John Locke and the Power of Lies in the 21st Century

In Second Treatise on Civil Government, John Locke establishes many of the principles that undergird modern democracy. This seminal work of political philosophy portrays government as a civil contract between citizens and authorities. The legitimacy of institutions is derived from their ability to provide for the people they serve; absent this tradeoff, individuals reserve the right to overthrow the ruling authorities. In fact, America’s Founding Fathers borrowed heavily from Locke’s philosophy as they wrought their more perfect union.

The events of the last several weeks have thrown this theory into sharp relief. I live in Austin, Texas. For nearly a week our citizens struggled through sub-freezing temperatures without power, water or gas. The rare weather event left casualties in its wake—on my block, alone, two people died in a gas explosion as they tried to avoid freezing to death. We cannot expect the government to control the weather. However, we can expect the state—to which we have surrendered certain liberties—to provide basic services. The utilities sector forfeited precautionary measures in pursuit of maximum profits, and it led to catastrophic damage.

It is unsure whether accountability is forthcoming, or if the citizens of Texas will rise up to some degree and demand the government hold up its end of the social contract. It is clear, however, that Texans are right to be angry because the authorities failed them, negligently.

The January 6th Capitol Riot was founded upon the same sentiment. The key difference, however, is that the premise was fabricated even if the logic bore out to its logical conclusion. The rioters falsely believed that the election was stolen from them; that they, too, were victims of a contractual failure between Washington and the people she serves. For this reason they are domestic terrorists, not patriots. They assaulted the seat of government in this country as insurrectionists against a legitimate authority, not as liberators reclaiming their inalienable rights from a corrupt power.

Such is the power of lies. Perverting the truth can turn disaffected citizens into terrorists. The mob’s motivations were not all that dissimilar from those upon which this country was founded, but the prior was completely fallacious. Each individual undoubtedly bears responsibility for their actions and the rigorous examination of facts, but the outcome should not surprise.

Such is the power of social media. These platforms are unprecedented amplification machines that enable targeted delivery of falsehood to the most vulnerable. They cannot claim to be politically agnostic guardians of personal voice in good conscience, at least not honestly. Tech firms cannot pass their own altruistic purity tests based solely upon the observable impact of their products on society.

Locke purported, as far back as 1689, that humans reserve the right to rebel against an inequitable authority. In 2021, Americans are witnessing these principles in practice. However, the amplification of lies subverts our foundational ideology into dangerous counterfactual movements. Locke, himself, might argue that the government must regulate social media companies to prevent continued harm to her people…and herself.

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