Thursday, August 17


Sir Robert Filmer invented liberalism in the process of attacking it. A staunch 17th-century English monarchist, Filmer took up cudgels against the stirrings of liberal democracy in post-restoration England, which he defined as the belief that "Mankind is naturally endowed and born with freedom from all subjection, and at liberty to choose what form of government it please, and that the power which any one man hath over others was at first bestowed according to the discretion of the multitude." From this position, a "vast engine of popular sedition" could be imagined up, leading even to the horrific view that rulers might be "subject to the censures and deprivations of their subjects".

Filmer had every right to be worried about the longevity of the monarchist view that some sons of heaven are divinely mandated to rule over the rest. His book was published in 1680 (though written 2 generations ago, in 1631), and within the short span of a hundred years or so people at the fringes of his beloved Patriarcha were talking about all men being created equal, that they had been endowed with certain inalienable rights, that among them are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, that to secure these rights governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, and, finally, that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to abolish it.

The idea of there being a limit to the power of those who govern is now a popular one. There are certain countries on the fringes of world society which still resist the concept of a written constitution -- Saudi Arabia, say, or the UK -- but in general the idea of a written document which says what your government cannot do is now widely regarded as a must-have, even it be for window-dressing. And more and more governments are actively putting these documents which show the limits of their power on the web, an example of which is the Constitution of the PRC to be found here.


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