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Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Concept of Commonwealth as antidote to Tyranny

The Concept of Commonwealth

The concept of commonwealth comes from a term that John Locke used to translate a Roman Term that had a slightly different meaning. John Locke seems to have invented the term because in his "Twin Treatises" he writes:

"133. By “commonwealth” I must be understood all along to mean not a democracy, or any form of government, but any independent community which the Latins signified by the word civitas, to which the word which best answers in our language is “commonwealth,” and most properly expresses such a society of men which “community” does not (for there may be subordinate communities in a government), and “city” much less. And therefore, to avoid ambiguity, I crave leave to use the word “commonwealth” in that sense, in which sense I find the word used by King James himself, which I think to be its genuine signification, which, if anybody dislike, I consent with him to change it for a better"

Wikipedia translates Civitas thus:

"the Latin term civitas (plural civitates), according to Cicero in the time of the late Roman Republic, was the social body of the cives, or citizens, united by law (concilium coetusque hominum jure sociati). It is the law that binds them together, giving them responsibilities (munera) on the one hand and rights of citizenship on the other. The agreement (concilium) has a life of its own, creating a res publica or "public entity" (synonymous with civitas), into which individuals are born or accepted, and from which they die or are ejected. The civitas is not just the collective body of all the citizens, it is the contract binding them all together, because of which each is a civis" taken 8/16/2012

John Locke was playing a deep game there. And it is a joy to read his Treatise on Government because if one reads it in context one can see what masterful arguments he is giving, and how subversive they still are. When I was researching this paper I went to the Cato Institute and read up on John Locke there -- and they recommended ignoring the body of his work and concentrating on the beginning and the end of the treatise. But the treatise is a work of definition like an encyclopedia, a work of refutation, of exquisite exegesis, and of a wonderfully human and "common" logic.

And by choosing the word "commonwealth" to translate "civitas" John Locke was performing a valuable service for the world, for the world civitas implies merely cities, and civilization, but the word commonwealth says something about why people come together. And so he was saying something about the "state of civilization" in contrast to the "state of nature" and was talking to the aristocrats of his time who were advancing an idea of civilization and liberty that was akin to the Social Darwinian arguments of our time.

The concept of social contract derives from the Latin understanding of the concept of a republic united by law. It wasn't invented by Enlightenment philosophers but represents an ancient idea of social contract or "concilium" where a social body gives people both rights and responsibilities with respect to one another. I never found the expression "social contract" anywhere in his book. What I found was an explicit and implicit reference to basic principles of civility, common sense, and affection for common law, common people, and the notion that a civilization exists for the sake of the people and the common good. Hence with this simple expedient of translation John Locke was redefining a term and enriching it. Since his time others have parsed his expressions and tried to limit the meaning of commonwealth to the most parsed and constrained definition of civitas they can, but in the Two Treatises he was making the case for commonwealth as an antidote to Tyranny.

John Locke does this by attacking the strawman arguments of Sir Robert Filmer in his Patriarcha. But he's doing more than that. Filmer was dead when John Locke was a man. John Locke states his reasons in his opening lines, he found it's arguments false and misleading:

"confess myself mightily surprised that in a book, which was to provide chains for all mankind, I should find nothing but a rope of sand;"

He found Filmer's work a wonderful punching bag on which to hang his theories. Filmer wasn't much different from most libertarians or righties of our day, who "flatter the princes" into thinking that they rule by divine right. They also teach and practice a deluded, perverse and mistaken notion of liberty, which Locke refutes in this wonderful passage:

"The liberty of man in society is to be under no other legislative power but that established by consent in the commonwealth, nor under the dominion of any will, or restraint of any law, but what that legislative shall enact according to the trust put in it."

The property of this world is in common among us all, and entrusted to those who possess it as a trust. It is a trust given to mankind and all forms of rule, official-hood, or other officer elevations are in the context of this notion of Trust. And he continues:

"Freedom, then, is not what Sir Robert Filmer tells us: “A liberty for every one to do what he lists, to live as he pleases, and not to be tied by any laws”; but freedom of men under government is to have a standing rule to live by, common to every one of that society, and made by the legislative power erected in it. A liberty to follow my own will in all things where that rule prescribes not, not to be subject to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown, arbitrary will of another man, as freedom of nature is to be under no other restraint but the law of Nature."

Thus Locke's commonwealth is a civilized place where people live within their own property and use the commons for the common wealth and the common good as well as their own wealth. For Locke Freedom is to live within a civilized world where there is consensus, and common sense. For John Locke God didn't create monarchy or aristocracy, or even a right of the Church over all the world, but rather:

The Commons are a Common Trust.

  1. That by this grant, Gen. i. 28, God gave no immediate power to Adam over men, over his children, over those of his own species; and so he was not made ruler, or monarch, by this charter.
  2. That by this grant God gave him not private dominion over the inferior creatures, but right in common with all mankind; so neither was he monarch upon the account of the property here given him.

That concept of trust is how he put limits on the power of kings and executives, officers and judges, legislators and all others who exercise power. And he elucidates this with a wonderful exegesis drawing from the Book of Samuel and the story of how Samuel gained and lost the Kingship of Israel. Starting with how Samuel became king:

"those who liked one another so well as to join into society cannot but be supposed to have some acquaintance and friendship together, and some trust one in another, they could not but have greater apprehensions of others than of one another; and, therefore, their first care and thought cannot but be supposed to be, how to secure themselves against foreign force. It was natural for them to put themselves under a frame of government which might best serve to that end, and choose the wisest and bravest man to conduct them in their wars and lead them out against their enemies, and in this chiefly be their ruler."

And something similar he describes as happening when Samuel made Saul King of Israel.

"As if the only business of a king had been to lead out their armies and fight in their defence; and, accordingly, at his inauguration, pouring a vial of oil upon him, declares to Saul that “the Lord had anointed him to be captain over his inheritance” (ch. 10. 1)."

A captain leads by the trust of his army and is there because he is the most excellent and accomplished strategist and warrior the commonwealth can find. John Locke makes the case that Saul won his position because he won the trust of both Israel and God, but he notes that these two trusts are synonymous.

"And therefore those who, after Saul being solemnly chosen and saluted king by the tribes at Mispah, were unwilling to have him their king, make no other objection but this, “How shall this man save us?” (ch. 10. 27), as if they should have said: “This man is unfit to be our king, not having skill and conduct enough in war to be able to defend us.” And when God resolved to transfer the government to David, it is in these words: “But now thy kingdom shall not continue: the Lord hath sought Him a man after His own heart, and the Lord hath commanded him to be captain over His people” (ch. 13. 14.)."

So a King, or executive has the duty to 'save' the people he is entrusted to lead. And trust is necessary for all other offices. And in the Republican scheme of government the ultimate trust resides with the legislature and then with the people:

149. "Though in a constituted commonwealth standing upon its own basis and acting according to its own nature—that is, acting for the preservation of the community, there can be but one supreme power, which is the legislative, to which all the rest are and must be subordinate, yet the legislative being only a fiduciary power to act for certain ends, there remains still in the people a supreme power to remove or alter the legislative, when they find the legislative act contrary to the trust reposed in them. For all power given with trust for the attaining an end being limited by that end, whenever that end is manifestly neglected or opposed, the trust must necessarily be forfeited, and the power devolve into the hands of those that gave it, who may place it anew where they shall think best for their safety and security...."

In a commonwealth the people have the right to cashier or remove any of their officers when they violate their trust. And John locke, in saying these things was stating revolutionary things. Things that the Whig party he helped establish would later try to distance itself from. John locke however, refutes people like Edmund Burke who denied that people should even have the right to cashier misbehaving officers. But I'll get to that later.

The concept of Commonwealth, when coupled with concepts like trust, rule of law and the right of the people to remove officers, are revolutionary concepts and concepts that should be the basis of creating communities that function well. The concept of Commonwealth, by establishing these principles stands as an antidote to even the potential for tyranny, of "Private Separate Advantage", in a government where the governors and officers, rich and powerful, see themselves as entitled to violate the trust the people put in them.

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