Thursday, January 26, 2017

The Enlightenment's Political Project

An attempt to understand Enlightenment political concepts:

The world is organized into nation-states. Such states are answerable to and for their citizens.

Everyone is a citizen of some state. (The exceptional case of individuals with dual citizenship is far less than one percent of the globe’s population, and states pressure these individuals to shed one of the citizenships eventually.)

States exist to protect the lives, liberties, and properties of citizens. Residency is not citizenship.

States may cooperate with each other, forming alliances for common causes. States may compete with each other. Each state, however, is finally accountable to its own citizens.

A government is legitimate to the extent that its citizens consent to be governed by it (Locke’s “popular sovereignty”). Citizens rationally calculate the utility of a government as it fails or succeeds to protect their lives, liberties, and properties. As Locke phrased it in 1689,

Whenever the legislators endeavor to take away and destroy the property of the people, or to reduce them to slavery under arbitrary power, they put themselves into a state of war with the people, who are thereupon absolved from any farther obedience, and are left to the common refuge which God hath provided for all men against force and violence. Whensoever, therefore, the legislative shall transgress this fundamental rule of society, and either by ambition, fear, folly, or corruption, endeavor to grasp themselves, or put into the hands of any other, an absolute power over the lives, liberties, and estates of the people, by this breach of trust they forfeit the power the people had put into their hands for quite contrary ends, and it devolves to the people, who have a right to resume their original liberty, and by the establishment of a new legislative (such as they shall think fit), provide for their own safety and security, which is the end for which they are in society.

Or, as he frames it in the same treatise, “the people shall be judge.”

In addition to popular sovereignty and the limitation of government to maximize individual political liberty, this Enlightenment framework allows for maximal engagement of the individual in the positive aspects of society.

Arts, education, and charity are fueled by the citizens who’ve delegated the negative work to the government. As Thomas Paine wrote in 1776,

Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices.

Both Locke and Paine worked to articulate a distinction between society and government. The Enlightenment project was to free society as much as possible to go about its productive activity.