Among the most fundamental conservative principles is a belief in small and limited government. In an age where the government promises the electorate it can do anything, it is important to understand why conservatives say that it both cannot and should not. If there is any place to begin our journey into a conservative future, it’s here.
American conservatism has it roots in the classical liberal tradition of the Enlightenment, which the colonists used as the intellectual fuel for their revolution against Britain. Arguably the most important philosopher of this tradition was John Locke, who proposed a radically new concept for the purpose of government. Locke said that before the existence of government, or in the “state of nature,” humans possessed God-given rights to life, liberty, and property. They then entered into a “social contract” with one another to establish a government that secured these rights. Therefore, the entire purpose of government is to secure the rights mankind possessed but could not easily defend in the state of nature.
Many Americans might take this logic for granted. Of course we have unalienable rights; in fact, it’s self-evident. But until the Declaration of Independence, there was no country in the history of the world that based its existence on this concept. Most countries, whether they knew it or not, operated under the logic of another Enlightenment philosopher: Thomas Hobbes. To Hobbes, the state of nature was “nasty, brutish, and short,” and mankind entered into a social contract to establish a government that improved this state of nature. Any government, no matter how tyrannical, that provides its citizens with a better life than the state of nature is a justifiable one. In addition, all privileges that its citizens obtain, such as life, liberty, and property, are due solely to the state’s existence and benevolence. Without the state, there are no rights. And since all rights are subject to the state, truly, there are no rights.
Without agreement on what the true purpose of government is – to secure our natural rights or to improve our natural condition, however minimally – it might seem impossible to move forward. How can we know what our government is to do if we can’t even agree on why we have it? How can we argue the effectiveness of a policy if we can’t agree on the purpose of government we are to judge it by? The answer can be resolved by looking at the commonality between both philosophies; the purpose of government in both instances is to provide a greater level of happiness for the people, the only difference is in what the minimal standard of happiness should be.
Locke would say that we had a certain amount of happiness before government existed because we were free to do whatever we wanted. Our happiness was lost when our freedoms came into conflict with each other. Rights are deduced by logic to resolve these conflicts in freedom, and these rights ultimately all stem from the right to property. We have a right to our own person, self-ownership, and we have a right to anything that we create or acquire through consensual agreements. By placing the limit on absolute liberty at the violation of someone else’s right to property, happiness can be maintained, and this is the minimal standard of happiness that government must achieve.
Hobbes would say that before government there was no happiness because all we would do is kill, enslave, and steal from each other. Anything better than this is the minimal standard of happiness that a government must maintain.
But if we have government because the alternative would be murder, enslavement, and theft, then aren’t we therefore acknowledging that these actions are wrong because they infringe on basic natural rights? Therefore, shouldn’t the basic standard of happiness be one that secures these rights and prevents their infringement in all instances, whether by an individual or the government itself? In this way, Locke’s logic proves to be better than Hobbes’.
Today’s American left would say we should aim for a higher standard of happiness than these basic rights simply provide. We shouldn’t stop at life, liberty, and property but rather aim for universal healthcare, universal college education, universal living wages, and so much more. This is how we will bring the greatest amount of happiness to the people, which we have already acknowledged to be the most general purpose of government.
The problem here is that to provide these new “rights” would require a violation of the most basic rights that give us happiness. To provide universal healthcare, for example, would require a violation of the doctor’s right to liberty by forcing him to care for patients and would require a violation of the taxpayer’s right to property by taking his money to provide for someone else’s expenditures. If an action requires violating the most basic rights to life, liberty, and property, the most basic things that give us happiness, then the action cannot bring true happiness.
The left might then say that it doesn’t matter. We gave up some of our rights in creating government in order to bring about greater happiness for the whole and therefore must live with the fact that the government can take our rights away. This is a common misconception. We did not give up any of our rights when creating government; all we did was give up our ability to violate someone else’s rights without being punished.
In addition, the state has proven to be a much worse provider of greater happiness for the whole than the people are themselves through the power of the free market. Before the United States, governments ruled for centuries and were not able to bring about anywhere near the innovation and improvements in quality of life than the free market has provided in America. It was not the government but the free market that made it possible for almost everyone to own a cell phone and a television at an affordable price, for example. Therefore, it is not only wrong to violate our basic rights to bring about greater happiness for the whole, but it is counterproductive as well.
If we can restore our vision to one that limits government to securing our rights to life, liberty, and property – in accordance with our founding principles – then we will be well on our way to truly bringing greater happiness to the people and picking up where Jefferson and the founders left off. The idea that governments can be founded on these principles is a radically new concept in the scope of human history, and if the idea is ever to be used in full again, it is most likely to happen in the place where it was first tried, these United States of America. As young conservatives, we have a duty to ensure that happens.