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What follows is a brief piece I wrote some years ago which I have adapted for our purposes here. This is a follow-up on comments I made to John Mark Reynolds’ posts yesterday.

It is generally acknowledged that the English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) had a considerable influence on the American founding, as evidenced particularly in Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. To be sure, other thinkers, such as Montesquieu and Adam Smith, would have their own impact, but Locke’s influence is such as to warrant mention in a speech delivered by President Bush at Whitehall in 2003.

Locke’s most famous works are his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690, 1706) and his Two Treatises of Government (1680, 1690). The latter was written to combat Sir Robert Filmer’s patriarchal theory of the origin of human government and to set forth a new theory based on consent of the governed. His refutation of Filmer is contained in the First Treatise, which is little read now, primarily because Filmer’s ideas enjoy no currency today. Consequently it is Locke’s Second Treatise that is the better known and more widely read of the two. Although it was apparently written before the Glorious Revolution of 1688, its publication followed it, and it is often seen as a defence of the deposition of the Stuart monarchs and the supremacy of Parliament.



Locke’s political thought has sometimes been viewed as something of an amalgam of that of Thomas Hobbes and Richard Hooker, the latter of whom he quotes directly. Hobbes is a philosophical nominalist who sets forth a number of categories that were borrowed and adapted by Locke for his own purposes, which are, admittedly, different from those of Hobbes. Hooker is the author of The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, which defended the quasi-protestant Elizabethan settlement in England and whose legal theory is dependent on the mediaeval scholastics, including Thomas Aquinas. It should not be surprising that Locke’s political theory brings together the older natural law tradition, with its recognition of intrinsic constraints on human action, and the newer liberalism, with its notion of voluntary contract.

Like Hobbes, Locke posits a prepolitical state of nature, which is a “State of perfect Freedom” wherein people have the liberty “to order their Actions, and dispose of their Possessions, and Persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the Law of Nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the Will of any other Man” (II.4). While Hobbes views this prepolitical state as characterized by a “war of all against all,” Locke is unwilling to go quite this far, believing that “the State of Nature has a Law of Nature to govern it,” which law teaches that “no one ought to harm another in his Life, Health, Liberty, or Possessions” (II.6). Clearly, contra Hobbes, Locke cannot bring himself to admit that force and fraud are the only virtues in the state of nature.

Nevertheless, given that everyone has the executive power of the law of nature to protect his or her property, and given further that there is no generally-acknowledged common court of appeal in cases where this law is violated, the enjoyment of one’s life, liberty and property is precarious at best. If the state of nature is not automatically a state of general warfare, it is constantly in danger of becoming such.

This is where the social contract enters the picture. Another category adapted from Hobbes, the social contract stands at the origin of political society and the authority that presides over it. Because the enjoyment of property is so uncertain and precarious in the state of nature, individuals have an incentive to leave that state and to enter into political society, thereby gaining “a common establish’d Law and Judicature to appeal to, with Authority to decide Controversies between them, and punish Offenders. . . ” (VII.87).

Consent of the governed lies at the origin of all governments, or at least of those which have been established peacefully (VIII.112). In contrast to the Hobbesian contract, whereby human beings yield up all their rights, except that of self-defence, to the sovereign, the Lockean contract requires that people give up only the executive power of the law of nature, while retaining most every other right they enjoyed in the prepolitical state, especially the right to property. In short, government under the Lockean scheme is restricted to protecting life, liberty and property and ought not take on tasks much beyond this.

Why the word contract? It is not at all clear that this is a true account of the origin of human government. To be sure, the modern state, defined as a political community of citizens and government, can be traced only to the early modern era of half a millennium ago. But political authority seems always to have existed in some fashion. This is undoubtedly what Aristotle recognized in observing that the human being is a “political animal” or “political being.” This ubiquity of political authority is also what St. Paul had in mind in stating that “the powers that be are ordained of God” (Romans 13:1). Political authority would appear to have its origins in both created human limitations and in the fallenness of humanity.

Where then does contract enter the picture? Quite simply, it doesn’t. Unless, that is, one uses the term to describe the commission given by an electorate to a new government of the day. But government in the general sense has been a constant in every human society. In other words, Locke’s apparently proper emphasis on natural laws serving to constrain the parties to a contract cannot vindicate his use of this questionable term. Historically, the contract metaphor has taken on a life of its own, leading centuries later to unintended consequences.

Locke’s focus on the possession of property is also notable, as it constitutes the principal, if not the sole, end of political society and government: “The great and chief end therefore, of Mens uniting into Commonwealths, and putting themselves under Government, is the Preservation of their Property” (IX.124). Elsewhere he goes so far as to argue that “Government has no other end but the preservation of Property (VII.94, emphasis mine).

There are, of course, many ways to describe the central task of government, including: to do justice, to pursue the common good, to defend the innocent and punish the guilty, to enable us to live peacefully with each other despite our diverse interests, &c. Tellingly, Locke has chosen the protection of property, the possession of which is defined so as to emphasize its individual, private character. Defending the common property of the body politic, e.g., pasture lands, public buildings, forests and other Crown lands, appears to play little if any role in Locke. Even the acknowledgement of the diverse forms of property ownership, as related to the various responsibilities assigned to individuals and communities, does not seem to figure into Locke’s approach. The public and common would seem to exist primarily for the sake of the private. It is perhaps for this reason that, in his Whitehall speech, Bush’s speech writers saw fit to mention Locke in tandem with Adam Smith, whose Wealth of Nations (1776) laid the groundwork for classical liberal economic theory.

Finally, it should be noted that, if government fails to live up to the terms of this contract, i.e., if it fails to protect the citizens’ property, the citizens are within their rights to dissolve government, even by means of what Locke euphemistically calls an “appeal to heaven,” i.e., rebellion (XIV.168). Although Hobbes would not have admitted the legitimacy of rebellion, he did admit that a king who makes war on his subjects does so at the risk of losing his throne. Thus Hobbes made room for what might be called a practical right to rebellion. By contrast, Locke puts the matter this way:

Whensoever, therefore, the Legislative shall transgress this fundamental Rule of Society, and either by Ambition, Fear, Folly, or Corruption, endeavour to grasp themselves, or put into the hands of any other an Absolute Power over the Lives, Liberties, and Estates of the People, by this breach of Trust they forfeit the Power, the People had put into their hands, for quite contrary ends, and it devolves to the People, who have a Right to resume their original Liberty, and by the Establishment of a new Legislative (such as they shall think fit) provide for their own Safety and Security, which is the end for which they are in Society (XIX.222, emphasis mine).

Similarly, Locke holds that, in the event of the government’s dissolution, “the People are at liberty to provide for themselves, by erecting a new Legislative”, &c. This is obviously something more than the legal dissolution of a parliamentary body and the holding of new elections, such as we see in a constitutional democracy. Although there is a superficial resemblance between Locke’s remedy for tyranny and that of, say, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and Johannes Althusius, the latter three focus on the constitutional role played by lesser magistrates (ephors) authorized to check the power of the chief magistrate. In short, they envision an authoritative office playing this role under domestic positive law. By contrast, Locke’s cryptic phrases, “it devolves to the People” and “the People are at liberty,” leave unanswered the central question of who these “people” are and what offices they occupy authorizing them to take such an action.

To be sure, Locke understands that human activities are properly subject to constraints. He is not a partisan of sheer wilfulness or unlimited autonomy. He is not an anarchist or an advocate of late liberalism, which I have elsewhere labelled the “choice-enhancement state.” Nor can his thought be harnessed to something as potentially dangerous as Rousseau’s general will. Nevertheless, for all his debt to a much older tradition that recognizes our dependence on a higher law, there is an obvious narrative structure to Locke’s political theory which is difficult to square with the biblical narrative of creation, fall, redemption and renewal. The logic of this Lockean narrative tends in the direction of the choice-enhancement state, much as the logic of Marx’s thought can be said to have led to the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, even if its progenitor would likely have been horrified at what these régimes became.

In short, if Locke is heir in some fashion to Reformed Christianity, it is in a very much attenuated and secularized form.

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