If you read enough political philosophy, at some point you wonder whether there really is anything new under the sun. On the heels of Edward Snowden’s wonderful and astonishing leaks, we get this:
U.S. Rep. Peter King, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee’s Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, called Snowden “a defector” who should be turned over to the United States with an eye toward harsh prosecution.
“This person is dangerous to the country,” King said on CNN’s “Starting Point” on Monday.
While Snowden has not yet been charged with a crime, the Justice Department said Sunday night that it had begun a preliminary investigation into what it called “the unauthorized disclosure of classified information by an individual with authorized access.”
I could not read this without recalling John Locke’s words in defense of revolution (casting out of the government) in the Second Discourse. Locke responds to those who insist on the immorality, the injustice, perhaps even the violation of natural law involved in rebellion. First, Locke’s justification for revolution:
Sec. 222. The reason why men enter into society, is the preservation of their property; and the end why they choose and authorize a legislative, is, that there may be laws made, and rules set, as guards and fences to the properties of all the members of the society, to limit the power, and moderate the dominion, of every part and member of the society: for since it can never be supposed to be the will of the society, that the legislative should have a power to destroy that which every one designs to secure, by entering into society, and for which the people submitted themselves to legislators of their own making; whenever the legislators endeavor to take away, and destroy the property of the people, or to reduce them to slavery under arbitrary power, they put themselves into a state of war with the people, who are thereupon absolved from any farther obedience, and are left to the common refuge, which God hath provided for all men, against force and violence. Whensoever therefore the legislative shall transgress this fundamental rule of society; and either by ambition, fear, folly or corruption, endeavor to grasp themselves, or put into the hands of any other, an absolute power over the lives, liberties, and estates of the people; by this breach of trust they forfeit the power the people had put into their hands for quite contrary ends, and it devolves to the people, who. have a right to resume their original liberty, and, by the establishment of a new legislative, (such as they shall think fit) provide for their own safety and security, which is the end for which they are in society. What I have said here, concerning the legislative in general, holds true also concerning the supreme executor, who having a double trust put in him, both to have a part in the legislative, and the supreme execution of the law, acts against both, when he goes about to set up his own arbitrary will as the law of the society.
Then, Locke responds to the objection that this rationale is a justification for trivial incidence of revolution:
Sec. 226. …this doctrine of a power in the people of providing for their safety a-new, by a new legislative, when their legislators have acted contrary to their trust, by invading their property, is the best fence against rebellion, and the probablest means to hinder it: for rebellion being an opposition, not to persons, but authority, which is founded only in the constitutions and laws of the government; those, whoever they be, who by force break through, and by force justify their violation of them, are truly and properly rebels: for when men, by entering into society and civil-government, have excluded force, and introduced laws for the preservation of property, peace, and unity amongst themselves, those who set up force again in opposition to the laws, do rebellare, that is, bring back again the state of war, and are properly rebels: which they who are in power, (by the pretense they have to authority, the temptation of force they have in their hands, and the flattery of those about them) being likeliest to do; the properest way to prevent the evil, is to show them the danger and injustice of it, who are under the greatest temptation to run into it.
Locke is claiming, in effect, that it is not those who rise up in response to despotic government that are guilty of injustice, but those who use their authority to violate the trust of the governed. It does seem likely that Snowden violated some laws here, but King and his ilk are ignoring the prior question, whether in the conduct of its work the executive branch is guilty of the first violations of our fundamental law, the Constitution. It is certainly possible the answer to that is negative, but there can be no doubt that is the right question to ask, and that without an answer to it there is no moral judgment to be made about Snowden’s conduct.