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Political Legitimacy Essay

In defining political legitimacy, theorists Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Emma Goldman each put forth a distinct set of values that frame their view on a government’s right to rule. Hobbes, a strong proponent to the right of self-preservation, claims that the protection of life is the only criterion required for a government to be legitimate.

On the other hand, John Locke believes that governments should not only preserve life, but also allow for individual liberties and protection of private property, while Emma Goldman maintains the belief that governments use coercion to take away freedoms and therefore should never, under any circumstances, be considered legitimate.

Locke’s argument on political legitimacy, that more than just one value is needed to make a legitimate government, is compelling because his criterion protects more than just the life of citizens, it allows for individual’s to have their own liberties free from an oppressive sovereign and prevents the dangers posed by absolute freedom. This paper will set up the lines of government for each theorist and explain why Locke’s perspective on a representative government with separation of powers is more compelling than Goldman’s absence of government and Hobbes’ belief in a sovereign rule.

Throughout his work entitled Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes argues that the right to self-preservation takes precedence above individual liberties. In the state of nature, man is given the right to do whatever he deems necessary to preserve his own life. Man can therefore commit injury to another man or his property if he thinks it is best to maintain his own life. This state of nature, being naturally quarrelsome, leads to distrust and competition, and encourages dangerous acts and widespread fear.

There are no limits on the injuries or vengeance that can occur within this state and as a result, citizens find themselves in need of protection from the violence of others. The Hobbesian covenant thus creates government, by placing all power in the hands of a sovereign, to quell their fears and provide for their protection, thus establishing a state of peace. In establishing a covenant and a government, Hobbes provides the natural law that “a man be willing, when others are so too, as far-forth, as for peace, and defence of himself he shall think it necessary, to lay down this right to all things,” (Hobbes 80).

This means that in order to protect himself, and finding others that desire their own protection above other things, man will give up all of his rights to a sovereign rule. Hobbes argues that failure to relinquish all rights to one ruler will place the covenant back into a state of nature. The sovereign, having been given all rights of the covenant has absolute power and can dictate all laws and grant or withhold all freedoms. He is not to abide by any laws himself, if so he becomes subject to the commonwealth that he rules, therefore forfeiting his absolute power.

The covenant however, is not obligated to obey the sovereign in the event that his rule threatens their right to self- preservation. This right being primary in Hobbes’ view is the only thing which individuals ought to place above all other obligations, whether those duties are to their sovereign or fellow man. If it happens that the sovereign is in any way interfering with the right to self-preservation, a value held above all obligations and liberties of the commonwealth, members of the covenant may defy his commands and thrust themselves back into a state of war.

This however, does not dissolve the commonwealth; it only removes an individual from the commonwealth. By dissolving government and the common wealth, the sovereign’s removal from power places the covenant into that same state of nature from which they came and they then must establish a new commonwealth and sovereign power. Therefore, the only way a sovereign power can be removed is upon death, though this often results in the succession of another sovereign, either by the predecessor’s choice or by election.

Whereas Thomas Hobbes believes that an absolute sovereign government is the only form of legitimacy, Emma Goldman differs by claiming that no government is legitimate because they take away freedoms. Goldman puts forth the theory that individuals, given absolute freedom, have the ability to govern themselves and coexist peacefully in social harmony supplied by the solidarity of interests. The threat of violence and fear stem from the coercive actions used by any and all ruling governments.

It is the belief that governments prevent us from doing what we want and force us to do things we don’t want to, Goldman says, that allow governments to “rest on violence, and are therefore wrong and harmful,” (Goldman 17). These governments harm individuals by “stealing in the form of taxes, [and] killing in the form of war and capital punishment,” (Goldman 20). Since anarchism claims that violence by government harms citizens, governments cannot provide protection for citizens.

Because of her insistence that governments, being coercive and harmful, are never legitimate, Goldman fails to even consider the origins of government and the limits of their powers such as Hobbes and Locke have. She asserts that coercive governments use the threat of force and violence against citizens to control them, leading governments to pursue “the absolute subordination of the individual,” thus limiting all freedoms and liberties that in a free state, the individual would have access to, (Goldman 19).

The subordination of the people by government, degrading the population to mundane obedience, creates an environment that is colorless and spiritless. Instead of adhering to the control of corrupt institutions, Goldman urges individuals to break the coercive hold of governments, defy all authority and pursue the freedoms they would acquire within a state social harmony exempt from authoritative rule.

Locke, holding the belief that Hobbes’ rights of the sovereign would lead to tyranny, and that Goldman’s value of absolute freedom would produce a weak and chaotic society without laws, makes a case for government that combines the best of Goldman and Hobbesian theories. Locke’s view on political legitimacy allows for a government with separate powers, so as not to become tyrannical, and for liberties provided to citizens under government rule to encourage freedom and equality. Under Locke’s state of nature, all man is made equal by the decree of God.

Each man must preserve himself, but also under God’s power, has a duty to maintain peace amongst the whole of mankind. This view of equality, over Hobbes’ factor of diffidence, as a main quality in the state of nature thus leads to a more dispersed and equal government, as opposed to Hobbes’ government in which all power is placed in one ruler. In a Lockian government, power is divided into the legislative and the executive, this separation of power keeps one person from having complete control over another, and the legislative and executive, according to Locke “have rules also of appointing and conveying the right to those who are to have any share in the public authority,” (Locke 101).

This means that all legislative and executive bodies of governing are bound by the own laws which they make, so as not to become corrupt, tyrannical and illegitimate. Locke, in agreeing with Hobbes, realizes that governments should be established for the protection of the people; however he also notes that protecting an individual’s life should not be their only function.

The primary values Locke gives of life, liberty and property, claim that governments have a duty to not only protect the life of an individual, but protect their property and provide them with liberties as well. He agrees with Goldman that the freedom of the individual is an important value not to be overlooked, and maintains the provision that legitimate governments must provide and protect citizen’s rights. Nevertheless, Locke does not go so far as to guarantee the absolute freedom that Goldman presents.

He predicts that complete freedoms will lead society on a dangerous path and that laws are put in place to police self-interests and prevent man from causing harm to one another. Locke also refutes the Hobbesian notion that only the sovereign has the power to dictate which liberties to provide and which to withhold. He asserts that individuals must be given fundamental rights which no authority has the power take away. Regarding property rights, Locke produces the “Labor Theory of Value” in which common property, when mixed with labor, becomes the private property of those who labored on it.

Governments cannot allocate this property otherwise and it must be entrusted to its rightful owner. On the dissolution of government, Locke advances the right of the populace to establish new institutions of government if the former has become corrupt and oppressive. Locke approaches the dissolution of governments by arguing that individuals have the right to rebel against governments that are found to be illegitimate. He claims that governments are illegitimate when they “are altered without the consent and contrary to the common interest of the people,” (Locke 109).

He asserts that in this event, individuals are obligated to rebel and create a new governing body that responds to their wishes, thus giving rights of directing the government to its creators and maintaining that the commonwealth is guaranteed some amount of power over its government. Locke’s concept of political legitimacy is compelling because it allows for cooperation between the public and government which prevents the possibility of tyranny that is derived from Hobbes’ theory.

His theory of legitimacy also protects life, property and the liberties of people while preventing any dangers to the public that can be drawn from Goldman’s theory that no government is better than some government. At length, Locke’s theory, which successfully combines the values of separate authoritative powers, government protections, and individual liberties, establishes a society in which there is a fair and equal relationship between the commonwealth and its ruling institution.


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