Should We Be Governed by Persuasion or by Force?

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Governed by Persuasion or by Force

Margaret Thatcher, former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, noted that “Europe was created by history. America was created by philosophy.” And indeed, we are all a product of the intellectual activity and history of our communities. It is a history that informs who we are, and which we carry everywhere as our intellectual backpack (I say intellectual backpack to avoid the negative connotations associated with “intellectual baggage”). We are a slice of the communities we come from.

If we had been colonized by the French or the Spanish, our diets, our language, and our ways of living would be different, as well our ways of governing. It would be a different United States of America. The United States is a nation of immigrants, and immigrants bring with them learned conceptions of society and government which frame their approach to life in their new country setting.

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In the United States our backpack of philosophical tradition begins with the Puritans arrival in New England imbued with their Calvinist doctrine. This religious doctrine is later informed by the natural philosophy of the 18th-century’s Enlightenment. It is from this tradition that the Founding Fathers derived their notions of the relationship between the state and the individual which form the cornerstone of American political philosophy.

Our intellectual history conditions the way in which we look at the world. In the United States, it is an intellectual history of classical liberalism as a political philosophy. That is to say, our intellectual backpack holds concepts such as the primacy of the individual, consent of the governed, rational self-interest, individual rights flowing from nature and not government, limited government, and equality.

Our intellectual backpack of liberalism is filled with the ideas of English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) commonly referred to as the “Father of Liberalism.” Locke’s concepts of republicanism and liberal theory permeate our Founding Documents.
In contrast, the intellectual backpacks of the Spanish and Portuguese colonizers of Latin America are more closely associated with the ideas of another 17th-century English philosopher: Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). Unlike Locke, Hobbes argues for unlimited government, and the absolute authority of the sovereign. For Hobbes, citizens’ value order and security above all, thus he develops his version of social contract theory in which we give up our rights to the state in exchange for the order and security that the state can provide To this day, Locke is relatively unknown in Latin America.

To put it differently, the two intellectual backpacks may be thought of as representative of Plato’s two modes of subduing others: persuasion and force. The Lockean model of government relies on persuasion to obtain the consent of the governed, and to function within the scope of a limited government. The Hobbesian model relies on force to articulate the absolute power of the Leviathan.

There is much more to the story, of course, but ideas and actions live together and these two entirely different sets of ideas have influenced the structures of government in our continent — Lockean persuasion in the United States, Hobbesian force in Latin America. As to the role of the government in society, these two conceptions are ideologically asymmetrical.
Centuries have passed but, what we see unconsciously present in the intellectual backpack of present day Latin Americans, is essentially the Hobbesian notion of unlimited government. It is an idea of a social contract that favors collectivism over the primacy of individual rights. This is perhaps easiest to discern by examining the general expectations that Latin Americans have of the role of government in society.

Events do not take place in an intellectual vacuum. Over time, we carry our Lockean and Hobbesian intellectual backpacks into the more moderate forms of limited and unlimited government represented in the American political system. But also over time, our Lockean intellectual heritage of limited government becomes more and more diluted, not by immigration, but by our failure to articulate and teach Lockean concepts of persuasion over force.

We are, and must continue to be, a welcoming nation. And consequently, we must find ways to refill our intellectual backpacks with the Lockean philosophy of limited government lest we find ourselves governed by force.

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