John Locke wrote his Two Treatises of Government in 1681, and they were published (after some rewriting) in 1689, following the Glorious Revolution. At the time of writing, Locke was in hiding in Holland, due to the supposedly seditious nature of his political beliefs. The Two Treatises were published anonymously; Locke only acknowledged them when he realised that he was going to die. The First Treatise of Government was a refutation of Sir Robert Filmer's Patriarcha, which argued in favour of the Divine Right of Kings. Filmer argued that legitimate government was absolute monarchy descending from Adam, but Locke denied that either reason or the Bible support this view. The First Treatise is summarised in the first chapter of the Second Treatise: Locke argues that Adam had no legitimate authority over his offspring; that if he had, his heirs had none; that if they had, no law of succession was ever established and the knowledge of who was the eldest is now lost. Therefore, legitimate political power cannot come from God's appointment of Adam.
This writeup, however, will concentrate upon the Second Treatise of Government: An Essay Concerning the True Original, Extent and End of Civil Government. In this, Locke turns to the question of how legitimate political power can and does arise. He describes the natural state of humanity, explaining how this creates the need for civil government, and formulates a theory of political authority based on the consent of, and ruling for the good of the citizen. He defends private property as the source of liberty: a citizen is free if the government does not attempt to take his/her property from him/her.
The State of Nature
Locke's ideas of what constitutes legitimate government are grounded in his ideas of the natural state of mankind. This state, according to Locke, is one of perfect freedom and equality, where everyone can "dispose of their persons and possessions" as they see fit. However, he refers to it as a state of liberty, not a state of license. People cannot carry out whatever whim pops into their heads; the state of nature is governed by the law of nature, which is reason.
The law of nature is essentially self-preservation, and the preservation of the rest of humanity. Locke's reasoning for this is that we are all created by God and our lives are determined by his, not our, decisions. According to Locke, we must not attempt to harm another in his/her life, liberty, health or possessions, and must not kill or harm ourselves. As there is no judge or legal institutions in the state of nature, everyone has the power to judge and punish breaches of this law; if we did not, it would never be enforced and would therefore be useless. Locke calls this the 'executive power of the law of nature'.
It is this executive power which causes problems, and makes government, if not a necessity, then at least a desirable option. Locke realises that people are not dispassionate and logical, but will instead be lenient to themselves and their friends, and excessively harsh to their enemies and "nothing but confusion and disorder will follow". Therefore, civil government, with its impartial judges and institutions, is useful.
Unlike Hobbes, Locke sees a vast gulf between the state of nature and the state of war. The state of nature is men living together according to reason, with no superior on earth and no authority to judge between them, while the state of war is force (or the intention to use force) upon another's person, with no-one to appeal to for relief. Another difference is that, while Hobbes believes that anything, even despotical government, is better than the state of nature, Locke believes that the state of nature is much better than arbitrary government, as one has more liberty and power in the state of nature, and the rule of another is not imposed upon the individual.
Legitimate Political Power, Government and its Dissolution
Locke defines political power in the first chapter:
"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 employing the force of the community, in the execution of such laws, and in the defence of the commonwealth from foreign injury; and all this only for the public good."
Locke also lists a series of states and relationships which he does not class as legitimate political power: slavery, paternal power, marriage, absolute monarchy, despotism, tyranny, usurpation and conquest. Partly this is because of the definition above, but also because of another important concept for Locke: consent.
Locke believes that an individual becomes a member of society and a subject of the government only after he/she has given express consent when he/she reaches maturity. Tacit consent is given by using property within the jurisdiction of that government, but this does not make the individual a real member of society and lasts only as long as the use of property does. Express consent, by contrast, is permanent and lasts until the government is somehow dissolved. This is based upon Locke's ideas of the state of nature: if everyone is free and equal, and only come together for their own good, it is impossible that legitimate government could be imposed upon someone without his/her consent.
The power which the legislative (the sovereign part of the government) holds is power which has been freely delegated to it by the people. Therefore, it cannot transfer this power to any other individual or institution. Furthermore, as no-one has the right to kill or harm himself, the legislative cannot act contrary to the public good; all government can only be justified if the people are in a better state with it than they would be without it. As Locke says, the people's safety is the supreme law.
The dissolution of the government can come about in various ways. If the society is dissolved by forces from outside, the government cannot stand, and so all members are returned to the state of nature, and free to form another government. If the legislative is altered, or abuses its power, or the executive neglects its role to the point that the legislative is powerless, then the government is said to have been dissolved from within, and again the people are returned to the state of nature.
Liberty and the Right to Rebellion
Locke's theory is one which allows for the maximum liberty of the subject. Again, this is based upon his ideas of the state of nature: we are born free and rational, and therefore cannot have government imposed upon us which takes away our freedom and which acts contrary to the law of nature.
He argues for the "liberty to follow my own will where the law prescribes not", and for the limitation of that law. He describes true law as "not so much the limitation as the direction of a free and intelligent agent to his proper interest". "The end of the law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom". As Locke has us entering society in order to preserve our natural liberty, the laws of that society must not take it away, except where it is essential for the preservation of all. However, Locke does not sanction individual civil disobedience; he argues that the minority must follow the will of the majority. The assumption is that the will of the majority will be rational and only for the public good.
Due to this concept of preserving liberty, Locke permits rebellion under certain circumstances. Essentially, if the government abuses its power by taking away the property of the subject, or generally acting for the good of itself rather than the good of its subjects, the subject has the right to rebel. The government is there by the people's consent and for the good of the people, and any other form of government is unlawful. Unlawful government is different from petty robbery only in terms of degree and, as one would oppose a thief, one can and must oppose unlawful or arbitrary government.
The need for consent to establish government, and the fundamental liberty of the subject, means that being born under a government does not make one a subject of it. Continuing to live within its jurisdiction is the tacit consent described above, but the individual has the liberty to leave the area and join or begin another government. Locke states that the father cannot give away the liberty of his son; the fact that parents have consented to a government does not mean that their offspring must.
Liberty and the right to private property are interdependent. Liberty is dependent on the right to property; Locke define's property as one's "life, liberty and estate", so if one cannot own property in general, one cannot have liberty. Also, abuses of governmental power are seen in terms of taking away the property of the subject, so private property gives one a reason to rebel.
Locke does not simply define property in the narrow sense of material possessions. Rather, it means one's life, liberty and estate.
Locke begins his defence of private property by stating that the individual owns his/her body, and therefore its labour. He argues that reason and the Bible tell us that the earth is provided for our use and sustenance, and so there must be some way of appropriating natural resources. If an individual takes a resource out of nature, such as picking an apple or cultivating a field, he/she has mixed his/her labour in with it, and now has property rights over that resource. Labour, in the beginning, creates the right to private property.
Money only has value through tacit consent; that is, through everyone using it. It is a way of owning more than one person can use without it spoiling. By exchanging a perishable item for something which is not perishable, the individual has a way to accumulate wealth without breaching the law of nature.
Accumulating private property, for Locke, is a morally justifiable thing to do. Above, I have noted that liberty and property are interdependent in Locke's view. Furthermore, Locke argues that cultivating land improves its yield, and so one person can feed him/herself one ten acres of privately held land, but one hundred acres of land held in common. Therefore, by appropriating ten acres of land, an individual does not rob humanity of ten acres, but rather gives them ninety. Owning property does not become immoral due to the sheer amount appropriated, but by whether or not it goes to waste. A huge amount of property used or unspoilt is ethically fine, but a small amount of rotting fruit is not.
The Role of God
Christian faith and scriptures underpin Locke's ideas. Reason and and Christianity are the two bases of his thought, and reason is often used to find out what God wants of us, it being "the common rule and measure God hath given to mankind". Examples of this are the religious basis for the law of self-preservation, and the fact that property rights are due to God's gift of the earth to Adam, and therefore all humanity. Specific bits of scripture are sometimes quoted; Genesis to justify the death penalty for murderers, for instance, and St. Paul's letter to the Romans as evidence that civil government is appointed by God. Later, when discussing the right to rebellion, Locke states that subjects with no physical power have the right to appeal to heaven for relief from unjust government. As Locke believes that resistance should be allowed the means to succeed, this indicates that he believes God will intervene.
J. Locke, Second Treatise on Government, 'Crofts Classics' edition, edited and introduced by Richard Cox, Illinois: Harlan Davidson, 1982.
P. Strathern, Locke in 90 Minutes, London: Constable, 1996.
Notes from lectures and seminars by Mr. Peter Lassman at the University of Birmingham.
All quotations are taken from Locke's Second Treatise of Government, edition cited above.