Locke v. Rousseau

Jonah Goldberg captures the political half of the course I’m now teaching precisely:

I think the fundamental difference, the difference that defines the difference between American, Anglo-American conservatives and European welfare states, leftists or liberals, is Locke versus Rousseau. Every philosophical argument boils down to John Locke versus Jacques Rousseau.

Locke holds that we have natural rights, rights that inhere in us as human beings independently of our being members of a political community. Rousseau denies it, maintaining that all rights come from the state. This has sweeping consequences for the legitimacy of government power. Locke holds that government authority is legitimate only within certain limits; it is bounded by our natural rights, which we construct governments to preserve. Since Rousseau recognizes no such rights, he recognizes no such bounds. For him, government may exercise authority over anything to promote the common good. That doesn’t mean we have no rights; we have the rights the government allots to us, and no others.

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