Philosophy 212 - 11.3.3 John Locke and Representative Government

Other proponents of the social contract, including French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) and English philosopher John Locke (1632–1704), rejected absolute monarchy. Instead, they argued for representative government. In fact, John Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government (1689) served as a major inspiration for the American founding fathers. Some of his well-known ideas can be found in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Locke defends the necessity of the separation of the church and state, for example, and provides the origin of the edict on self-preservation that leads to retaining the right to bear arms.

Similar to Hobbes, Locke imagines that people begin in the state of nature and eventually agree to give up some liberties to an impartial authority in exchange for peace and security. But unlike Hobbes, Locke says that we exist peacefully for the most part and can be counted on to act in our interests when necessary. Locke invokes natural law, which is the notion that humankind is granted rationality by God and can use that rationality to determine moral laws. These laws are obligatory and include respect for others and the recognition of individual liberty. As Locke sees it, humans are born into “a state also of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal” (Locke 2016, 122). We are naturally free and equal; no one person has more natural power or right to rule than another. Locke maintains “that all men are naturally in that state, and remain so, till by their own consents they make themselves members of some politic society” (129).

In Locke’s state of nature, we have the right to own ourselves and can do what we like with ourselves, and we can own limited property. At first, property is things from nature that God gave to us in common to fulfill our basic needs and survival. Later, as society develops and begins using money, property is extended to include what we improve through our labor. Even in this early state, we are not free to abuse others. We are not free to take more than we need, for example. The law of self-preservation is prominent throughout Locke’s treatise and can be found in his discussion of war as well in his solution to a tyrannical government (that people exercise their right to change it). Locke’s philosophy is based on the assumption that moral law, which precedes the establishment of any political structure, leads to a type of natural justice.

Locke also differentiates between natural liberty, which grows out of natural law, and civil liberty, which is the product of governance by a commonwealth. Remember that Locke establishes that we are allowed to gain property. We do so through our labor, when we improve the land that was given to us in common. This work, in turn, benefits others. As we gain more and more property, we develop a need to defend our property. If a person does not have property, they will still be under the protection of the laws of the civil society, though they will not have a hand in determining those laws. We agree to move from the state of nature into a society to protect property, both ourselves (as property) and our goods. By moving into a civil society, we gain the protection of laws, an impartial judge, and a means to enforce laws. The legislative power of civil society establishes its laws. These laws presumably are created with the interests of the entire commonwealth in mind, so individual interests may not supersede the interests of the whole. The executive power enforces these laws and should not have a hand in establishing laws. Locke views this requirement as a safeguard against personal interest.

After civil society is established, Locke addresses the question of how much freedom the government should have to act without consulting the commonwealth as a whole and what limits should be put on its power. Above all, the good of the society must be the goal of government. Those who make up the legislative and executive powers must be cautious that these powers do not become a micro society. The longer individuals stay in positions of power, the greater the chance they may fall into corruption. If that happens, then the civil state will become worse than the state of nature. For that reason, people then have the right to remove the governmental powers; a state that has become tyrannical can justly be dissolved. The people may reestablish the structure that previously worked best or change to a system that better protects their interests. Ultimately, it is the commonwealth (the people) who oversee the society at large and determine its ability to function properly. Thus, Locke’s safeguard against tyranny allows people to return to the state of nature, if necessary, and begin again.

Watch a short overview of Locke’s ideas about government.


John Locke on Government

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax