The State Of Nature And The Declaration Of Independence

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In today’s political climate, where entire debates are reduced to a few seconds of audio on the news or a few words in a headline, I believe that it is extraordinarily important to take a moment to step back and realize what our society ought to be about. This is the first in a series of (hopefully) weekly essays that will attempt to explain my take on foundational American political philosophy, and how it relates to the conservative movement.

Realistically, the basis for modern western society dates back to Ancient Greece, but I’d like to start more recently. The more modern basis for western political philosophy is a famous British philosopher named John Locke, who lived from 1632-1704. Locke wrote in The Second Treatise on Government that legitimacy comes from the people, and that it is the duty of government to protect the unalienable natural rights of its citizens in order to create a just society. This is what he called the “state of nature”, in which natural rights, like the rights of all citizens to Life, Liberty, and Property, are protected. Locke wanted each citizen to use reason and evidence in a never-ending search for the truth instead of accepting authoritative opinions. According to Locke, this search for the truth creates better-functioning institutions, and separates the legitimate from the illegitimate in government.

If those premises sound familiar, then it is because America was founded on these ideals. While the Declaration of Independence is a list of grievances against the British Crown, it also contains foundational American political ideology. Itreads:

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 — 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.

This passage to me seems to recognize three important realities. First, it establishes the western belief that citizens are not granted rights to them by a government, rather, all people are innately endowed with unalienable rights that ought not be restricted. Second, the Declaration recognizes that government is instituted to protect and secure these rights, and that the powers of government ought to be used to secure safety and happiness in society. This is what is called a social contract, in which individuals forfeit some rights that are present in an anarchical state in order to create an organization, a government, to ensure the protection of other rights deemed more important. Third and finally, our founders recognized that if government becomes tyrannical, it becomes the duty of the people reform or remove that government in order to protect the unalienable rights of all in society.

So how does this play into conservative ideology? Well, it first establishes an important notion among members of the right: the rights to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness are not afforded to you by the government; rather, the government has been instituted to protect these rights that were bestowed upon you by some other force. One does not have to believe in the existence of a God, who according to the founders bestows natural rights upon human beings, in order to understand that fundamentally humans have rights that no one should be able to take away, and that government and society ought to protect these rights.

Second, it recognizes the role of government in securing equal opportunity for all in society to exercise their natural rights. This is the argument for legalizing abortion, for instance. It is the job of government, according to the founders, to protect the right to Life. This is why conservatives have traditionally opposed programs like NSA dragnets or phone surveillance, as these undercut the Liberty of innocent individuals without due process. And this is why conservatives stand for limited government and social programs. Too often in the modern era, many on all sides of the political spectrum believe that the role of government is to ensure that all citizens are happy, rather than have the ability to pursue happiness by their own merit. Conservatives will note the difference, as the famous economist Milton Friedman did, that there is a significant difference between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome. So long as all in society have equal opportunity to succeed, conservatives will allow individual merit to dictate outcome.

This leads to the third and most important idea established by the Declaration of Independence: Individualism. While the role of government is established to protect the rights of its citizens, the role of the citizenry is similarly defines. It is the right of the people to create government, reform government, and remove government, just as it the people have rights as well. The founders built the United States on the basis of individual liberties and natural rights, but too often in the modern era are individual liberties trampled on for the sake of collectivism or group identity. Americans must reject the practice of identity politics regardless of where it comes from, a trait I find best exemplified by the conservative movement.

Ethan Buehrer, opinion writer at The Daily Lev.