3-Minute Civics: Whom do you trust, the government or people?

  • Thomas Hobbes

  • John Locke

For the Monitor
Published: 9/1/2019 7:30:13 AM

‘Do you believe that people are basically good or basically evil?” When I have asked my students this question over the years, sadly I would say that more have argued evil, often nuancing it by saying people are born neutral but then turned by society. However, there is usually a lively defense for good as well.

Our discussion leads to an introduction of two 17th-century English philosophers, John Locke and Thomas Hobbes, who each answered this question in very different ways.

Locke believed that people are good (or at least reasonable). He identified the natural rights of life, liberty and property, and proclaimed that all people are born with these rights. Locke believed that if we could live in a pure state of nature (think Garden of Eden – no government) that people would have “perfect freedom,” and it would be utopia. In essence, since people are good, Locke wanted them to have rights and to be in control. Rights give power, and he believed that people could and should be trusted with that power.

Hobbes believed that people are evil. In his book Leviathan, he stated, “In the first place, I put forth a general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death.” In the state of nature, Hobbes believed that these power-hungry people would be constantly in a state of war. His belief was that the best hope for society was to give all power to the government, in his day what he viewed as the trusted monarch. In Hobbes’s world, government should have the power to keep the evil people in line.

I tell my students that I cannot provide them with an answer to the question about the nature of people, but that it is an important question to ask themselves because a great number of issues relate to this underlying issue of trust. I also tell them that they don’t have to fully buy in to one side or the other.

The framers of the Constitution saw merits and limits in both. George Washington was concerned with too much government power, specifically the tyranny of King George III, and so he led the American people in a revolution to reclaim rights of life, liberty and property. About 10 years later, Washington became concerned with the tyranny of the mob that he saw during Shays’ Rebellion when disgruntled farmers took up arms and shut down the courts in Massachusetts. This event spurred him to attend the Constitutional Convention and support the creation of a government with more “energy.” Perhaps James Madison said it best: “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.” Washington and Madison did not fully trust government or the people, and so they worked to create a system to balance government power with the rights of the people.

Our modern parties don’t fully subscribe to one viewpoint either.

President Ronald Reagan famously said that “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem,” which would lead one to believe that Republicans are more in the “trust people” camp. On some issues such as gun ownership, this seems to be borne out. Republicans generally don’t want gun control because they trust the people to have guns more than they trust government to regulate them. However, Republicans do show trust in government as they generally favor strict criminal laws and the death penalty, which gives government the ultimate power over people.

Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren’s catch phrase is “I have a plan for that,” by which she often means a government program or policy to solve a societal problem. Democrats, like Warren, show their “trust government” approach when they, for example, favor pollution regulations empowering the government to protect the environment from people or corporations that might harm it without the restrictions. However, on abortion, Democrats fall into the “trust people” category as they are generally against government restricting access and in favor of giving people the power of choice.

There have been times in our history when our government has proven unworthy of trust. During McCarthyism and the Watergate scandal, government power was being used in a selfish and corrupt way that harmed people and our sense of justice and fairness.

There have been times when the people have been unworthy of trust, such as when the majority did not favor giving voting rights to women or when lynchings were done openly and in front of crowds.

Of course many issues do not present as cleanly or simply as the above. It is more challenging (and, I think, more interesting) to consider where to put your trust in the absence of clear corruption or mob-like majorities.

As you consider where you stand on the latest policy on immigration, education, the minimum wage and many other issues, think about what you believe about the nature of people. When should we listen to Locke and trust the people? When should we listen to Hobbes and empower the government to counterbalance them? It might help you frame your own thinking and help you see the underlying point of view of the politicians who are advocating for one side or the other.

(Dan Marcus teaches Civics at John Stark Regional High School. He lives in Concord.)

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