The preamble to the U.S. Constitution reads:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
This founding document is written in the name of “we the people”. Who are “we the people”?
“We the people” continues the “one people” from the Declaration of Independence:
When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another ….
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
These documents and others indicate that “the people” are sovereign, which is known as popular sovereignty, often associated with social contract philosophers such as John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Thus the state is under the authority of the people, who determine the form of the state.
I submit that there are two ways of understanding who “we the people” are. The first is that “we the people” means “we the society“. That is, society precedes and takes priority over the state. Society gives some of its authority to the state, which then rules over individuals. This is the conservative interpretation.
The second is the liberal interpretation: “we the people” means “we the individuals“. That is, individuals precede and take priority over the state. Sovereign individuals give some of their authority to the state, which then rules over society.
The second interpretation is seen in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s 1762 book The Social Contract (Du contrat social), which famously begins:
Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.
That is, free individuals become enslaved by the state and society. John Rawls begins his book A Theory of Justice with a device he calls the original position in which individuals decide the principles of justice from behind a veil of ignorance about society. Both Rawls and Rousseau begin with an imaginary individual who seeks an ideal world. The state they envision is authorized to reform society but not sovereign individuals.
The opposite position begins with the reality that everyone is born of parents, and even the nuclear family constitutes a society in miniature. In reality, parents are part of a wider society into which every child is born. As John Donne said, “No man is an island.” The individual unconnected from society is a myth.
Edmund Burke wrote A Vindication of Natural Society on the importance of social manners and religious morals for civic life. Society is not a mere aggregation of individuals; it is a complex web of customs, honors, and traditions. The state he sees is authorized to reform individuals but not society because society is sovereign.
The conservative position is realist in the philosophical sense, whereas the liberal position is anti-realist, either idealist or materialist. Two political philosophies arise from these fundamentally different ways of thinking and talking.