Category Archives: John Locke

The Political Contribution of John Locke

John Locke

The Political Contribution of John Locke

The most influential writer and thinker of the Enlightenment age and the one who will sound the most familiar to those who have some understanding of American government is John Locke (1632-1704). His book, the “…Second Treatise of Government (1690) is the classical source of modern liberal political theory.”[1] One of the major beliefs that Locke challenged in his time was the divine right of kings.

God

King

People

The belief was that God appointed the kings and that they were God’s special representatives on earth so to disobey the king was to disobey God. This meant that the king could be above the law and that the people could never set themselves against what the king decreed. The way Locke challenged this was by saying that all humans had an equal right to the earth from the beginning, that even though kings may have been appointed by God that they were not above the law or the people, and that the king could not infringe on the rights of the people in the name of God. From there Locke argued basic human equality, rule of law, liberty, property rights, and the right to abolish government that goes against natural law. He believed in a state of nature that was not quite as negative as Hobbes’ but one that was filled with inconveniences and insecurity, therefore, he believed that the formation of a government would be the result.

“The only way, whereby any one divests himself of his natural liberty, and puts on the bonds of civil society, is by agreeing with other men to join and unite into a community, for their comfortable, safe, and peaceable living one amongst another, in a secure enjoyment of their properties, and a greater security against any, that are not of it.”—John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, quoted in Steven N. Cahn, Classics of Political & Moral Philosophy, Second Edition, Oxford University Press, © 2012, p. 475

According to this quote, what does Locke see as the main purpose for government? What does he mean by “natural liberty”? Why does he compare entering into a civil society to bonds or chains? Locke saw the nature of government as people giving up total liberty so that they can gain in the long run. Through entering into a community, under a government, people seek comfort, safety, peace, enjoyment of property, and security from outside forces. Do you agree with that ideal for a government? Should anything be added to those things that government should be responsible for?

“If man in the state of nature be so free, as has been said; if he be absolute lord of his own person and possessions, equal to the greatest, and subject to no body, why will he part with his freedom? why will he give up this empire, and subject himself to the dominion and control of any other part? To which it is obvious to answer, that though in the state of nature he hath such a right, yet the enjoyment of it is very uncertain, and constantly exposed to the invasion of others.”—John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, quoted in Steven N. Cahn, Classics of Political & Moral Philosophy, Second Edition, Oxford University Press, © 2012, p. 483

The reasoning that Locke gave for why someone would give up absolute liberty and the chance to work without the law and dominate everyone else is because one’s enjoyment of all that is unstable and temporary. In that position someone can be overthrown by someone stronger, smarter, or even by simple timing. The political philosophy of Locke was based very much around the concept and value of property.

“…the enjoyment of the property he has in this state is very unsafe, very insecure. This makes him willing to quit this condition which, however free, is full of fears and continual dangers: and it is not without reason, that he seeks out, and is willing to join in society with others, who are already united, or have a mind to unite, for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties, and estates, which I call by the general name, property.”—John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, quoted in Steven N. Cahn, Classics of Political & Moral Philosophy, Second Edition, Oxford University Press, © 2012, p. 483

Property is central to the argument of Locke. In his estimation, the desire for secure property is what will drive people into a society with a government and laws. No matter how free someone might be, that person is always exposed to losing their property when there is no law in place, no enforcement, no recourse for regaining lost property, and so on. Property does not just include stuff or land. Property includes things such as our own lives, our bodies, our time, our labor, and our ideas.

“The great and chief end, therefore, of men’s uniting into commonwealths, and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property.”—John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, quoted in Steven N. Cahn, Classics of Political & Moral Philosophy, Second Edition, Oxford University Press, © 2012, p. 483

In a very simple, clear and straightforward sentence, Locke defines the whole point of government in terms of protection of property. Is this what the government should do? How should the government go about protecting property? Is property really a central reason as to why people form societies and governments?

Example: White v. Samsung Electronics

Locke believed that there were certain institutions that had to be established for property to be maintained and protected. In order for this society to become a reality three things are necessary: a body to make laws, a body to interpret laws and a body enforce laws. That should sound familiar even to those with very little knowledge of American government.

Legislative

A body is needed to create laws by the common consent of the people. These laws are meant to be clear and lucid. The laws should also have the purpose of deciding between controversies.

“…There wants an established, settled, known law, received and allowed by common consent to be the standard of right and wrong, and the common measure to decide all controversies between them. For though the law of nature be plain and intelligible to all rational creatures; yet men being biassed by it, are not apt to allow of it as a law binding to them in the application of it to their particular cases.”—John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, quoted in Steven N. Cahn, Classics of Political & Moral Philosophy, Second Edition, Oxford University Press, © 2012, p. 483

In this state people do not seek whatever they want or need for the preservation of themselves in an unlimited way but they give that up in order to be regulated by the laws made by a society.[2] This is why Monopoly has a rule book. Rules and laws are established that allow people to appeal to an authority in order to make sure there is fairness and equity in the process. This even allows for people to not get what they want and still abide by the system. Locke saw the absolute need for a branch “…to govern by establishing laws…”[3]

Executive

Locke further assumed that these laws were not going to be self-enforcing. He saw the need for a body to be responsible to see that the law followed through and was enforced. If law was present but not enforced meaning could be taken out of the law very quickly. This would have been a real difficulty before the formation of a government.

“…In the state of nature, there often wants power to back and support the sentence when right, and to give it due execution.”—John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, quoted in Steven N. Cahn, Classics of Political & Moral Philosophy, Second Edition, Oxford University Press, © 2012, p. 483

When there is no risk that a law will actually be enforced it is very hard to really gain any trust or work together with people. This is why things like writing a bad check have such heavy penalties on them from the law. In California if the amount of a fraudulent check is less than $200 and is the first offense the criminal penalty is that someone can spend up to one year in county jail.[4] This law is taken serious because it is a federal issue and if all people started doing that then it would undermine the whole economic system of the country. But when there is no execution in place it is difficult to even have that type of system that makes using money much more convenient. When people enter into a society they give up the power of punishing and leave it to the law and those who enforce it.[5] People cannot and do not have to—in a perfect world—take matters into their own hands as far as execution of the law goes.

The executive would also be responsible for any use of force that would take place within the state but would be limited to only enforcing the law and not going further. In addition, the executive branch would prevent or deal with foreign issues, secure the state from invasion, and basically handle keeping the peace, safety and public good.[6]

Judicial

Just as the laws are not self-enforcing they are also not always self-interpreting. Words have meaning and sentences can be extremely clear but sometimes we do not always craft sentences with precise meaning. Add to that the fact that often we try to spin an interpretation of something to benefit us. Add, again, to that that sometimes there are factors that the writers of a law has not considered before or a specific circumstance may not fit into a particular category. This creates the necessity not only for a legislative branch to make law and an executive to enforce law but a judicial to interpret law. The judges would be the final deciding factor on how law should be interpreted and they would have the benefit of hopefully being unbiased in the decision.

“…In the state of nature there wants a known and indifferent judge, with authority to determine all differences according to the established law. For every one in that state being both judge and executioner of the law of nature, men being partial to themselves, passion and revenge is very apt to carry them too far, and with too much heat, in their own to make them too remiss in other men’s.”—John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, quoted in Steven N. Cahn, Classics of Political & Moral Philosophy, Second Edition, Oxford University Press, © 2012, p. 483

Why would it matter that the judge be known? The judge should be known so that all parties in the matter recognize the authority of the judge over the case and submit themselves to the ruling of the judge. Why should the judge be indifferent? The case could be decided in a more just, equitable way and the judge would not be tempted to add to or take away from the law but rather explain the law. Judges are not meant to create or execute the law but rather make the law clear. Locke saw the need, and so did the authors of the Constitution, for judgment “…by indifferent and upright judges…”[7]

Many attribute to John Locke the expression of things that we have taken to be basic American ideals and values like natural freedom, Locke expressed the ideals of life, liberty and property, separation of powers into a legislative and executive power, the executive in a single person, the idea that an unjust authority or ruler can be overthrown by force if he goes beyond the law, the power to convene and dismiss the legislature, and the power of pardon from the executive.[8] If someone reads John Locke along with the Declaration of Independence and looks at the structure of American government they will see several similarities.

In many ways it would be much simpler to have a king rule. In that form of government things would get done quickly, the king could change his mind and change laws, there would be no expectation of virtue or vigilant involvement from the people, and all the power would be in the hands of the king. This was the desire of Thomas Hobbes. A benevolent sovereign king to rule the people and all power and authority would be given to him to make all decisions for the people. On the other hand, the desire for liberty and freedom and to have a voice in the decisions that the government makes is the basis for the type of democracy that has been formed in the United States; that is why we still naturally push back against the idea of a monarch. The issue is that to maintain a system where the law rules and represents the people it is necessary for the people themselves to be involved, to be fully committed, to apply their minds to vigorous thought in order to produce new ideas, to study a law or situation and formulate a response, and to find and use the tools that enable change. Freedom is not so much a right as a responsibility that requires all to be self-motivated in pursuing and maintaining it.

[1] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Enlightenment,” first published Friday, August 20, 2010, Online [Link(s): http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/enlightenment/]

[2] John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, quoted in Steven N. Cahn, Classics of Political & Moral Philosophy, Second Edition, Oxford University Press, © 2012, p. 484

[3] John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, quoted in Steven N. Cahn, Classics of Political & Moral Philosophy, Second Edition, Oxford University Press, © 2012, p. 484

[4] National Check Fraud Center: Bad Check Laws by States [Link(s): http://www.ckfraud.org/penalties.html]

[5] John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, quoted in Steven N. Cahn, Classics of Political & Moral Philosophy, Second Edition, Oxford University Press, © 2012, p. 484

[6] John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, quoted in Steven N. Cahn, Classics of Political & Moral Philosophy, Second Edition, Oxford University Press, © 2012, p. 484: “…and to employ the force of the community at home, only the execution of such laws; or abroad to prevent or redress foreign injuries, and secure the community from inroads and invasion. And all this to be directed to no other end, but the peace, safety, and public good of the people.”

[7] John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, quoted in Steven N. Cahn, Classics of Political & Moral Philosophy, Second Edition, Oxford University Press, © 2012, p. 484

[8] John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, quoted in Steven N. Cahn, Classics of Political & Moral Philosophy, Second Edition, Oxford University Press, © 2012, pp. 484, 488, 490, 491, 493

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