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John Locke's View on Granting Legitimate Political Power

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In this paper I will objectively present John Locke’s and Socrates’ views on when the state has legitimate political authority. I will do this by explaining the fundamental principles that they used in their arguments which lead to their respective conclusions. Second, I will assess which argument I find the most compelling and why. Lastly, I will offer my personal opinion on which of the two, if either, I agree with.

Now starting with Socrates’ view, he argues that legitimate political authority is granted for two reasons. A common argument on what grants political authority is “because everyone says that the state has it’”, Socrates states that this is incorrect. He points out, what is right is not always popular and what is popular is not always right (For example, in our society there is a stigma when it comes to nuclear power, it is widely regarded as dangerous. However, the truth is that not only is it much safer, it already provides a significant portion of our electrical needs).

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The first reason Socrates gives is, people living within the state are products of the state, through the state’s laws, societal customs, and general attitude a person’s ideals and behavior is molded and formed. Therefore, Socrates wouldn’t be who he was without the state, so he owes them a debt of gratitude. And the way to convey this gratitude is to obey the will of the state.

The second reason is by continuing to live in under the state we are agreeing to follow its laws. “he who has experience of the manner in which we order justice and administer the State, and still remains, has entered into an implied contract that he will do as we command him. And he who disobeys us is, as we maintain, thrice wrong: first, because in disobeying us he is disobeying his parents; secondly, because we are the authors of his education; thirdly, because he has made an agreement with us that he will duly obey our commands”. What Socrates is saying is that even thought I don’t need to give the state my express consent, my actions, or lack thereof, are consent. In the United States we drive on the right side of the road, use the dollar to purchase goods, vote, etc.; in Socrates’ view these are all signs of consent. More relatable examples might be saying the pledge of allegiance and signing along the national anthem. To summarize, Socrates believed that the state has political authority of people when they were raised by society and therefore owe it, and if they continue to live in society. In the Second Treatise of Government by John Locke – the state only has legitimate political authority when its members contract into it.

Which is most compelling? Both use very sound reasoning, but they reach different conclusions because they are built upon different fundamental principles. Socrates didn’t really consider people to have rights other than the ones given by the state. Which makes sense, in 399 BCE there wasn’t exactly a civil right movement. Slavery was not taboo, in fact it was very common. The ideas that you were entitled to any basic rights simply didn’t exist. While on the other hand, Locke stated that people have two types of rights, Positive rights and Natural rights. Moving on to their ideas of when the state had legitimate political authority. I partially agree with Socrates. There are certain times when one’s actions can be considered consent to the state’s authority; however, I do not agree that that is always the case.

Poor people (people with insufficient means) are often unable to move, they must work constantly to have enough money to barely sustain themselves, there is no way they could survive (in the literal sense) a move. Also keep in mind moving today is a lot easier than moving in ancient Greece. Locke stated the state only has authority over someone if they contract into it, I only partially agree with this as well. Someone stronger will come along and whether you see their authority is “Legitimate” is irrelevant. A murder can say that they view the law to not kill as illegitimate because they didn’t expressly agree to it, but they’ll still get arrested because the masses were stronger, and they saw the law as legitimate. If I had to pick one, I would say Socrates argument is more compelling. Which do I believe to be correct, not just compelling? Like I said above, I agree with bits and pieces of both arguments but overall, I don’t completely agree with either of them. Before going further, I would like to define how I interpret “when the state has legitimate political authority”. In essence I’m saying, “under what conditions do I allow the state to have power over me and determine what is right vs what is wrong” and all the implications that stem from that. It is important to note that right and wrong are very ambiguous terms; what I view is ‘right’ is not necessary what a state would view as ‘right’. What is right is dependent upon who is defining it and the context it is in. “Listen. Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.” – Dennis (Monty Python and the Holy Grail).

I believe that what really grants the state legitimate political authority is the “Power” they as a collective have and what they use it for. By power I don’t mean just in the traditional sense of army strength and influence. While that can certainly be a portion of their power, what I view as the most important is through thoughts, strategies, knowledge, and understanding. The basic desires of the majority of people are: first, by necessity they need to eat, second have a feeling of safety and security, and finally live their lives. All other desires are more complex. If a state uses their power to give the masses (I say masses because there are always people who dissent) their basic needs and appease any woes (such as law infractions) they may have; then it has legitimate political authority.

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