The U. S. may now be the only country larger than a breadbox where anyone who doesn’t like a law can marshal a vast cache of weapons and take over a federal building. Hence, the “patriots” at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Burns, Oregon, this week. Ammon Bundy, the group’s leader, cited the Declaration of Independence in a lead-up to the takeover: “Government was created to protect life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
In other words, “Goodbye, Mr. Locke.”
John Locke theorized the rights to “life, liberty, and property” a hundred years before Thomas Jefferson sampled him into America’s founding documents. Locke’s other famous line of thought – that we are each born a tabula rasa, or blank slate, with sensory data as our first inputs of knowledge – might seem unrelated to the political theory, but the two theories – political and epistemological – dovetail in support of Locke’s Whig patron, Shaftesbury. The empiricist’s “blank slate” claim strikes at the heart of the old landed order, which rested upon an inborn superiority of rank and innate ideas about social hierarchy.
Bundy’s posse rewrites both pillars of Locke for America’s 21st-century yahoos. Locke’s political theory about “life, liberty, and property” was specifically designed to usher in governance by law rather than governance by the whim of every half-baked squire with an inherited title. The Oregon militants want to supersede governance by law with governance by the whim of any charismatic gang leader who doesn’t like how the law applies to him.
Now Bundy says in a youtube video that he “is only doing what God has asked me to do.” That Bundy’s brain might be the psychic soil in which God’s will is planted seems an awful lot like the “innate ideas” John Locke was at pains to discredit.
So forget about it, Mr. Locke. You lose on both counts. We’ll keep your quaint language in our founding documents. We may even pay lip service to your common sense scientific ideas about human understanding and the acquisition of knowledge. But if you don’t mind, we’ll adjust the meanings to suit the present American zeitgeist, where our “patriots” get their ideas direct from God, resist compromise and pluralism at all costs, and build up enormous personal arsenals with the rugged individualist’s dream of throwing off the cruel yoke of government by law.