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Locke’s Essay on Civil Government (1690)

john-lockeAuthor: Barry Stocker

The Essay on Civil Government, also known as The Second Treatise on Government, is one of the great texts of the liberal tradition. It has been adopted by representatives of just about every strand in that tradition, from Anarcho-Capitalists to Social Liberals.

The Essay on Civil Government has a clear political context–opposition to the monarchical absolutism of Charles II and James II–and this can be seen in the text. The text also rises above context, so that it has become accepted as one of the classics of political thought and a favourite of many liberal / libertarian thinkers. It’s partly known as a classic of contract theory, though Locke talks about a compact rather than a contract.

Locke thought we can explain the existence of government by thinking of a basis in a compact formed when a ‘political society’ is first formed. The compact does not surrender all individual rights to the state, but rather the point of the compact is to limit the power of the sovereign state. The compact gives the people the right to rise up against a government which does not follow the rules of the compact. The compact limits government to enforcing natural rights, and rests on the assumption that no one would agree to leave a state of nature except to improve their natural rights. Natural rights are the rights we have in a state of nature with no government. The natural rights are the rights to defend our lives, our property and our liberty; all three can be described as different aspects of individual property, including the property I have over myself. That is, we can defend ourselves against those who attempt violence against us, we can acquire and keep property, and we can resist slavery.

Natural rights are ones we can find in our mind if we think about what rights are, and everyone agrees on what they are. Humans leave a state of nature in which they already have these rights, because these rights are fragile and constantly threatened. Even leaving aside threats from those strong enough to violate our rights, we have to punish violations of rights ourselves and this is unsatisfactory, because no one can be an unbiased judge in cases where they have an interest. We agree to the existence of government so that there is an umpire, a neutral judge, and so that there can be a body with the strength to punish violations of natural rights.

One difficulty of the compact, or contract, is that it was apparently agreed at one moment in time, leaving open the question of why later generations should obey it. Locke’s answer is tacit consent, that is by living under government and accepting its protection, I place myself under an obligation to obey that government. That does not mean that I have given up all my rights. For a start I can move to another part of the world, and even help found a new political society with rules I like, if I can find uninhabited land. Beyond that constraint, a government that breaks the compact and becomes a tyranny can be overthrown. Laws should only be made by consent, and since in practice we cannot get everyone’s individual consent for every single law, consent means that laws are passed by an elected assembly. That assembly passes laws for the public good, on the basis of natural rights.

Some ambiguity enters here, since Locke says that property can never be infringed upon, but that the government needs to raise taxes for our protection. The ambiguity is increased if we think about the relation between absolute rights and public good. Surely an assembly could arrive at the conclusion, whether we like it or not that the public good might be served by infringing on natural rights, and if it’s going to raise taxes it is necessarily going to infringe property rights. I can consent to someone taking some of my property, yet there is ambiguity in Locke about whether I can be considered to consent if a majority in an elected assembly decides some individual property needs to be reallocated.

The idea of property is itself developed in a very important early contribution to political economy. Locke thinks of property as originally emerging from labour, by working on land I get wealth from it, and that wealth becomes my property, as does the land. Land can be taken by individuals without limit, so long as no one else suffers. No one else will suffer if there is more land to take. Once there is money, the wealth coming from land can be transformed into money, which can then be used to buy things from other people. Barter could achieve the same result, but money is more convenient. If I sell whatever I have created using the land, I will give money to other people for their products, and no harm is done by my ownership of some very large amount of land, even in a world of land scarcity.

Finally, Locke did not just write on political theory, he is also the author of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, a major work of general philosophy. This contains a couple of ideas which might challenge his political thought. He says that there are no ‘innate ideas’ in the mind; that is no ideas which do not come from experience, which might undermine the idea of ‘natural rights’. Locke also derives ethical ideas of good and evil from pleasure and pain, which may also undermine the idea of ‘natural rights’ which the self might have, before any considerations of the consequences of actions and rules, in the form of pleasure and pain.