Locke’s view on just/ legitimate government

Chun Lok asked:

In Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, he outlines his overall political philosophy. Explain Locke’s view as to what a just and legitimate government is.

Answer by Martin Jenkins

According to Locke, what constitutes a just and legitimate government is one which is based upon the consent of the people and which governs wholly in the common interest. People originally exist in a State of Nature prior to the passage to Political or Civic Society.

State of Nature

Locke proposes three factors which characterise the State of nature. Firstly, there is Freedom. The individual can order its actions without the leave of any other person or authority. Secondly, there is Equality. Each person has the same Power and jurisdiction precluding the rule of a select few or individuals based on claims of nature or Divine Right. Finally, what normatively justifies the above and guides people in this condition is Natural Law/ Right.

“The state of nature has a law of Nature to govern it, which obliges everyone and reason (which is that Law) which teaches all mankind who will but consult it, that all being equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions, for men being the work of one omnipotent and infinitely wise maker, all the servants of one sovereign Master, sent into the world by his order and about his business, they are His property whose workmanship they are made to last during his, and not another’s pleasure.” (#6)

Natural Law prevents the rather bestial view of the state of Nature as espoused by Thomas Hobbes in his Leviathan. Although Hobbes would equally maintain that there are Natural Laws, he held human nature to be too strong to observe and be restricted by them. Hence for him, the State of Nature is identical with a State of War.

Luckily for Locke, the State of Nature and its Natural Law appears to be a Christian one which is guided by Scriptural law concerning the preservation of Life, Liberty and Estates and the right of punishment for their violations. Every individual has this right, the right to punish offenders being termed the Executive Power of Natural Law. (#7) Although everyone has the right to do this, not every one, despite the equal possession of Natural Law/ Reason, agrees on the appropriate punishments. The State of nature increasingly becomes unsafe as ‘the greater part do not apply nor recognise equity and justice. Some are ignorant of the apparently apodictic teachings of Natural Law and allow their passions to cloud their judgements. As there is no consistent application of the Natural Law, it increasingly becomes evident that it might be a good idea if there could be an Impartial authority which could disinterestedly and impartially apply the Law (#131)

Despite the obvious disagreement between people concerning Natural Law, an agreement is to be reached to find a common and consistent application of Natural Law with each other. To achieve this, a Compact is composed, agreed upon and made with each other. This Compact requires that each and every one give up their right to execute the Natural Law. They further agree that this executive power shall be pooled together to be put at the disposal of the community — or at least, those who have managed to agree to the Compact. Thus the State of Nature is suspended and a Civic or Political Society is arrived at.

“Men, being… by nature free, equal and independent, no one can be put out of this estate and be subject to the political power of another, without his own consent, which Is done by agreeing with other men to join and unite in a community for their comfortable, safe and peaceable living, one amongst another in a secure enjoyment of their properties and in a greater security against any that are not of it.” (#95)

Civic or Political Society

Note the Compact is made between people and not between the people and a government. The people are bound to each other and not a govt. This then allows the people to decide on the type and nature of a political power to govern them, make laws to this end and, to invest their trust in it.

“Political Power then, I take to be the right of making laws with penalties of death and consequently all less penalties for the regulation and preservation of property and, of employing the force of the community in the execution of such laws and in defence of the Commonwealth from foreign injury and all this only for the defence of the common good.” (#3)

The end and justification of a Government is ‘for the defence of the Common Good’. As there is no compact made between the governed and their government, the former can enact their Natural Law and rebel against government, whatever its form, if it ceases to defend the common good. So on Locke’s view, illegitimate government can never arise on the grounds of de jure — of legal and moral right. If such a government does arise, it has departed from moral right, positions itself outside the Moral Law and ipso facto, the People have the right of not obeying it and more importantly, of outright rebellion to replace it.

So a ‘just and legitimate’ government is one which is based upon Natural Law. By means of its laws, institutions, it must internally and externally observe and defend the right of its peoples’ to life, liberty and property. Government exists at the consent of the People and not vice versa. This is quite a revolutionary declaration that Government should be the servant of the people: that the People are sovereign in terms of the justification of the very existence of Political Society.

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness

Politically, the Two Treatises was written in response to the political crisis in England in the 1680’s. The Monarch was inching toward a restoration of Absolute Powers which had been overthrown in the English Revolution of the 1640’s. Many personages feared such a reactionary move would prescribe their liberties and property. The Treatises, in particular the Second, justify and promulgate such liberties. Further, elements and influences of the Second Treatise can be found in the republican Constitution of the United States of America viz: ‘Life, Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness and arguably the right of the People to bear arms in the interest of morally justified rebellion against a usurping government and for the protection of liberty.

As such, Locke can be regarded as one of the philosophical authors of what would later be termed Liberalism. This is viewed as a just and legitimate society by many. The problems Locke reflected upon still remain contentious issues today such as what can be understood as the liberty of citizens and, by what means or none, government could or should defend them. This relevance is further exemplified by his chapter on Property. Here, Locke gives numerous justifications for the recognition, justification and protection of private property. Numerous commentators (such as CB MacPherson in his The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism) perceive this as an ideological defence of private property of the then emerging capitalism. Hence Locke can be regarded as an early defender of Capitalist Liberties and Property rights: a just and legitimate society for some, unjust and illegitimate for others. The debates initiated the Two Treatises on Government continues.


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