Locke, John (1632–1704)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DA054-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved December 10, 2018, from

10. Political theory

Locke’s mature political theory is set out in ‘An Essay concerning the True Original, Extent, and End of Civil Government’, the second of Two Treatises of Government, the first being a point-by-point rebuttal of Robert Filmer’s biblically based patriarchalism (see Filmer, R.). Locke’s primary contention is that the right to govern comes with a duty to govern in the interest of the governed. Failure by the government to recognize or observe this duty creates the right to rebel. Like the Natural Law theories of Hooker, Grotius and Pufendorf on which he draws, Locke’s argument moves from first principles, in effect a fragment of his proposed demonstrative ethics; but much of its richness derives from links with his practical political concerns and interests. It presents attitudes and actions attributable to Charles II and James II as a betrayal of trust, hostile to those features of the British constitution most adapted to the essential purposes of government; but he also states principles relating to property, money, social conventions, taxation, punishment, family relations, inheritance, the rights of the poor, enclosure of land, the practice and justification of colonial settlement, and more.

Filmer had argued that both political authority and property rights exist only by divine institution – by God’s giving Adam dominion over the creatures, by the subjection of Eve, and by Adam’s natural paternal rights over his children. Monarchs are deemed natural inheritors of Adam’s rights. A part of Locke’s strategy, pursued in both Treatises, against this doctrine was to drive wedges between the possession and inheritance of property and the possession and conveyance of authority, and between paternal (or, as Locke prefers, parental) authority and political authority. For example, the right of children to inherit their parents’ property stems from their natural right (not just that of the eldest child) to sustenance by their parents, a right which cannot be supposed to embrace either patriarchal authority or political power. The analogy of power and property in Filmer’s argument, however, was not only in relation to inheritance, for it entailed that individual ownership is simply a grant of use by the king, making taxation – its partial withdrawal – his personal right. Locke was therefore concerned to give property a quite different role in his explanation of political society.

For Locke, government is a human invention, to which personal property is prior. In a state of nature, he argues in the Second Treatise, human beings have an obligation, in accordance with divine or natural moral law, ‘to preserve the rest of mankind’, their equals as creatures and servants of God, by a rational extension of their duty to preserve themselves. More specifically, ‘no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions’ (Two Treatises II.6). Yet, before government, ‘everyone has a right to punish the transgressors of that law to such a degree, as may hinder its violation’. The ‘state of nature’ is not, for Locke, a merely ideal abstraction, but a historical situation in which members of simple societies have lived and still live, unless in time of war, and in which independent national governments always necessarily exist. For international relations are not governed by positive law prescribed and sanctioned by constituted authority. In this situation the victim of aggression – or indeed any onlooker, for the violation is of the natural law which maintains the welfare of all – has the right to destroy the aggressor until offered peace, reparation and security for the future. Within civil society itself this ‘right of war’ or self-defence exists whenever the law cannot be effectively exercised, whether in the immediate circumstances of threatened harm, or when the administration of the law is manifestly corrupt, and itself employed to commit violence and injury.

‘Liberty’ in the state of nature is freedom from any constraint but the moral law of nature. Under government, it is freedom from the ‘arbitrary will of another man’, and from any human rule but the ‘standing rule…common to everyone of that society’Two Treatises II.22). (Locke sees slavery as continuation of war – it is just if the war is just, when it is in lieu of capital punishment, the justly enslaved, like criminals, being ‘outside civil society’. Yet this hardly stands as an endorsement of contemporary colonial slavery – indeed Locke denies that the children of aggressors can be justly enslaved, or even disinherited.) ‘Possessions’ arise in a state of nature with the act of appropriation which is a necessary condition of the use of any of the comestibles naturally available to all: ‘this law of reason makes the deer, that Indian’s who hath killed it’ (Two Treatises II.30). Such appropriation is an extension of the principle that ‘every man has a property in his own person’, and therefore in ‘the labour of his body’. Consequently whatever someone has ‘mixed his labour with’ is his, provided that it is for use, and ‘there is enough, and as good left in common for others’ (Two Treatises II.27). This principle applies also to the enclosure of land for agriculture, which vastly increases its productivity. With land, as in all else, ‘labour makes the far greatest part of the value of things, we enjoy in this world’ (Two Treatises II.42). Nevertheless, before the conventional use of money, no one would have either motive or right to produce more than they could use, give to others or exchange before it spoils. To take something from the common store and let it spoil is against natural law. Money, however, is an artifice which modifies the whole nature of property-rights, since it can be stored indefinitely without spoiling. Money makes it worthwhile to exploit land fully, and supplies a just means of keeping the product. So far from wronging others, enclosure and improvement greatly increase ‘the common stock of mankind’, making ‘a day labourer in England’ better off than a king among the (Native) Americans (Two Treatises II.41). Significant disparity of wealth becomes both possible and morally justified, on the assumption that none will suffer absolutely (in a Board of Trade paper Locke simply asumed that everyone should have ‘meat, drink, clothing and firing…out of the stock of the kingdom, whether they work or no’Bourne 1876 vol. II: 382). But the effect is greatly to complicate the administration of the law of nature, and to render its application uncertain, as well as to encourage its breach through greed.

All this, on top of the standing need for both impartiality and sufficient force to punish malefactors, necessitates government. The chief role of such government is to determine rules to order and preserve property. Common defence is another imperative. Government with such legislative and executive powers comes into existence when people, by consent, resign their ‘executive power of the law of nature… to the public’ (Two Treatises II.89). Each individual member gives consent, but is thereafter bound to move with the majority. To the objection that no such agreement has ever taken place, Locke argues that, although ‘government is everywhere antecedent to records’, cases abound of new or primitive societies with elected leaders. In the first instance, this may be ‘some one good and excellent man’ or effective general, or indeed the father of a familial group, but experience of unrestrained monarchy encourages legislatures of ‘collective bodies of men’, with none above the law. In any case, consent is normally tacit, and given in the active enjoyment of the benefit of the law, whether by possession of land or ‘barely travelling freely on the highway’. Such tacit consent obliges obedience to the law, although the obligation lasts only as long as the enjoyment, leaving the individual free to give up the benefit and ‘incorporate himself into any other commonwealth’. Express consent, however, binds the individual to obey and assist a particular government until its dissolution (or breach of trust).

A subject’s ultimate obligation is to the supreme power, which is the legislative, itself bound by the law of nature in its choice of means, ‘established and promulgated laws’, for the preservation of its subjects and their property. Given this role, a government has no right to tax its subjects without their consent ‘either by themselves, or their representatives chosen for them’. In order to minimize the risk of the legislative acting in its own, rather than in the public interest, it is best that it be an assembly which meets from time to time, separate from the continuously acting executive. A third, ‘federative’ power of war, peace and alliances is less easily directed by antecedent laws than the executive power, but falls naturally into the same hands, since both depend on public force. Locke allows some qualification of the absolute separation of powers, and subordination of the executive to the legislative, in recognition of the ‘prerogative’ power of the English king to dissolve and convene Parliament as circumstances require, and to employ discretion in the execution of the laws (Locke notes without express approval the power to veto legislation). Yet Locke sees prerogative as justified only as falling under ‘the power of doing public good without a rule’ in the face of unforeseen circumstances, and as dangerously capable of abuse. Its continuous employment contrary to the public good, for example by refusing to convene the legislative or by tampering with the rules for its election, makes the king himself a rebel and destroyer of the government, at war with his own subjects, returning them to a state of nature with a right to set up a new government.

Citing this article:
Ayers, Michael. Political theory. Locke, John (1632–1704), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DA054-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2018 Routledge.

Related Articles