Vitae necisque potestas

One might think that liberalism, which attacks the traditional authorities of throne and altar, opposes any vestige or semblance of kingly authority. However, if we examine the discourse of early liberal thought, we find language that confounds our expectations. Instead of attacking the root of absolute royal privilege—that is, the human pride and selfishness that led to such abusive power—it merely expressed a desire to extend these royal prerogatives to everyone. Locke defended the individual right to property by claiming that it allowed every man to live like a king—nay, better than a king: “a king of a large and fruitful territory there [in America], feeds, lodges, and is clad worse than a day-labourer in England” (Second Treatise Chapter V Sect. 41). Locke was preceded by an even more liberal group called the Levellers, which defended individual rights in the tumultuous period of the English Civil War. Richard Overton, one of the Levellers, went so far to say that “every man by nature being a king,” he is granted absolute “prerogative” within “his own natural circuit and compass.”

It may be argued that, if every man is imbued with kingly power, then his power is automatically checked by the equal power of others (and by the government, whose role is to adjudicate neutrally between each man’s powers). Thus there is nothing to be feared from individual sovereignty, as we see in Overton’s seemingly innocuous formulation: “No man has power over my rights and liberties, and I over no man’s.” However, one liberal argument against governmental power is that it is the very nature of power to expand, to overflow chinks in its boundaries, to encroach on the powers of others. By liberalism’s own admission, then, conceptualizing the public sphere in terms of individual power (instead of duties or the common good) will lead us down a slippery slope to aggrandizement of that power, whenever we can find a plausible excuse to do so. Power over other people, for instance, can be justified by arguing that they are not really people and have no powers that we are bound to respect. Such a view culminates in the grotesque formulation of Planned Parenthood v. Casey: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life”. Make no mistake—this is not a stirring defense of free speech, but instead is a defense of the right to take the life of the unborn. The liberal individual cannot be truly free and sovereign unless he possesses the power of life and death that was traditionally the prerogative of the king or the pagan paterfamilias. He must define for himself the “mystery” regarding which human lives are legitimate and which are not.

Foucault wrote that “in political thought and analysis, we still have not cut off the head of the king” (History of Sexuality vol. I 1990, 88). By this, he meant that political theorists concentrate excessively on the abuses of governmental power and not on the equally powerful influence of social institutions such as schools, families, factories, and clinics. However, he might have just as accurately meant that political theorists’ love affair with state sovereignty has merely been transferred to the realm of individual sovereignty—with results no less destructive than the absolute sovereignty of a monarchy or nation-state.