How John Locke Should Have Saved The Lone Ranger
I had a glimmer of hope for the 2013 film The Lone Ranger when I read that young U.S. attorney John Reid, aka The Lone Ranger, arrives in untamed west Texas with a copy of John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government. After watching the otherwise entertaining summer action film, I left the theater wondering if the screenwriters, or even the director, had even read the book, let alone the CliffsNotes version.
Riding into town at the near end of a rail line 1869, John Reid proclaims his desire to bring the “rule of law” to the wild, uncivilized western territories. So far so good, and this is an intriguing although hardly original beginning to the film (although economic research challenges the conventional wisdom that the West was in fact “lawless”). John Locke’s Second Treatise is widely recognized for launching the Enlightenment theory of the “social contract” between free citizens and their government into the mainstream of political discussion. The role of government, the 17th century political philosopher argued, is to protect personal liberty and freedom through the protection of life and property. Moreover, this freedom is inherent in life itself. To the extent governments (or more relevantly for the period, monarchs) violate this social contract, citizens even have the right to revolt.
Alas, despite the reference to the Locke, the “Rule of Law as Justice” theme is unhinged, and the story, plot and characters suffer as a result. The first clue is evident in one of the first scenes. John Reid is on the train with a group of Presbyterian missionaries. One of the missionaries offers up his Bible and asks Reid if he would pray with him. Instead, the supposedly well-schooled attorney declines saying that, in effect, his “bible” is Locke’s Two Treatises. What’s missing in this exchange is that Locke’s concept of social contract, and the arguments for liberty and even the right to revolution, are embedded in Natural Rights, the idea that men are born free and their natural state is liberty. These rights are granted by God, not men. Hence, the Rule of Law is an objective standard that cannot be abrogated by men. Thus, the proper biblical understanding of free will and personal freedom as a Natural Right is foundational, not just complimentary to the notion of Locke’s social contract.
Unfortunately, this connection is lost, and a number of compelling themes and interpersonal conflicts are underdeveloped, detracting from the power and focus of the film. For example, at the epicenter of the story’s intrigue is a greedy, self-centered railroad man who approvingly quotes Locke but clearly is out to disenfranchise those around him (including the railroad’s shareholders and executives) through brute force and murder. The contradictions between the power hungry baron and the principles of self-government and liberty in Locke are never addressed. Neither is the hypocrisy of the missionaries’ denigration of Native American Indians, making Tonto’s quest for human dignity empty and less heroic (since it is rooted in personal redemption from a past sin). Both of these themes could have become compelling in a period drama with a more complete understanding of Locke.
Perhaps most disappointing, however, is that the writers and director fail to use Locke’s theories of social justice to provide a moral justification for Reid’s acceptance of his alter ego as a leveler of justice outside the formal legal system. As long as the community is run by corrupt officials and strong men, the Social Contract never has a chance, and Reid’s pursuit of justice as a private individual is ethically justified as long as it’s in pursuit of the higher values of protecting human life and liberty. (This very issue is the core of the character arc for Isabella, a pirate captain, in my novel The Pirate of Panther Bay.)
The Lone Ranger’s screenwriters could have used the Lockian concepts of personal liberty, property, and social contract as satisfying, compelling and internally consistent justifications for Reid’s work as the true caretaker of justice on the frontier. Thus, a proper reading of John Locke and the Second Treatise could have saved the Long Ranger, not banished him to the annals of another rather bland vigilante hero in the dust bowls of the American West. Thus, despite the promise of its opening scenes, The Lone Ranger has become yet another action movie rooted in the myth of the Wild West with no connection to the basic political and social values that framed much of struggles facing 19th Century America.