Learning Locke: More on Cato’s Letters

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As touched upon in Part I, and against the backdrop of an orchestrated South Sea Bubble, subsequent economic crash, and unpunished stock-jobbers, Cato interwove Lockean concepts regarding the laws of nature, civil society, and high crimes which were found some fifty and sixty years later in our Declaration of Independence and Constitution.

What follows are illustrative of the thought train of two foundational truths, from Locke to Cato to our Declaration of Independence, which culminated in the free government design of our Constitution.

The Purpose of Government.

John Locke: Civil Society comes into being when every individual has resigned up to the society or the public his individual power to exercise the law of nature and protect his life, liberty and estate.

Cato: That the benefit and safety of the people constitutes the supreme law is a universal and everlasting maxim in government. The sole reason for entering into society is mutual protection and defense.

Declaration: That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men.

Constitution: We The People . . . in order to . . . provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare . . .

High Crimes.

John Locke: The chief end of men uniting into commonwealths, and of putting themselves under government is the preservation of society and every person in it. When high officials act contrary to their purposes, they are in a state of war with society. Should the institutions designed to punish evil-doers fail to do so, society has every right to strike down the usurpers and reform their government.

Who shall be the judge whether the prince or legislative act contrary to their trust?

To this Locke replied, The People shall be judge, for who shall be judge whether his trustee or deputy acts well, and according to the trust reposed in him, but he who deputes him and must by having deputed him have still a power to discard him when he fails in his trust. If this be reasonable between particular cases of private men, it must be more so, of the greatest moment where the welfare of millions is concerned, and also where the evil, if not prevented, is greater and the redress very difficult, clear and dangerous.

Cato: Not by far was Cato the first to distinguish between crimes that are so by their nature, and those that violate positive statutory law. It is the duty of government to punish those offenses according to their best discretion, especially if the crimes are so great that no human wisdom could foresee that any man could be so wicked to commit them.

The great crimes to which Cato referred were those which could only be committed by those in positions of high political power; only they could ruin millions of lives without violating statutory law. For such men to go unpunished is to assert that the nation doesn’t have authority to save itself, that particular men have the liberty to subvert the society which protects them, and continue to be protected by that government which they would destroy.

Declaration: George III committed dozens of high crimes against his North American subjects and their civil society. His history was one of “repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states.” Being incapable of removing George III from office, American colonials fired their king.

Constitution: Unfortunately, the impeachment and conviction process by congress of high crimes committed by any officials beyond a small number of federal judges just hasn’t worked out as intended. While the logic of empowering the two component members (people and states) of the American Republic to indict and try high officials is unassailable, the development of political parties has warped an important check by the legislative on the executive and judiciary.

In future posts I hope to discuss particular letters from Cato of additional pertinence to the horrid condition of free government in America circa 2016.

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