By: Michael Fusco
The English philosopher John Locke describes in “Two Treatises of Government” that government is a social contract among moral people who freely enter an agreement with one another to enforce, but not infringe, the law of nature.
Natural law describes that all persons are naturally free, equal, and birthed with “certain unalienable Rights…Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness,” as written in the U.S. Declaration of Independence.
Government does not permit or distribute natural rights since these rights are naturally ordained; rather government only facilitates relationships between people to help prevent encroachments on the law of nature that would occur in a state of nature (i.e. anarchy).
While the majority ought to rule within the legislative, executive, and judicial bodies under a social contract, that rule must not inhibit any person’s ability to enjoy his or her natural right.
When the source of power in a social contract is upset by governmental usurpations, separation from the contract is permitted. As described in the Declaration of Independence: “[T]o secure [natural] rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it…”
How can government ever exist when underlying human greed for power might bring eventual ruin to society? Both a system in which all power is rested overtly in the hands of the people (democracy) and a system where one person or group of people control society (authoritarianism, broadly) fail.
The balance between these extremes lies in a free government that protects individualism while providing many checks on the power within government.
Individualism is central to government seeking to protect natural law, since each person is his or her own sovereign.
In Federalist 51, James Madison famously explains the dilemma in instituting government that must balance human ambition: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.
If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.
In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.
A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”
Checks on power exist between factions of people, among levels of government, and in the three branches of government. Unlike hierarchal or monarchical systems in which individuals self-proclaim their power over others, the American system distributes power based on the people’s consent.
People have the power to choose leaders, who share their interests, to pass and execute laws that agree with the law of nature. The source of people’s power lies not in mob rule but individuals’ agreement to enter a social contract and civilly engage with one another.