Political Legitimacy

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In defining political legitimacy, theorists Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Emma Goldman each put forth a distinct set of values that frame their view on a government’s right to rule. Hobbes, a strong proponent to the right of self-preservation, claims that the protection of life is the only criterion required for a government to be legitimate. On the other hand, John Locke believes that governments should not only preserve life, but also allow for individual liberties and protection of private property, while Emma Goldman maintains the belief that governments use coercion to take away freedoms and therefore should never, under any circumstances, be considered legitimate. Locke’s argument on political legitimacy, that more than just one value is needed to make a legitimate government, is compelling because his criterion protects more than just the life of citizens, it allows for individual’s to have their own liberties free from an oppressive sovereign and prevents the dangers posed by absolute freedom. This paper will set up the lines of government for each theorist and explain why Locke’s perspective on a representative government with separation of powers is more compelling than Goldman’s absence of government and Hobbes’ belief in a sovereign rule.

Throughout his work entitled Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes argues that the right to self-preservation takes precedence above individual liberties. In the state of nature, man is given the right to do whatever he deems necessary to preserve his own life. Man can therefore commit injury to another man or his property if he thinks it is best to maintain his own life. This state of nature, being naturally quarrelsome, leads to distrust and competition, and encourages dangerous acts and widespread fear. There are no limits on the injuries or vengeance that can occur within this state and as a result, citizens find themselves in need of protection from the violence of others. The Hobbesian covenant thus creates government, by placing all power in the hands of a sovereign, to quell their fears and provide for their protection, thus establishing a state of peace.

In establishing a covenant and a government, Hobbes provides the natural law that “a man be willing, when others are so too, as far-forth, as for peace, and defence of himself he shall think it necessary, to lay down this right to all things,” (Hobbes 80).This means that in order to protect himself, and finding others that desire their own protection above other things, man will give up all of his rights to a sovereign rule. Hobbes argues that failure to relinquish all rights to one ruler will place the covenant back into a state of nature. The sovereign, having been given all rights of the covenant has absolute power and can dictate all laws and grant or withhold all freedoms. He is not to abide by any laws himself, if so he becomes subject to the commonwealth that he rules, therefore forfeiting his absolute power. The covenant however, is not obligated to obey the sovereign in the event that his rule threatens their right to self- preservation. This right being primary in Hobbes’ view is the only thing which individuals ought to place above all other obligations, whether those duties are to their sovereign or fellow man.

If it happens that the sovereign is in any way interfering with the right to self-preservation, a value held above all obligations and liberties of the commonwealth, members of the covenant may defy his commands and thrust themselves back into a state of war. This however, does not dissolve the commonwealth; it only removes an individual from the commonwealth. By dissolving government and the common wealth, the sovereign’s removal from power places the covenant into that same state of nature from which they came and they then must establish a new commonwealth and sovereign power. Therefore, the only way a sovereign power can be removed is upon death, though this often results in the succession of...
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