John Locke is one of the most important (early) modern political theorists. A foundation of modern political theory, Locke is often associated with libertarianism or classical liberalism today: a theorist of limited government and the right to revolution against tyrannical government. Unfortunately, to those actually read in political philosophy, the contemporary association of Locke with limited government and the right to revolution are lies. Locke’s political theory is not only more complicated than that, but also contrary to the libertarian myths we are told about him.
There are probably three great lies about Locke’s political theory perpetuated far and wide today. First is that he offered a benign, or good, state of nature in contradistinction of Hobbes’s “war of all against all” state of nature. Second is that Locke’s account of civil government by social contract is limited in nature, a sort of manual for “small government” management. Third is that Locke believed people have a right to revolution. All claims are misleading.
I have a five part series dealing with Locke’s Two Treatises in depth, beginning here. So I will not go over that comprehensive overview in this post. Instead, I will briefly highlight the problems with the three major “highlight” lies about Locke.
Locke’s state of nature is said to be good in contrast to Hobbes’s. If so, why do we leave the state of nature? This seems to be a problem that no one raises when being told Locke’s state of nature is good. If it is good why did we leave it?
Locke employs a rhetorical sleight of hand. He has two pre-contract realities: the “state of nature” and the “state of war.” If you read Locke carefully, though, the state of nature which he identifies as relatively benign invariably slides into conflict which he calls “the state of war.” Hobbes was honest when compared against Locke. Hobbes didn’t even bother with a distinction that collapses into the state of war. The state of war is the state of pre-societal existence. By concentrating on the “good state of nature” of Locke, we completely ignore the whole purpose of Locke’s commentary on the state of nature: good though it may be, it is unstable and exhausts itself in the state of war which is unbearable and forces humans into a social contract.
While Locke describes the state of nature in glowing terms, “We must consider what state all men are naturally in, and that is, a state of perfect freedom to order their actions and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bound of the law of nature,” he goes on to describe, “And thus, in the state of nature, ‘one man comes by a power over another.’” This spirit of “self-preservation” that leads to conquest in the state of nature leads to war: “it being reasonable and just, I should have a right to destroy that which threatens me with destruction: for, by the fundamental law of nature, man being to be preserved as much as possible, when all cannot be preserved, the safety of the innocent is to be preferred: and one may destroy a man who makes war on him.”
Because individuals, free though they are in the state of nature, come into conflict with each other (inevitably according to Locke), this ends the state of nature and leads to the state of war which is unbearable and must be resolved.
The resolution? The social contract.
Locke began his treatise by stating, “Political power, then, I take to be a right of making laws with penalties of death, and consequently all less penalties, for the regulating and preserving of property, and of employing the force of the community, in the execution of such laws, and in the defense of the commonwealth from foreign injury; and all this only for the public good.” So from Locke’s own hand he states the purpose of the state is “power” “making laws” with “penalties of death” and “employing the force of the community” on behalf of “the public good.” Not very libertarian when you start to tease out the language of Locke. The social contract state is about power and force!
This leads to the other lie about Locke: his government is limited. No, it’s not. The very purpose of government is to be powerful, forceful, and having authority over people. Locke states that this is the purpose of government. We must never forget, the establishment of government by fact of its establishment is a restriction on individual natural right/freedom. Furthermore, the notion of a “limited government” for Locke imposes modern concepts without Locke’s conceptual limitations due to the circumstances he lived. Locke’s government was “limited” in the same way that Hobbes’s government can be said to be “limited,” late seventeenth century Europe didn’t have the same concentrations of power that we have today because of technological and economic advancements. Locke lived in a world where rural agrarianism and the family farm was still the primary reality in which most people lived. There wasn’t much that governments could do in 1689 compared to today. We moderns object to government involving itself in the management of everything and say Locke only permitted X, Y, and Z. But that’s because Locke didn’t live in the world of the internet with supposed internet rights; he didn’t live in the world of global corporations and whether they have economic rights pertaining to corporate rights; he didn’t live in a world with fossil fuels and whether energy companies should be regulated for their exploitation of the earth, etc. Furthermore, the problem with saying Locke advocated a limited government that gives justification for opposing big managerial government today is that Locke’s legitimacy of government is in its management of preventing conflict—the very argument modern progressives often make in advocating government regulation in everything today.
In describing the power of the social contract government, Locke states the legislative power is supreme: “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.” He also states, clearly, in plain English—“not lost in translation”—that government decides the rights of its subjects: “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.” So much for limited government…
Lastly, we reach Locke’s supposed endorsement of the right to revolution. This is problem of language understanding between us and our early modern ancestors. Revolution originally meant to “revolve back.” This was rooted in early modern science and the “revolution” of the planets and stars around the sun. Revolution meant “to return” or “to revolve.” Today’s use of “revolution” means to advance. That’s not what Locke understood by the term.
We must also return to Locke’s social contract theory. The purpose of government is to uphold the social contract. Insofar that a government upholds the social contract, it is fulfilling its purpose as a government. However, if the government reneges on the social contract covenant, then it has nullified itself. In other words: THERE IS NO GOVERNMENT AND THAT’S THE PROBLEM. The purpose of revolution is TO RETURN TO GOVERNMENT. The “right to revolution” is the necessity to have government. This is stated plainly when Locke writes, “Wherever law ends, tyranny begins.” The tyranny that Locke is describing is not a tyrannical government per se, but the tyranny of falling back into the lawless “state of war” which demanded a government in the first place. The right of revolution is the necessity to have law again, to have a government again, to have a government upholding the social contact covenant we agreed to when leaving the state of nature/state of war long ago. This is why Locke ends his ruminations on the necessity of government by saying, “The end of government is the good of mankind.” “The end” that Locke is writing of here is not the dissolution but purpose of government. People saying Locke called for “ending” government on this sentence take it out of context and out of its rhetorical context as well, end meaning purpose.
What Locke offered in the Two Treatises in contrast to other political theorists was locate the origin of political legitimacy not in the divine right of monarchs but the popular will of people. We, the people, came together to leave the state of war and in a covenant promise (echoing biblical theological notions of covenant) agreed to form a political society of laws and a legislature. It is also misleading to state that Locke was rebutting Hobbes. This is because no one reads The First Treatise. He was responding to the absolutist political theorist Robert Filmer and his work Patriarcha which defended political society as absolute monarchy with the monarchical sovereign as the origin and arbiter of political laws, not the people.
Locke’s social contract society emanates from the consent of the people. But that doesn’t mean, as Locke’s writing and elaboration clearly reveals, that he believed in the cherished myths we’re often told of him. Locke’s contribution to political theory wasn’t a good state of nature, limited government, or the right of revolution. It was that political society comes from our decisions rather than a monarch. But if a government we consented to creating becomes more and more expansive, more and more authoritarian, more and more managerial—well, we consented to it! (And when you read Locke that is the logical implication of his political theory: government will become more expansive in time; but that’s good according to Locke because that shows it’s doing its job we creating for it in the first place.)
Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.
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