A blupete Essay

Power, Part 12 to blupete's Essay
"An Essay On Government"

Power is an odious thing, we generally can smell it a long way off; those who wield it are automatically disliked. Our personal level of contentment, and therefore, I imagine the general level of contentment in society, is directly proportionate to the number of those who exert power over us. For this reason alone there would be good reason to severely limit the power of government. But there are much better reasons, but I run ahead of myself.

What is power? In its simplest definition, power is the ability to act upon a person and make them do something. Power, as Locke explained,23 is twofold: it can either be active or be passive. It is active when one exercises power by the threat of using force, or of the actual use of force. However, one may get another to do something, not through force; but, rather, through argument, by reason and by example. One uses passive power to get another to do something because ultimately it is in the best interest of the doer, himself, to do or not to do something: this is passive power. One uses passive power to show another that to take or to refrain from a certain action will ultimately advance the welfare of the person to whom the explicit or implicit request is being made. An exercise of passive power comes about when the doer is convinced without the threat or the application of force. Passive power is continually exercised by all of us, every day; we, to one degree or another, continually exercise power over ourselves and over all of our acquaintances. Passive power is asserted and met without any interference in the liberty of anyone, otherwise it would not be passive power. Passive power is the peaceful manner in which humans have evolved and by which they continue to sustain their lives. However, active power is another matter. The fundamental law is that no one may use active power except only in the defense of his person, his family and his property; and it is this power that we delegate to government, for its use, almost exclusively. Government is to use the threat of force or actual force, strictly, and only against those in the community who have chosen to break the law, criminal law, as carefully and as fully defined as is possible.

As a civilized society we are obliged to proceed on this basis: that which "cannot be compassed by reason, wisdom and discretion" is something that is outside the law (Montaigne). Government has a right to use force against those who are outside the law. The only moral (and practical) object in the use of force, generally, is to use it as a defense against one who is using it offensively, or it is apprehended that they are immediately about to do so: it is an individual's right to meet force with force. Each one of us, according to the teachings of Locke has this right. This right is impliedly granted to government, however, it is a reversionary right. If government uses it in any way other than in a defensive way: government, by Lockian theory, loses the right to use force; it loses its legitimate power.

In all of this we cannot lose sight of the purpose of government, a topic with which I had previously dealt. Let me, in my reminder, once again, resort to the "Philosopher of Freedom," John Locke. I quote from his Second Treatise:

"The great and chief end, therefore, of men's uniting into commonwealths, and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property. ... Men when they enter into society give up ... liberty [of a kind] ... yet it being only with an intention in every one the better to preserve himself, his liberty and property, [the power thus conferred] can never be supposed to extend farther than the common good, but is obliged to secure everyone's property... [This power] is limited to the public good of the society. It is a power that hath no other end but preservation, and therefore can never have a right to destroy, enslave, or designedly to impoverish the subjects... To this end it is that men give up all their natural power to the society they enter into, and the community put the legislative power into such hands as they think fit, with this trust, that they shall be governed by declared laws, or else their peace, quiet, and property will still be at the same uncertainty as it was in the state of Nature.
It cannot be supposed that they should intend, had they a power so to do, to give any one or more an absolute arbitrary power over their persons and estates, and put a force into the magistrate's hand to execute his unlimited will arbitrarily upon them; this were to put themselves into a worse condition than the state of Nature, wherein they had a liberty to defend their right against the injuries of others, and were upon equal terms of force to maintain it, whether invaded by a single man or many in combination. Whereas by supposing they have given up themselves to the absolute arbitrary power and will of a legislator, they have disarmed themselves, and armed him to make a prey of them when he pleases.
It is true governments cannot be supported without great charge, and it is fit every one who enjoys his share of the protection should pay out of his estate his proportion for the maintenance of it. But still it must be with his own consent -- i.e., the consent of the majority, giving it either by themselves or their representatives chosen by them; for if any one shall claim a power to lay and levy taxes on the people by his own authority, and without such consent of the people, he thereby invades the fundamental law of property, and subverts the end of government. For what property have I in that which another may by right take when he pleases to himself?" (Locke, Two Treatises of Government, 1690.)

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Peter Landry

2011 (2019)