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Political Philosophy

The Call for a World Constitutional Convention:
An Application of John Locke's Theory of Revolution

David W. Felder
Florida A & M University

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ABSTRACT: A movement led by an organization called "One World" is advocating the idea of "Direct Democracy," whereby individuals everywhere would have the opportunity to elect delegates to a world constitutional convention. In theory, any document drafted by this convention would be returned to individuals throughout the world for their approval. The assumption of the Direct Democracy movement is that individuals throughout the world have the right to bypass existing governments in order to establish the rule of law on a global level. Leaders of this movement believe that the Direct Democracy movement is consistent with democratic ideas, including those articulated by Locke. Two questions are at issue. First, do individuals have the right to bypass existing governments in order to establish an international government? Second, is it desirable to establish world government? I conclude that, according to Locke, sovereign power rests with individualsnot governments. Individuals have the right to delegate a portion of their power from one government to another and, when they do so, revolution ensues. Revolution of this sort would be desirable because national governments cannot provide security in the nuclear age. So individuals should transfer some power from the national to the international level. The call for a world constitutional convention is a call for a peaceful revolution that could abolish war.

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Do People Have the Right to Bypass Existing Governments?

According to John Locke, governments derive their power from the consent of the governed. The power of government is the sum of the of the rights that government is given by the individuals in the society it governs. As Locke states it the power of government is "that power which every man, having in the state of nature, has given up into the hands of the society, and therein to governours."(1)

Having given up some rights to national governments, do individuals retain control of those rights so that they can transfer rights to an international government? Here we seem to confront a puzzle in Locke. Rights must be alienable in order for individuals to give rights to governments, yet citizens retain rights that allow them the right of rebellion. There are passages in Locke that suggest that rights can be permanently alienated, such as when Locke discusses a person who performs an act that "deserves death" such as one who initiates a state of war. This person forfeits all the rights defined by the law and can be "stripped of all property."(2) Some rights have to be alienable, but at least one is inalienable. Locke argues that the parental 'right of honour' that a child owes a parent cannot be given up or transferred.(3) There is a distinction that can be drawn between rights that can and cannot be alienated. Rights that exist in the state of nature cannot be given up, such as the right of parents to honor. People cannot give up their freedom and accept being slaves, and people cannot consent to the rule of absolute or unlimited political power, because all of these violate the rights that exist in the state of nature. While people can give up rights to form a government, they also retain rights that they had in the state of nature, which includes the right to form a government.

Locke holds that each person in each generation must decide whether give consent to governments. Rights can only be alienated from those who hold them, and only individuals can transfer their rights. We are not bound by the consent given by past generations. Locke states that a person "cannot by any compact whatsoever bind his children or posterity."(4) We have the freedom to decide whether we want to transfer some of our rights from one level of government to another, from the national to the international level.

Is It Desirable to Have a World Government?

We can learn the necessary conditions for peace between nations by examining the necessary conditions for peace within nations. John Locke and Thomas Hobbes both claimed that having a common authority was a necessary condition to having peace within a state. I examine their arguments for accepting a national authority and claim that the same arguments apply to the acceptance of an international authority. John Locke argues in The Second Treatise Of Government that when people do not have an authority to judge their conflicts, they end up in a state of war,

Men living together according to reason, without a common Superior on Earth with authority to judge between them, is properly the State of Nature. But force, or a declared design of force upon the Person of another, where there is not common Superior on Earth to appeal to for relief, is the state of war; and 'tis the want of such an appeal that gives a Man the Right of War even against an aggressor, though he be in Society and a fellow Subject.(5)

It is interesting to note that Locke believes that people guided only by reason end up at war with each other, and he argues for a non-rational method of settling disputes—the acceptance of authority. Thomas Hobbes shares Locke's view on the limits of reason.

As I read Hobbes' Leviathan, Hobbes makes a distinction between factual questions, that reason can settle, and non-factual questions that reason cannot settle. He believed that questions of right and wrong, religion, and possession cannot be settled by individuals reasoning together.(6) Since peace depends on settling these questions, and they cannot be settled by reason, some other method is needed. While we may differ on the necessity of settling religious questions, all Hobbes need for his argument is that we grant that there are some disputes that reason cannot settle. I believe that Hobbes argues rationally for the acceptance of a non-rational method of settling the disputes that reason cannot settle. That method is the acceptance of authority.

What is an authority? Above all else authority is a method of conflict resolution. Other words for "authority" in this context are "arbiter", "representative", and "sovereign." Thomas Hobbes explains how this method of conflict resolution works. "A multitude of men, are made one person, when they are by one man, or one person, represented; so that it be done with the consent, of every one of that multitude in particular. For it is the unity of representer, not the unity of the represented, that maketh the person one. And it is the representer that beareth the person, and but one person: and unity, cannot otherwise be understood in multitude."(7)

The institution of authority replaces the reason of many with the reason of one. Hobbes speaks of the difference between the reasoning of private individuals and the reason of an authority.

"It is not that juris prudentia, or wisdom of subordinate judges; but the reason of this our artificial man the commonwealth, and his command, that maketh law; and the commonwealth being in their representative but one person there cannot easily arise any contradiction in the laws; and when there doth, the same reason is able, by interpretation, or alteration, to take it away."(8)

Here, then, is a method for removing contradictions of interests and viewpoints by having the conflicting parties accept the judgment of a third party. The representative they accept represents both; yet, because the arbiter is one person, the arbiter speaks with one voice. The arbiter represents them in that he or she acts for them, and they give up their ability to act. This method resolves conflicts by making it so that the formerly disputing parties can no longer express their conflicting views.

Locke also argues for the acceptance of a national authority as a method for settling conflicts:

To avoid this State of war (wherein there is no appeal but to Heaven, and wherein every the least difference is apt to end, where there is no Authority to decide between the Contenders) is one great reason of Men's putting themselves into society and quitting the State of Nature; for where there is an Authority, a Power on Earth from which relief can be had by appeal, there the continuance of the State of War is excluded, and the Controversy is settled by that Power.(9)

An authority provides a way to settle conflicts. A person seeking an end to civil war does not have to remove the causes of conflict. According to both Hobbes and Locke, there will always be conflicts that reason cannot resolve. People need only a method for resolving these conflicts.

Argument for Accepting an International Authority

The solution to conflict is to make it so that the conflict does not lead to violence. The solution to war is to make it so that people cannot fight wars. Just as we can prevent violence between individuals by not allowing individuals to settle their conflicts by the use of force, we could prevent violence between nations by not allowing nations to settle their conflicts by the use of force.

What is the cause of war and what is the cure? Wars occur when sovereign nations challenge each other and wars do not occur when formerly warring parties are incorporated into a larger political unit. Why is this? It is because the larger political unit will not allow warfare and insists that the parties that had formerly been at war submit to a common authority to settle their disputes. The state of war ends between formerly warring parties when they can no longer wage war and must instead submit their disputes to an arbiter.

In examining the cause of war and the cure I will relate an experience that I believe is instructive. I was in a restaurant when a couple came in with a little boy. The little boy got up from the table where the couple was seated, left his plate of food, and walked around the restaurant staring at and even asking for other people's food. The couple did nothing. My question is, "What was the cause of the boy's obnoxious behavior?" Was it the child's curiosity, his hunger or his not liking his own food? Wasn't the behavior due to the fact that the parents did not stop him? Why do we have wars? We have war because nations are allowed to wage war—because no one stops nations from waging war.

What is the lesson from historical experience and theory? Historical experience shows that when nations are no longer allowed to wage war, because they are incorporated into a larger political unit, war ceases. Experience shows that when nations are forced to accept the verdict of an arbiter, and not allowed to settle their disputes with force, war ceases. Theory shows that there are limits to reason and the acceptance of an authority system is sometimes the only way to settle disputes. Arbitration settles disputes by having two parties accept the judgment of a third party. If we established an international authority and enforced international law we would abolish war.

What would an international authority be able to accomplish? Nations with conflicts would have someplace to go to settle their disputes peacefully. An international authority might handle disputes between nations, and not get involved in civil disputes. Should nations accept an international authority, as citizens accept national authorities, then disputes between nations would be settled without violence.

Can it work? It does work. The use of a judge, arbiter, or authority, has been the main method of conflict resolution used throughout history. The fact that every day there is peace among the respective communities and regions of nations demonstrates its efficacy. We do not need years of studies in conflict resolution to know that having an international authority would provide a method of settling international conflicts.

John Locke's Theory of Revolution was used to justify the American Revolution, or more accurately the American Revolutions. In American history we had two revolutions. The first began in 1776 and ended in 1783, when a treaty was signed with England. From 1783 to 1787 the thirteen former colonies were united in the Articles of Confederation, which is to say that they were no more united than are nations under the United Nations. The Articles of Confederation had no independent taxing powers, no judiciary, and no power to enforce it laws. The second revolution occurred when the United States Constitution replaced the Articles of Confederation. Because the call for a World Constitutional Convention parallels the second American revolution—the one in 1787—it is instructive to examine what happened then.

The people who met in Philadelphia in 1787 to examine ways to improve the Articles of Confederation had no authority under their existing governments to write a new constitution. The Articles of Confederation clearly stated that all agreements had to be unanimous and Rhodes Island did not even send a delegate to the conference. The constitutions of each of the thirteen colonies stated that each former colony had sovereign power that could not be relinquished. Yet the delegates wrote a constitution that took powers away from states, including the power to make war. How could they do this?

The people are sovereign and they have the right to transfer some of their power from one level of government to another. They had the right to take the power to make war away from states and to give it to the newly formed nation. All power resides in the people, and the people can delegate powers to any body they choose. It is now time for the people to exercise their sovereignty and take the power to make war away from nations. Many global problems including providing security, protecting the environment and protecting human rights are best handled on an international rather than on the national level. Those who see this have the right to demand that some powers be transferred from the national to the international level.

Human rights don't mean much if there is no power on the global level. We have rights as Americans because we can enforce our rights as American citizens in the court system of the United States. Human rights is a goal, an ideal—such right do not exist because there is neither a world court nor world police to enforce human rights. The declaration of human rights are rights that the world community has agreed upon, but the world community has not yet created the means to enforce those rights. If we were to establish some power on the international level to enforce those rights, and punish those who violate people's protected rights, crimes such as those occurring in Bosnia would not go unpunished. Protection of the rights of women stated in the Declaration of Human Rights would improve the status of women throughout the world and result in the control of population.

The Call for a World Constitutional Convention

Consider the beauty and simplicity of the call for a World Constitutional Convention. Citizens, ordinary people, independent of any governments, can exercise their sovereignty in demanding that plans be made for having a World Constitutional Convention. The convention would be made up of representatives elected directly from the people under UN supervised elections throughout the world. Not every country has to take part for the idea to succeed, just as not every colony sent delegates to Philadelphia in 1787. The call for a convention does not commit anyone to accepting the constitution that is drafted.

Once a constitution is drafted, ratification again is in the hands of the people. This is democracy in action. It is revolutionary in that citizens of the world will be taking some powers from the nation states and giving those powers to a world legislature. Other powers will still reside in the nation states in a world federalist structure. Once the world federalist structure exists this democratic non-violent revolution will abolish war.

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(1) John Locke, Two Treatises of Government: A critical Edition with an Introduction and Apparatus Criticus by Peter Laslett (Cambridge: University Press, 1967), Second Treatise, Paragraph 171, II, 171

(2) John Locke, ibid., II, 173.

(3) ibid, I, 100 and II, 69.

(4) ibid, II, 116.

(5) John Locke, Two Treatises of Government: A critical Edition with an Introduction and Apparatus Criticus by Peter Laslett (Cambridge: University Press, 1967), p. 298.

(6) David W. Felder, Fact, Value and Obligation in Hobbes Leviathan, Dissertation Abstracts, 1978.

(7) Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, edited by C. B. MacPherson (Hammondsworth, Middlesex, England: Pelican Books, 1968), p. 86

(8) Thomas Hobbes, The English Works of Thomas Hobbes, edited by William Molesworth (London: John Bohn, 1839-1843), Volume 3, page 256 (Leviathan, II, 26.

(9) John Locke, Two Treatises, p. 300.

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