (“due process of law”).

    • Moreover, there will be inevitable ambiguity in the words used to set these limits, such that reasonable people will likely disagree on how they are to be interpreted.

    • In contrast, a social contract establishing an unlimited government can be short and sweet.