John Locke said that we form governments to secure our “life, liberty, and property.” John Locke has been overtaken by events.
Let’s start where Locke did, with “life.” We Postmoderns tend to think of this first, and so, we assume, did Locke — he listed it first, after all. But back in the days writers built up to their conclusions, so the most important item was listed last. E.g. the Founders, pledging their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to the cause in the Declaration of Independence. Men like George Washington routinely hazarded their lives for the sake of their fortunes. Not because they were greedy, but because they took the long view. George might die in the attempt, but if he succeeded, his sons and grandsons would have much better chances in their lives. George didn’t actually have sons, but he was unquestionably a Patriarch, which was the fortune for which he risked his life.
Locke held the same assumptions about life, because life was almost inconceivably cheap in his day. Locke was born in 1632. A person born then would have a decent shot at making it to age 50 if he survived until age 5… but only about half did. And “a decent shot” needs to be understood blackjack-style. Conventional wisdom says to hit if the dealer shows 16 and you’re holding 16 yourself — even though you’ve got a 62% chance of going bust, you’re all but certain to lose money if you stand. Living to what we Postmoderns call “middle age” was, in Locke’s world, hitting on a 16. We Postmoderns hear of a guy who dies at 50 and we assume he did it to himself — he was a grossly obese smoker with a drug problem or a race car driver or something. In Locke’s world, they’d wonder what his secret was to have made it so long.
Locke’s Treatise, then, is in many ways a retcon — a retrospective justification for the observed fact that late 17th century Englishmen were quite prepared to risk their lives for liberty and property. They’d done it once in Locke’s youth (the Civil War, 1642-51, in which Locke’s father fought briefly for Parliament), and were gearing up to do it again (the Treatise was published in 1689, one year after the Glorious Revolution, but was written 10 years earlier, during the Exclusion Crisis). He wasn’t trying to establish some theoretical “right to revolution.” The revolution had already happened, and was about to happen again. Locke was justifying it.
This is important, because Our Thing is almost exclusively backward-looking. We’re looking for a (hypothetical, FBI goons, hypothetical) right to revolution, and Locke’s social contract seems to be the answer, just as it (seemed to be) for the Founders. All the stuff George III did to the colonists, FedGov does to us, in spades.* Our problem, though, is that to us, “liberty” and “property” are what “life” was to John Locke — a necessary precondition, sure, but nothing to get too worked up over. They’d just stopped burning heretics in England twenty years before Locke’s birth, after all, and every day, in every port of the realm, sailors signed on for very likely death sentences on international voyages. In a world where starving to death was still a very real possibility, in other words, convincing people to roll the dice with their lives was pretty easy. It was the other two that were the toughies.
We Postmoderns, though, carry on like we’re in Auschwitz if Twitter goes down for a few hours. We have no idea what “sacred honor” could possibly mean, but we’ll riot in the streets if our sportsball team wins a championship. The Revolution (again, FBI goons, hypothetically) won’t come when they take away one more liberty. It’ll come when the Obamaphone doesn’t have the latest version of Angry Birds.
We need to think long and hard about why that is, and what to do about it, because our John Locke is going to be a hard man indeed.