Sunday, May 11, 2008

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Property

That's how it was originally going to read: "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Property." The founders were wise enough to realize that "Property" might be interpreted to include slaves, however, so they used "Happiness" instead. Still, they were heavily influenced by the writings of several people, including John Locke. Reading about the history of the U.S. and its founding, I was shocked to come across this excerpt from Locke's Second Essay Concerning Civil Government, pp. 75-76, paragraph 222:

"The reason why men enter into society is the preservation of their property....[and] 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 further 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, endeavour to grasp themselves, or to put into the hands of any other, an absolute power over the lives, liberties, and estates of other people, by this breach of trust they forfeit the power the people had put into their hands...and it devolves to the people, who have a right to resume their original liberty, and...provide for their own safety and security."
This is a powerful and very sweeping notion. I know our law, just like English common law, is based in precedent. Certain principles are never to be violated, however. It makes me wonder how the Kelo vs. New London decision was ever reached, or how we got to a point where the Supreme Court might ever support the confiscation of private property.

On a lesser scale, Locke's ideas, concepts fundamental to the formation of the U.S., would seem to prohibit confiscation of firearms as was done in New Orleans following the Katrina disaster, not only because taking the property itself was unlawful, but also because taking away the right of the people to provide for their own safety and security whether or not the officials were helping should be unthinkable; the right is to be absolute and inviolate, or the people have the right to dissolve the government.

I don't propose anything so drastic as revolt. It's simply important to remember that the government does not have the rights it sometimes tries to exercise upon the citizenry. In fact, the government has very few rights at all, because the vision of the people responsible for the Constitution was that the government's primary duty would be to preserve the people's rights, and to make the infringement of them by any government officials unthinkable.

These are things to ponder as we select through voting the people who will represent us in our government.

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