The 17th and 18th centuries marked a turning point in Atlantic history that caused the Western world to move from governments run by absolute monarchs to governments run by and for the people. During the early modern period and the Enlightenment, many theorists attempted to undermine the belief that kings had the same power as parents had over their children, giving them an absolute right to absolute power. Two early and notable theorists, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, developed an ahistorical state of nature to demonstrate that God created equality among men at the beginning and that only through a social contract can anyone obtain a legitimate reason to rule.

Hobbes, Locke, and the Social Contract

Hobbes stripped inequality down to its most brutish element: strength. While some leaders would make a claim to rule based on superior strength, Hobbes declared that a weaker person could simply attack the stronger one while he slept, or band together with others to overcome him. Might did not justify inequality.

To create a reason to initiate a society, he painted a picture of the state of nature that would cause anyone to flee from it. Hobbes claimed that “the life of man [was] solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.” To express their equality, people could decide to form a society. Once they agreed, however, they lived under an absolute sovereign.

Not satisfied with this result, John Locke took up the task of eliminating the absolutism associated with the Hobbesian social contract by portraying a softer, gentler state of nature — but one carefully constructed to remain unappealing. According to Locke, people in the state of nature enjoyed equality because all “creatures of the same species and rank” have reciprocal “power and jurisdiction.”

Despite the easier life in the Lockean state of nature, people had trouble enforcing rules, which allowed bad actors to steal from others. These bad actors could not be held accountable for lack of an objective arbiter, since “power and jurisdiction” are “reciprocal.” Thus, the desire to create a system with enforceable rules causes individuals to form a social contract and create a society. Locke’s system involved direct democracy at the creation of society: all people have to consent to enter into society.

A Problematic One-Size-Fits-All Theory of Government

The concepts of the state of nature as the birthplace of equality and the social contract as a means of holding government accountable provided early revolutionaries with the tools to overthrow oppressive kings. These theorists created universal truths applicable to all people in all situations: we’re born free and equal; government exists to protect us; and for Locke, when government doesn’t protect our rights, the people can overthrow it.

With these words, many theorists finished their work and released it into the world. They failed to see the drawbacks of creating a one-size-fits-all model of government. The more moderate classical liberal theorists saw the problem more clearly.

Montesquieu and Edmund Burke saw the application of theoretical models of government to real governments as extremely problematic. According to Montesquieu, laws develop over time in a particular geographic location among a unique group of individuals. If a founder or reformer ignores the historical context of a given society, they do so at their own peril. A successful founding occurs when the legislator considers these elements.

Montesquieu references the Athenian statesman Solon on this point. When others asked if he had given the Athenians the best laws, Solon replied: “I have given them the best laws they could endure.” Montesquieu goes so far as to say that liberalization can have negative effects, just as “pure air is sometimes harmful to those who have lived in swampy countries.”

While Montesquieu wrote before the age of democratic revolutions, he understood that the radical changes proposed by many classical liberal theorists could create a violent reaction among the people, followed by decades of turmoil. His prediction came true in the French Revolution.

Burke similarly emphasized the importance of historical context and the connection between rights and a particular government, eschewing the idea of natural rights. He watched with horror as the French Revolutionaries ate their own and destroyed the complex constitutional system developed over hundreds of years in France.

Disastrous Idealism

In Burke’s opinion, the French lacked a respect for history and relied too heavily on ideal theories of democratic governance. The French looked to radical liberal thought, convinced that they need only create the Declaration of the Rights of Man and give it to people all over the country to cause a democratic revolution.

Lacking the knowledge and skills needed to create or run political institutions, a group of lawyers, intellectuals, and journalists called the Girondins, and eventually the Jacobins, known for their extreme egalitarianism and violence, led the country incompetently. The newly formed national government quickly descended into chaos. For Burke, these events showed that the program of radical reform could not be implemented quickly.

Moderation in reform never provides the same fireworks as dramatic and radical reform. Reflecting on regime change over history, the revolutions of the French or the Russians come to mind most readily while the steady reforms of the English Commonwealth rarely come to the fore as a guide for founders and reformers.

Much like the dramatic revolutions, radical theorists like Hobbes and Locke come to mind easily, while moderates like Montesquieu and Burke do not provide easy answers to hard questions about reform. The process of building and changing liberal regimes requires investing in a better understanding of the complicated web of considerations associated with large states. A better understanding of theorists like Montesquieu and Burke will provide better answers, albeit more complicated ones.