Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, Volume I: Greece and Rome (Westminster: Newman, 1959) 225, 242.
[For Plato, t]he State exists to serve the wants of men. Men are not independent of one another, but need the aid and cooperation of others in the association of the necessaries of life…This Greek view of the State…is superior to the view which may be known as the liberal idea of the State, i.e., the view of the State as an institution, the function of which is to preserve private property and, in general, to exhibit a negative attitude towards the members of the State. [T]heir theory remains barren, empty and negative in comparison with that of the Greeks.
On Facebook today, one of my conservative friends asked, “Where does the Constitution say health care is a right?” Some of his conservative respondants answered with the typical Lockean view: the government exists to protect life, liberty, and property, and that’s it! In their eyes, the State is basically an umpire that protects individuals from directly harming each other. And, they like to point out, there’s nothing in the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence that says it has to help people with health care!
I often wonder why we should let this particular point of view constrain us. Health care is not a right? So are we supposed to let people die? I doubt that even conservatives want that, since they’re often the first to point out that emergency rooms in America have to treat anyone who needs them. So is emergency room health care now a right, in their eyes? Then what are they saying when they deny that health care is a right?
While I wonder if we should be limited by Lockean liberalism, I also want to pay tribute to it, since America’s founders did appeal to it to justify the American revolution. For them, the government was supposed to protect life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and Britain was violating that duty through its oppression of the American colonists. Many of America’s framers wanted some form of limited government because they saw how oppressive government could be.
Can we accept the government as a source of good, or should we always fear the possibility that it will become oppressive with its power?