by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Jonah Goldberg‘s latest book, Suicide of the West, emphasizes 17th-century philosopher John Locke’s critical role in the advance of Western civilization. Adam Rubenstein explains in the latest issue of Commentary magazine.
In Goldberg’s telling, “the Miracle” dates to the revolution in thought engendered by the 17th-century English philosopher John Locke, who “held that the individual is sovereign; that our rights come from God, not government [and] that the fruits of our labors belong to us.” Locke believed that the best in human nature could be encouraged and the worst outsmarted through a new type of government. This was a massive break from previous ideas about governance. Indeed, Goldberg believes that Locke’s ideas, and the Miracle in general, are in a deep sense “unnatural.” In Goldberg’s view, other regimes—monarchy, tyranny, and authoritarianism generally—were and are more natural to humans, which is why they’ve dominated mankind for most of history.
But with the advent of Locke’s ideas and their textual and intentional incorporation in America’s Founding, “the mental switch had been flipped.” Individual liberty became the desideratum. The Founding Fathers took the path Locke had charted and domesticated Hobbesian natural man. This flipping, which accompanied the Industrial Revolution and the rise of capitalism, provided fertile ground for America’s great advancement, one unparalleled in human history. Goldberg’s fear is that pre-Lockean tribalism in its current form, identity politics, challenges this advancement and American liberal democracy one fracture at a time. So too does populism, which aims to seduce through the airing of grievances rather than the replacement of bad policy by smart policy.
What made American democracy so successful was not just capitalism, due process, or the checks and balances of the Constitution, but our collective belief in them and the Lockean values that undergird this conviction, Goldberg tells us. And now we’ve begun to forget our Constitution—not just the parchment (that, too), but our actual, physical makeup.