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Liberalism LSJ 362 Prof. Angelina Godoy Autumn 2007 What is the difference between liberalism as a political tradition in the contemporary USA and liberalism in political theory? Liberal theorists are a diverse bunch but some general characteristics of liberal thought can be identified

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Liberalism l.jpg

Liberalism

LSJ 362

Prof. Angelina Godoy

Autumn 2007


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What is the difference between liberalism as a political tradition in the contemporary USA and liberalism in political theory?

Liberal theorists are a diverse bunch but some general characteristics of liberal thought can be identified


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1. State of nature tradition in the contemporary USA and liberalism in political theory?

  • Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and others talked about natural law as stemming from God-given “human nature”

  • Jefferson (US Declaration of Independence): “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…”


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2. Social Contract tradition in the contemporary USA and liberalism in political theory?

  • Locke: social contract theory “Man, being, as has been said, by nature all free, equal, and independent, no one can be put out of this estate and subjected to the political power of another without his own consent. The only way whereby anyone divests himself of his natural liberty and puts on the bonds of civil society is by agreeing with other men to join and unite into a community for their comfortable, safe, and peaceable living one among another….” (p. 64)

  • Hobbes: the state, and its law, provide order, prevent “the war of all against all”


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2. Social contract tradition in the contemporary USA and liberalism in political theory?

  • Jefferson: “…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.”

  • Underlying these ideas is the assumption that the individual is autonomous, self-directed, rational, and will only support policies that benefit him in the long run:

    • J.S. Mill “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign…” (p. 51)


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3. Individual Liberties tradition in the contemporary USA and liberalism in political theory?

  • Usually, in classic liberal theory, only limited restrictions on individual liberties can be justified

  • The primary (and for some the only) purpose of government and law is to protect individual liberties

  • J.S. Mill: “The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty or action of any of their number, is self protection. …The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” (p. 51)


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These ideas should sound familiar because they form the basis for US government.

What alternate justifications for government or ways of ordering society can we imagine?


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John Locke basis for US government. (1632-1704)

  • England, 17th century – time of great turbulence, including conflicts between Crown and Parliament, Protestants, Anglicans, and Catholics, and many intellectual debates about how best to govern society

  • Locke was a revolutionary in ideas and politics

  • Trained in medicine, became personal physician to Lord Ashley, and through his work with Ashley became involved in political affairs


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John Locke basis for US government. (1632-1704)

The Two Treatises of Government (1690)

  • “Man being born, as has been proved, with a title to perfect freedom and uncontrolled enjoyment of all the rights and privileges of the law of nature equally with any other man or number of men in the world, has by nature a power not only to preserve his property – that is, his life, liberty, and estate – against the injuries and attempts of other men, but to judge of and punish the breaches of that law in others as he is persuaded the offense deserves…” (p 62)


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John Locke basis for US government. (1632-1704)

The Two Treatises of Government (1690)

  • “…Those who are united into one body, and have a common established law and judicature to appeal to, with authority to decide controversies between them, and punish offenders, are in civil society with one another; but those who have no such common appeal…are still in the state of nature, each being, where there is no other, judge for himself, and executioner, which is, as I have before shown it, the perfect state of nature… And thus the common wealth comes by a power to set down what punishment shall belong to the several transgressions which they think worthy of it… and all this for the preservation of the property of all the members of that society as far as is possible.” (62-63)


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John Locke basis for US government. (1632-1704)

  • "The great and chief end, therefore, of men uniting into commonwealths, and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property.”

  • “When any number of men have so consented to make one community or government, they are thereby presently incorporated and make one body politic wherein the majority have a right to act and conclude the rest…” (p.65)


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John Locke basis for US government. (1632-1704)

Majority rule is good because it has 3 characteristics:

1. law cannot be absolutely arbitrary

  • because receives its power from the people themselves: “Their power, in the utmost bounds of it, is limited to the public good of the society. It is a power that has no other end but preservation, and therefore can never have a right to destroy, enslave, or designedly to impoverish the subjects.”

  • “The rules that they make for other men’s actions must, as well as their own and other men’s actions be conformable to the law of nature, i.e., to the will of God, of which that is a declaration, and the fundamental law of nature being the preservation of mankind, no human sanction can be good or valid against it.”


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John Locke basis for US government. (1632-1704)

2. law will be public

  • in state of nature, law is unwritten (each person interprets it for him/herself) and therefore uncertain; when people enter into association, they make law through standing laws, recognized judges, etc. – everyone knows the rules

  • “For all the power the government has being only for the good of the society, as it ought not to be arbitrary and at pleasure, so it ought to be exercised by established and promulgated laws; that both the people may know their duty and be safe and secure within the limits of the law; and the rulers, too, kept within their bounds, and not be tempted by the power they have in their hands to employ it to such purposes and by such measures as they would not have known…” (p. 66-67)


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John Locke basis for US government. (1632-1704)

3. government cannot take citizens’ property

  • “supreme power cannot take from any man part of his property without his own consent, for the preservation of property being the end of government, and that for which men enter into society, it necessarily supposes and requires, that the people should have property…” (p. 67)

  • “If they who say ‘it lays a foundation for rebellion’ mean that it may occasion civil wars… to tell the people they are absolved from obedience when illegal attempts are made upon their liberties or properties.. they may as well say, upon the same ground, that honest men may not oppose robbers or pirates because this may occasion disorder or bloodshed.” (p. 67)


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John Locke basis for US government. (1632-1704)

Citizens have rights against their government and should defend those rights even if it means disobeying their government

  • “The end of government is the good of mankind. And which is best for mankind: that the people should be always exposed to the boundless will of tyranny, or that the rulers should sometimes be liable to be opposed when they grow exorbitant in the use of their power and employ it for the destruction and not the preservation of the properties of their people?” (p. 67)

    the aim of gov’t is to provide liberty and security, but the citizens have a right to overthrow the gov’t if it fails to provide either


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J. S. Mill (1806-1873) basis for US government.

  • A philosopher (and son of a philosopher), also active in politics (served in House of Commons)

  • Utilitarian thinker

  • Advocate for women’s rights

  • Unlike earlier liberals, Mill did not consider government a matter of natural rights or social contract, as in many forms of liberalism. Forms of government are, rather, to be judged according to "utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interest of man as a progressive being" (On Liberty, p. 224).


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J. S. Mill (1806-1873) basis for US government.

  • Mill argued that in the Locke’s day, the struggle had been one of gaining liberty by limiting the power of the monarch. But democracy contained a different danger: it meant that power had largely passed into the hands of the people at large, and the danger now was that the majority denies liberty to individuals, whether explicitly through laws, or subtly through coercion.

  • On Liberty, 1869: “The subject of this Essay is … Civil, or Social Liberty: the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual.”


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J. S. Mill (1806-1873) basis for US government.

  • “There is a sphere of action in which society, as distinguished from the individual, has, if any, only an indirect interest; comprehending all that portion of a person’s life and conduct which affects only himself, or if it also affects others, only with their free, voluntary, and undeceived consent and participation… This, then, is the appropriate region of human liberty. ” (p. 51)


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J. S. Mill (1806-1873) basis for US government.

  • “The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.”