In my last post, I touched on some of the problems with Yoram Hazony’s traditionalist conservatism as it applies to the American founders. Now, I will briefly point out a couple problems with how he and his supporters view John Locke. If you’re asking yourself, “Who cares about some dead, white male who wrote 400 years ago?” then you should know the colonists cited Locke the most of any thinker in the fifteen years prior to the American Revolution. So it’s important that we get him right.
First of all, Hazony applies the “rationalist” epithet to Locke for “asserting general axioms” he “believe[s] to be true of all human beings.” Hazony supporter Daniel Pipes recently wrote that Locke “blithley” supposed the laws of nature applied to all human beings. But Locke already anticipated this objection. In the Second Treatise, he defines reason as the law of nature that “teaches all Mankind, who will but consult it” (my emphasis). Plainly, though everyone has the use of reason, not everyone will use it to the same extent. How is this different from Aristotle, who observed that man is by nature a political animal—that is, man is a rational being capable of discerning between vice and virtue?
Ultimately, universal principles are not the problem (try going a day without appealing to something universal). What matters is whether or not our actions are in accord with such principles.
Secondly, Hazony has called Locke’s teaching that civil society is founded upon a social compact a “myth” that is “historically false and dangerous.” But as Thomas G. West writes in his masterwork, The Political Theory of the American Founding, social compact theory is not a “description of how political societies have evolved historically.” Instead, this theory concerns “how political societies should be founded and continued at all times – by consent.” Locke agrees: “[A]ll peaceful beginnings of Government have been laid in the Consent of the People.”
Social compact theory was the answer to the problem of tyrannical government, which as Locke personally saw was how most governments had operated in history.
We can see why jettisoning Locke’s important contributions to political theory to the dustbin of history would be a tragic mistake.