Philosophy Political Philosophy

John Locke’s “Second Treatise,” Part IV: Statism & the Myth of Limited Government

In continuing our reading of Locke’s Two Treatises, beginning with ninth chapter now, we turn to Locke’s understanding of what the end of political governance, the commonwealth, and legislature, is ultimately for.  That is to say, what does political society aim at?  Essentially his answer was already given in the preceding chapters – peaceable and solitary economic consumption – but now that we are no longer speaking of the individual but of the new social contract society, society itself aims at peaceable, solitary, economic consumption.

Chapter 9: The End of Political Society (Preservation, Regulation, and Punishment)

Locke begins Chapter 9 by addressing why anyone would ever want to leave the state of nature if we have absolute dominion, that is freedom, in such a state.  For him the answer is simple.  Fear.  Diffidence is the driving force in Locke’s natural law theory (natural law being the governing force for all human action).  We immediately see, for those trained in the history of philosophy, how “modern natural law” differs from “classical natural law” where classical natural law was about the pursuit of happiness as the end (telos) of human life affirmed by Greek, Roman, Jewish, and Christian philosophy, but modern natural law is governed by anxiety which propels us into the bid for self-preservation.  (Where the Greeks, Romans, and Christians celebrated death in their own ways – Greeks and Romans as a reflection of heroic nobility, and Christianity as the point when we would be reunited with Logos in perpetual happiness rather than temporal happiness – moderns fear death and seek to run from death.)

Locke writes:

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 controul of any other power? 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: for all being kings as much as he, every man his equal, and the greater part no strict observers of equity and justice, the enjoyment of the property he has in this state is very unsafe, very unsecure. This makes him willing to quit a 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. (Emphasis my own.)

This is also important to realize, especially in relationship to Hobbes.  Hobbes also notes that diffidence is one of the governing forces of human behavior (but also includes glory and honor as additional forces that govern human action).  Therefore, Locke is in (partial) agreement with Hobbes that fear is one of the motivating forces that govern human life and that this is the force that propels us into the establishing of a government.  In other words, we turn to government in fear.  Since fear is what governs our actions, we will always turn to government to solve our problems so we can have peace and security.  This is the slow-growth of government power in Locke’s political philosophy that most readers and observers have noted.  After all, it was the fear of not being able to live in peace that led us to establishment government in the state of nature back in Chapters 2 and 3.  Now Locke plainly states why we leave the state of nature.  And if this follows from the law of preservation, then we will continue to look elsewhere to resolve our fears.

As Locke also makes clear, the purpose of this joining in government, through fear, in the name of self-preservation, is done in the name of property.  Property is the only true “natural right” in liberalism.  It is not fidelity to family, tribe, or nation, it is not fidelity to religious heritage or identity, but nothing more than property acquisition and consumption in a peaceable world through the establishment of a State which is the end of political society.  Which is why all scholars know that liberalism is implicitly anti-nationalistic and universalistic in its outlook when you follow its logic through to its ultimate end.  The end of liberalism is a global economic order that transcends all bonds of family, tribe, or nation, and religion, in the name of property acquiring self-preservation.

Also contained in Chapter 9 are important ideas for modern liberalism itself.  Equality before the law is one of the reasons for the establishment of government.  “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.”  We give up our right as judge, jury, and executioner in the state of nature in favor of an “indifferent” or “impartial” judge without biases.  The “established law” is equality before the law.  We all stand before the impartial law and its justices and Locke claims this is another reason for our leaving the state of nature.  We couldn’t bear the guilt, or want the responsibility, of being judge, jury, and executioner in the state of nature.  Freedom, in other words, was too burdensome for us so we establish a State to take up that responsibility for us.

Additionally, Locke also acknowledges something that would make self-described Lockean liberals and libertarians aghast to learn their patron patriarch actually said that regulation is essential to the good society.  “[Man] gives up to be regulated by laws,” he says in paragraph 129.  When Karl Popper, in Open Society and Its Enemies, wrote that “liberalism and state-intereference are not opposed to each other,” Popper was merely following the logic already laid out in John Locke.  Popper, ever the liberal, and knowing the true liberal tradition, embraced liberalism for what it was.  This is why all political scholars and philosophers find the dichotomy between “classical liberals” and “modern liberals” to be fatuous.  Classical liberalism’s own logic, as laid out by Locke, gives the state the power to regulate property in the name of preservation.  This is also why liberalism, more generally, is understood as the political philosophy that sees government as “securing” and “defending” our rights.  (But how exactly do we get these rights? Locke will tell us in Chapter 11.)

Lastly, Locke also states that punishment is another one of the reasons for the establishment of government.  Thus Locke establishes for us in Chapter 9 the two ends of political authority: preservation (which includes the right to regulation) and punishment (in the name of preservation).  So there is still only one end to political authority: self-preservation.  And whatever advances self-preservation is permissible for the State to engage in.  Self-preservation is the only true natural right in liberalism.

Chapter 10: The Three Forms of Government (or Commonwealths)

The tenth chapter is probably the easiest chapter to understand in all Two Treatises, especially for those trained, or knowledgeable, in political philosophy.  Locke revisits the infamous three forms of government that stretch all the way back to Plato and Aristotle.  Locke recognizes that a commonwealth, or republic, as did all the classical theorists, is contained within democracy, oligarchy, or a monarchy.  Locke explains, briefly, how one is to understand democracy, oligarchy, and monarchy, and how a commonwealth simply means a government that acts in the name of the public trust, or public good.  In this sense, as Locke rightfully acknowledges, the monarchy of James I was a commonwealth (in name), and that democracies, oligarchies, or any monarchy, can be a commonwealth.  Whether they are in practice is a different matter altogether which Locke visits at the end of his work concerning the legitimacy of revolution.

Chapter 11: On Legislative Power

The 11th, 12th, and 13th chapters of the Second Treatise have been highly influential over modern political theory, especially Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws.  In these chapters Locke establishes the famous idea of “separation of powers,” which is not really a separation of powers as we think of it today but really the delegation of political responsibility.  Locke begins with the legislature, which he considers the most powerful of the political bodies and the one whose authority is to be obeyed over the others.

What is the first principle of the legislature?  Power itself.  “The first and fundamental positive law of all commonwealths is the establishing of the legislative power; as the first and fundamental law of nature, which is to govern even the legislature itself.”  There we have it again.  The “Father of Liberalism” acknowledging that political power is the end of the State.  As he continues, “This legislative is not only the supreme power of the commonwealth, but sacred and unalterable in the hands where the community have once placed it; nor can any edict of any body else, in what form soever conceived, or by what power soever backed, have the force and obligation of a law, which has not its sanction from that legislative which the public has chosen and appointed.”  The legislature, which is the supreme embodiment of the State in its ideal form, is the new god – or the “new idol” that Nietzsche speaks of in the eleventh speech of Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Part I).

The legislature enacts laws in the name of preservation.  This should not come as a surprise since preservation is the law of nature and the end to political governance as Locke has been writing endlessly about for the last 60 pages of his treatise.  However, Locke admits that liberalism really isn’t about “natural rights.”  The only natural right, again, is the right to property since that is tied to the law of nature which is self-preservation.  All rights are arbitrarily decided upon by the commonwealth legislature, “The legislative or supreme authority cannot assume to itself a power to rule by extemporary, arbitrary decrees; but is bound to dispense justice, and to decide the rights of the subject, by promulgated standing laws, and known authorized judges.”  There you have it, in Locke’s own words, the legislature gets to decide our rights as subjects to it.

This is called the “conventional rights” theory in political philosophy.  That is, we do have some natural rights so-called, but that most of our political rights are decided upon by the State.  That is to say that the government creates the “rights” for its citizens (hence conventional) but that these conventional rights (as a form of nomos) is not natural (as a form of physis).  Our natural rights are the rights to preservation and property (which are linked together in Locke’s theory).  Therefore, all of our political rights – or rights of civil society – are not natural at all, but completely dependent upon the mercy of the legislature and whether the legislature thinks we should have these rights.  And we have no say in their granting or rescinding of these rights because we have consented to the legislature’s power by enacting the social contract in the first place.

Now, Locke does talk about limitations of government.  This is through an end to which government serves.  This end, or telos, granted to government (rather than humans), is the buttress against total excess.  According to Locke, the end to government is preservation and property.  Therefore the government can never step over the bounds of the law of nature (unless we consent to giving up some property in the form of taxation or we have violated the law of nature in murder which demands a response from the punishing component of the State).  Since preservation is bound to property the seizure of property is a violation of the social contract and the end to which political society is aimed.  (Again, Locke will revisit this when he talks about our one chance at revolution at the end of Two Treatises.)

However, since Locke already granted regulation of property as being constitutive of preservation, in the name of preservation (which is an end to which government serves) the government has the right to regulate property which we have consented to.  “But government, into whatsoever hands it is put, being, as I have before showed, entrusted with this condition, and for this end, that men might have and secure their properties; the prince, or senate, however it may have power to make laws for the regulating of property between the subjects one amongst another.”  Without regulation, we would lose all property as Locke himself states.  “For this would be in effect to leave them no property at all ([e.g. without regulatory power.])”  Again, Locke sets the foundational principles for modern liberalism’s regulatory ethos.  It is not regulation as “socialism” (in fact, that is a misnomer – socialism has never endorsed regulation), but regulation in the name of preservation.  Regulation is a core component to liberal theory in the name of consumeristic advancement.  If we permit everyone to simply consume everything now, we would have nothing left to consume in the future.  Furthermore, if we “greedily” take too much property than have need for (which Locke already talked about in the preceding chapters), this would be denying the right to property for others which would be an assault on the law of self-preservation in denying property to others.

In Chapter 11 Locke summarizes, at end, his political theory:

  • Obedience to the Legislature.
  • Legislature enacts laws in the name of the public good or public welfare.
  • Laws must be consented to by the public (which it has done by virtue of it having established the social contract in the first place).
  • Separation of Political Responsibilities (e.g. legislature has legislative responsibilities, executive has executive responsibilities, judicial has judicial responsibilities, and federative has federative responsibilities).

Chapter 12-13: Executive, Federative, and Subordinate Power

Moving into Chapter 12, Locke expands upon what he began to outline in Chapter 11 concerning the “separation” of political power, or the separation/delegation of political responsibilities.  He now turns his attention to the executive and federative powers.

Executive power is straightforward.  The executive power is the execution, or enforcement, of the laws established by that “sacred and unalterable” legislature that we have established in the social contract.  The federative power is the political body responsible for security, peace, and, when necessary, to engage in war (for the end of security and peace).

For Locke, the two powers are very similar to one another.  Which is why he ends this chapter by foreseeing the day that the executive would subsume the federative branch of political power.  This has puzzled readers of Locke for a long time.  Is this not, then, a contradiction of his separation of political responsibilities?  No.  The true separation of political power and responsibility is that the legislature never abdicates what responsibility it has been entrusted with.  The other branches of power may end up conglomerating together to be more efficient and effective in the dispensation of their responsibilities.  (This is a between the lines argument that reflects Locke’s utilitarianism.)

In Chapter 13, which is also straightforward, Locke states that all other forms of political bodies are subordinate to the legislature.  Again, Locke does not see “equal power” in the separation of political responsibilities.  The legislature is all-powerful.  As Locke himself writes, “The executive power, placed any where but in a person that has also a share in the legislative, is visibly subordinate and account to it.”  The executive branch is account to the legislature.

This is the basis of political power for the American Constitution.  The Congress (the legislature) has the power to impeach the President (the head of the executive branch) because the executive branch is accountable to the legislature.  This is also true of the judicial branch of the United States.  Congress has the ability to impeach, or recall, judges based on bad behavior or reneging their responsibilities to enforce the laws of the legislature.  Locke’s influential idea of the “separation of power” is really the subordination of all powers to the legislature, but that each individual branch of political power also has specific political responsibilities.

For example, the legislature legislates.  The executive puts into practice the laws passed by the legislature.  The federative defends the end of political society (which is peace and security).  The judicial maintains the enforcement of the legislature’s laws through the power to enact some form of punishment for law breakers.  Locke’s political theory, here, is a well-oiled machine so to speak.  Every branch works together like a body to achieve the end to which we established government in the first place.


In concluding our reading of Chapters 9-13, whatever illusion (or delusion) you have had about Locke and liberalism being about limited government, natural rights, and “good government” should be dispensed with.  The State is all powerful.  The legislature determines our rights for us.  This is because we have consented to this.  The limitations of the government is that it cannot violate the rights of preservation and property, though even the latter is a bit flimsy because the government – by Locke’s own admission – has the power to regulation in the name of preservation.  This is tied, again, to his theory of property and property acquisition (consumerism).

At end, then, we see that Locke’s conception of the political is based entirely on preservation.  Whatever is deemed in the interest of self-preservation is what the State can enact into law.  This is what the public good, or public trust, is.  Self-preservation.  Tying it all the way back to Chapter 5 on economism, this means that the commonwealths of the world should be acting to advance material prosperity, consumption, peaceable consumption, working to eliminate conflict through the establishment of a universal community or universal laws that we would all obey, and through this we can achieve the end to which we established the social contract in the first place: peaceable material consumption.

What confuses people about Locke is the mythology built around Locke.  It is accurate to say, as Locke himself writes through the first 13 chapters, that the purpose (end) to government is secure to the right to property and to discharge lawful obedience to property rights.  In this sense, “liberalism” is a doctrine that “secures” the ‘rights’ of its subjects.  What gets lost in this mythologizing of Locke is everything else Locke had to say that people never bother to know since they “research” Locke on Wikipedia or their civics textbook that has one paragraph about Locke.  In order to safeguard the right to property we give up our freedom in the so-called state of nature.  We also confer the power and responsibilities (which is what “freedom” is according to Locke) to the social contract and emergent political power we have established through our agreement with each other.  The purpose of government is to now maintain a peaceable society to allow continued acquisition of materials from the comfort of one’s property.  But the political state grows and grows in power, especially if it is “deciding the rights” of its own citizens as Locke states the task of government is.  People also tend to forget that “in order to have rights” the State must take on power and authority to enforce them.  Thus, in liberal theory, as all political philosophers know, the increase of “liberty” also entails the increase of State power to achieve “liberty” for the people.

In our final reading of Locke, chapters 14-19, we will examine Locke’s famous “right to revolution” idea and whether we should have this right perpetually, or if we only “get one shot” at revolution.  We will also examine how we should understand Locke’s discussion on revolution and the dissolution of government in contradistinction to what he has already said about political power, principally in the chapters we have just highlighted hitherto.


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  1. Is this “anxiety” about self-preservation you speak about a product of the bourgeois era, the modernity? I believe that it certainly is, Arendt claimed that Hobbes is the “philosopher of the bourgeoise” with his claim that desire for power is unlimited. Well, if you are a peasant in 15th century Europe your desire for power can be unlimited, but you are well aware that you will not get anywhere; maybe with your head on a spike if you try something. Modern era opens the possibility, theoretically, for anyone to pursue power.


    1. There might be something to that. While the ancients, like Cicero and Augustine talk about natural law and self preservation, the reduction of NL to self preservation is indeed a very modern phenomenon. Liberalism is the premier philosophy of the ascendant bourgeoisie after all, and as I’ve written professionally, was concerned with expanding power instead of “limiting” it like Dave Rubin and YT “classical liberals” claim.

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