Of course, I must mean the original Tea Party. While Mark Steyn, Ann Coulter, and Glenn Beck are all doing well on the bestseller list, I could not find a single edition of Locke’s Second Treatise above #21,000 on Amazon. That number is disturbing given that a large percentage of college students are returning to campus this week and buying their books for the semester. More troubling is Howard Zinn’s People’s History (that is, the communist version of America) retaining an impressive rank of 625 as of a moment ago, having sold over 2 million copies since its publication. The contributors on the College Feed side of ricochet are not exaggerating when they lament the unabashed leftist bent of their professors.
While the Right is well supplied with good defenses in its non-fiction bestsellers, all or virtually all of talk radio, and insightful blogs like this one, there remains ample reason to revisit—or visit for the first time—the classic writers on liberty, be you a college student, a Tea Party participant, or a person who makes a living at politics and political commentary. And the classic author who definitely belongs first on the list is John Locke.
I shan’t belabor the Founding Fathers’ debt to the thought of Locke. That should be obvious to anyone who juxtaposes the most familiar phrases from the Declaration of Independence with some choice passages in the Second Treatise. I would like briefly, however, to explain how Locke’s situation is hauntingly analogous to our own and later to suggest why his understanding of human nature, property, and politics is essential to our nation’s return to Founding principles.
In the second half of the seventeenth century, everything seemed to support the power of kings—usually the unchecked power of kings. True, the middle decades in England saw an attempt at popular government. But the disaster that was the English Civil War only seemed to confirm the view of political thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes that an absolute power is necessary to keep order. Kings provided that order. Everyone knew that. Tradition said so. To know one’s history meant knowing the kings stretching many centuries back, however troubled some of those reigns might have been. The Church said so, at least the established church in most every country that had long ago seen where its bread was buttered and interpreted Scripture accordingly. The culture said so. What fairy tale had a fair damsel marrying the shlub next door rather than a handsome prince? Philosophy said so: Filmer, Hobbes, Bossuet, and a host of monarchical apologists. And, finally, common sense seemed to validate monarchy as well. Just as sons are subordinate to their fathers, so must subjects be subordinate to kings. (In those days, a son did not do much of anything until Daddy died, leaving his lands to the oldest; younger sons were forced to enter the professions, engage in trade, or worse, become professors.) The idea that a group of people could come together, secure their lives and their property, establish laws to protect those lives and property, and retain political equality, was not just odd. It was considered insane—or treasonous. The king is our father! He will take care of us! Do you really want to risk what we’ve always known on the roll of the dice that is self-government?
Compare that situation to today. For the past hundred years we Americans, former Lockeans in both political parties, have gotten used to the idea that a central government (a lot like a supposedly benevolent king) will take care of us from cradle to grave. When a political candidate like Rick Perry even suggests that social security is a Ponzi scheme, implying that Americans ought to save for their own retirement, everyone goes wild. Yet we do not stop to ask how Americans before the New Deal might have lived in the twilight years of their lives. Tradition (the last 100 years of the progressive state), the church (at least a good portion of the church that has embraced the welfare state as the equivalent of the Good Samaritan), the culture (Hollywood), philosophy (or what passes for philosophy in the universities), and even a debauched common sense (“I pay taxes; therefore I should get some money back into my pocket”) all build a case for the intrusive Nanny State—and not a case that is easily defeated.
I believe that to become Americans again—true believers in self-government, the rule of law, property rights, the worth of the individual, and a host of other things—we must become Lockeans again. I shall try to prove that in my next post. For now, please flip through an old copy of the Second Treatise or order one on Amazon. If the Father of our Fathers cannot do better than #21,000 on Amazon, we really are in trouble.