The Purpose of Government in the Enlightenment Mindset

Since the establishment of humanity, people have banded together in groups and communities.  Some say that it is common for humans to flock to one another, as it is an innate quality of human nature.  What is it, however, that motivates individuals to form an organized society with laws and regulations in which people have restrictions and statutes by which they must abide?  Why are governments expected to protect citizens, maintain order, regulate the economy, provide public goods and services, socialize the nation’s youth, and levy taxes? Enlightenment thinkers might say that it is due to the confidence that by cooperating and working conjointly society might better preserve the mutual rights of all: life, liberty, and property.  

For a long period of time, humanity has lived in what Enlightenment thinkers called a “natural state.”  In this “
state of nature” or “state of perfect freedom,” all individuals are completely free to do as they wish and utilize their possessions as they see most beneficial and utilitarian; they do not have to seek consent nor ask anyone for permission.  As John Locke, an English philosopher of the Enlightenment, states in his Two Treatises of Government (1690), “The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it.  Reason is that law.  It teaches all mankind that, since all men are equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.” 

If, when in this “state of nature,” people were the absolute masters of themselves and their possessions, why then would they forfeit their
freedom of action and submit themselves to the dominion of any other entity?  The key to this question is that this state of nature is only perfect for all if it goes uncorrupted, if all individuals obey the “law of reason.”  In reality, because it is unlikely that every person or organization is always concerned with equality and justice, individuals are constantly exposed to possible infringements on his or her natural rights by others.  For Locke, it is due to this lack of security that men join in a society and form a government that can mutually preserve their rights to life, liberty, and property in an expeditious, reliable manner.

Thus, in the view of Enlightenment thinkers, people search for some form of government in which they can rally the entire community for the protection of each person and his property, while still maintaining one’s free will.  Jean Jacques Rousseau makes a statement in The Social Contract (1762) that in a social contract, “Each individual surrenders all his rights to the community.  Since each man surrenders his rights without reservation, all are equal and because all are equal, it is to everyone’s interest to make life pleasant for his fellows.”  This is the same premise that Adam Smith, another Enlightenment thinker, wrote about in The Wealth of Nations with respect to economics.  He states that people are willing to specialize (inventing technology, improving dexterity, and saving time) due to the certainty that they are able to exchange their surpluses in mutual self-interest.  With everyone’s person and authority placed under the supreme direction of the general will, it must be understood, as Rousseau explicates, that any person who refuses the general will be forced to do so by his peers.  Because all men are equal and should take an active role in the governing of themselves, if one individual breaks this social contract by making claims against the group or reserving a right for oneself, all members of the contract “would regain [their] natural liberty by losing the liberty of the social contract for which [they] originally gave up [their] freedom of action.”  This concept, that a government is created “by the people, for the people,” is also known as “popular sovereignty.”  If the absolute power of a government rests in the hands of its members and its legitimacy is only supported by their will, then it must be beneficial to them in helping to achieve their goals or it will not last.

Essentially, because a government is created by its participants under a preconceived notion of what it is meant to achieve, when governmental power strays from that path and abuses the rights it has been given, the people have the right to rebel, dissolve the erroneous institution, and establish a new one that provides them the security for which governments were originally organized.  In this way, as Enlightenment thinkers believe, the general purpose of a government is to provide the security and assurance to individuals that was lacking before organized society while still retaining the rights and freedoms that innately belong to them in their natural state.

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(Driving Question: What are the primary purposes of government? Explain using examples from the writings of Enlightenment thinkers.)

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