The paper is simply the writers personal response and statement to the speech below:
Although Hume is a major figure in the philosophical subfields of epistemology and ethics, hardly anyone other than Hume scholars treats Hume’s political theory as influential within American politics (some Hume scholars believe that James Madison was strongly influenced by Hume, but this is debatable). We can certainly see a connection between some of the things that Hume ( 1987) talks about and contemporary American politics – e.g. a representative government and the separation of powers. However, Hume’s essay from this week’s readings was a brief commentary on other people’s ideas, and Hume was not a very original or influential political thinker. As such, my reply is going to focus on Locke and Rousseau.
Locke (1689) is a major figure within the political philosophy of liberalism, and Rousseau (1761) is a major figure within the political philosophies of socialism and fascism. While not entirely accurate, it may be beneficial to conceptualize this as Locke influencing the contemporary center-left and center-right, and Rousseau influencing the contemporary far-left and far-right. The reason that Locke and Rousseau influence different political groups is because of their fundamental disagreement about the idea of a collective will. Basically, (classical) liberals tend to be empiricists who look at the fact that people disagree and then construct a political theory that presupposes that people will continue to disagree in the future. On the other hand, socialists and fascists tend to be idealists who look at the fact that people disagree and then construct a political theory which attributes this disagreement to bad people ruining things for good people. For the socialists and fascists, authoritarianism is only bad if it supports the bad people rather than the good people. Liberals tend to accuse socialists/fascists of wanting to become the oppressor rather than wanting to minimize oppression, and socialists/fascists tend to accuse liberals of wanting to maintain immoral aspects of the status quo rather than create a better society. Which side seems reasonable will likely depend on a person’s beliefs about moral universalism and the correct way to deal with disagreement.
We can see Locke’s (1689) acceptance of disagreement in nearly every aspect of his political philosophy. Locke advocates for some amount of toleration of differences. Locke argues that humans have an equal value and natural rights, and he thinks that the government must protect the rights of individual citizens. Locke suggests that oppressive impulses should be impeded by creating a limited government that divides power and guarantees property rights. In short, Locke imagines government as a mutually-beneficial social-contract which primarily exists to protect the rights of individuals.
On the other hand, Rousseau (1761) believes that people share some common will, and this suggests that it is possible for a leader to act as a representative for the common will of the people. Rousseau says: “In a perfect act of legislation, the individual or particular will should be at zero; the corporate will belonging to the government should occupy a very subordinate position; and, consequently, the general or sovereign will should always predominate and should be the sole guide of all the rest” (Book 3, Chapter 2). Rousseau then acknowledges that, in reality, the individual will predominates; however, Rousseau believes that giving power to a moral authoritarian leader combines the common will with the individual will. It should be noted that Rousseau believes that different types of governments are suitable for different societies. Rousseau claims that larger and more complex societies must necessarily have less freedom, and he believes that authoritarianism becomes more desirable in larger societies. In short, Rousseau imagines government as an institution that should serve to act on the collective will of the people, and he sees individual wills as needing to be subordinated to the will of the collective.
It is not clear that any of Rousseau’s (1761) ideas are “nowhere in evidence” in contemporary American politics, but some of Rousseau’s ideas are certainly unpopular. One example of an unpopular idea is the aforementioned claim that different forms of government are suitable to different societies. While fascists like Mussolini praised Rousseau for this insight, the typical American would likely disagree with the claim that the desirability of authoritarianism depends on the society. Even among American socialists, there is often the naïve belief that socialism could be implemented in a democracy (which is clearly absurd if you think about it critically for 5 minutes). It would seem that the typical American has been socialized to believe that freedom is good and authoritarianism is bad, and this is likely why Americans would be bothered by the claim that authoritarianism can be desirable in some societies (though many Americans certainly act as if they support authoritarianism).
In sum, Hume’s political philosophy has had little – if any – effect on contemporary American politics. Locke’s political philosophy has had a profound impact on contemporary American politics, and many – if not most – Americans believe in ideas like human rights, tolerance, separation of powers, the right to revolt against a tyrant, etc. Rousseau’s political philosophy has had a minimal/moderate impact on contemporary American politics, mostly via the influence Rousseau had on the development of socialism and fascism. This week’s reading from Rousseau also introduces students to Montesquieu’s ideas which did influence American politics, but I would not credit Rousseau for Montesquieu’s influence.