This is a follow up to an earlier post, “The liberal/conservative divide explained”.
I happened to catch the Eagle Forum College Student Summit this weekend on C-SPAN (it occurred on July 16). One speech in particular that caught my attention was on a book called, “Rescuing A Broken America”, by Michael Coffman. Coffman contrasted the philosophies of John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Locke advocated for limited government. Rousseau advocated for unlimited government. Coffman said that both had the goal of freeing humanity from oppression, but they had very different approaches for doing it. Locke’s philosophy was one of the main ones used for founding the United States (another philosophical source was Voltaire). Rousseau’s philosophy was used in the French Revolution, and was the basis for the philosophies of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. These became the bases for socialism, fascism, and communism.
I am embarrassed to say that I have only studied Locke a little, his philosophy of Natural Law. Though I had heard of Rousseau, I didn’t study him in any depth. Locke believed that humans are flawed creatures, but that freedom is our natural state of being. Government is necessary, but because (flawed) humans run government, it has to be restrained, because the state’s natural inclination is to grab power at the expense of the people’s natural rights that are in its jurisdiction. From what I can surmise from Coffman’s talk, Rousseau seems to have believed in a democratic government, but one where the majority always ruled–“the will of the people”. Coffman made a point of mentioning that we are a republic, not a democracy, because, “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb deciding what they’re going to have for dinner.” Rousseau believed that the state was sovereign, not the individual (the individual is sovereign in a republic). Rousseau seemed to believe that since “the people” (the populace at large) know what they need, they can decide through government how everything should be arranged, who should get what, and what should be regulated and what shouldn’t. The public’s will is exercised through raw government power. As Thomas Sowell said, Rousseau also likely believed that everything would be fine so long as “the right people” were installed in power. He assumed that the vast majority would always be able to agree on “what is right”, and that anyone who didn’t agree with “the public will” should be marginalized. As Coffman noted, the result of carrying out this philosophy in revolutionary France was bloody. It was not a pretty picture. The legacy of Rousseau’s ideas have been fraught with mass murder and oppression. The most benign form of his ideas (so far) have been the social democracies of Europe.
In any case, it’s important for us as Americans to understand these distinctions so that we can understand what we’re really talking about, and not just debate short-sighted goals.