Hobbes and Locke and the beginnings of “liberalism”: (ii) John Locke (1632 – 1704) (pp9)



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                                                                                                                                                                   Rousseau (pp10)

Main Sources:


Ball, T. and Dagger, R. – Ideals and Ideologies, a Reader – Harper-Collins 1991. 0 321 00539 2, p 75 ff (Extracts from Letter Concerning Toleration, and the second Treatise on Government)


Other sources as for Hobbes.




1. Works and Importance:

2. Outline of the Ideas in the Treatises on Government.





1. Works and Importance:


1.1 In his “Essay Concerning Human Understanding” (1687) he presented a theory of knowledge, which suggested that we learn from our experiences, and do not have any “innate ideas” (this position in fact is contrary to his political theory, where he argues for “natural rights” etc).


1.2 He argued, in “Three Letters on Toleration” (1689), that the individual has a God-given right to his/her beliefs, and that no-one (even the state) had the right to interfere in an individual’s beliefs. This is a crucial statement of liberal politics.


1.3 His “Two Treatises on Government” (1689) was a reply to a text by Robert Filmer called “Patriarchy: Filmer argued for the Divine Right of Kings because all kings were descended from Adam. The Treatises are Locke’s key statement on politics, and they are also a significant statement of liberal political beliefs. The First Treatise is largely of historical interest now, as it rebuts Filmer’s arguments about the descent of Monarchs from Adam…


1.4 Locke was a product of his times, like Hobbes. However Locke reacted to the turbulence (the conflict between King and Parliament, the execution of Charles I, the fact of a Catholic Monarch (James II), and the troubled relations with France and Spain) with a plea for moderation. Locke was seen as the defender of the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 – when William and Mary were brought in, and a Constitutional Monarchy was established. It is important to remember that we still are ruled by a Constitutional Monarchy…


1.5 Locke was a spokesman of liberalism, i.e. of limited and constitutional government, the rights of the individual, and the freedom of the market. The role of the state is to protect individual rights, especially the right to property.


1.6 His ideas had an influence on the drawing up of the American and French Constitutions. He was seen by admirers such as Voltaire as standing for the “separation of powers’ – but this is not strictly true.



2. Outline of the Ideas in the Treatises on Government.

(Note, as with the notes on Hobbes, the points below correspond to the numbered Extracts)


2.1 Men are made by God, and are God’s property.


2.2 Men are therefore all “by nature” free (“independent”) and equal. This was in part a reply to Filmer’s view that God created hierarchies. In the “state of nature” then, people are free and equal, and endowed with reason. Locke describes “reason” as a “law of nature”, and then concludes that this “reason” will obviously tell us (i.e. it is self-evident) that we ought not to harm each other. To do so would be to interfere in the order that God has created (which clearly must be a rational and good order…). What he is doing – quite contrary to Hobbes – is saying that in the state of nature we not only had “natural rights” to “life, health, liberty and possessions,” but that we had the reasoning ability to know that these are everyone’s rights. This avoids the weakness in Hobbes’s argument, where each also person had “natural rights”, but the only “reasoning” they could use was to defend their own rights – leading to conflict. The weakness in Hobbes’s view – some argue – is that it is difficult to see how such people could have agreed together to choose a sovereign.


2.3 Locke recognises (of course!) that the state of nature does not guarantee individuals’ security or property (“there are many things wanting” in the state of nature – what he also calls “inconveniences”). So what he calls “commonwealths… under government” are formed to provide the desired protection. He recognises that the “executive power of the law of nature”, that is the right of individuals to defend themselves, cannot guarantee a just order of things (if everyone acts as their own judge, they will be biased, and prejudiced – there will be on “objective” solution to conflicts). Thus, incidentally, he avoids arguments along the lines: if in the state of nature we were free, and equal, and rational, then why would we need to leave it?


He also argues that there will always be some who do not abide by the self-evident truth that others have the same rights as them. How often we hear it said that we need political order (and laws and punishment) because of the behaviour of the few!


2.4 The above line of reasoning, however, does give added to force to the next, crucial statement: that we cannot be subjected to another’s power without our consent. This is also a much stronger argument than we saw with Hobbes, who based the “social contract” entirely on fear and insecurity, and said it arose because of the need to end the otherwise endless conflict of the state of nature. If government is based on reasoned consent, then the implications of the “social contract” are different (see 2.6).


Locke makes a distinction here which is fundamental: unless there is consent, then power is “arbitrary” (and therefore “inconstant, uncertain and unknown”). This is actually what “absolute” power means (certainly from a liberal political viewpoint) – that there is nothing to hold it in check. A power-relationship that has no constraints puts the subject in a position of slavery. 


Locke recognises that, in practice, the “commonwealth” will necessarily be based on majority rule – and force should only (because of the rule about consent) be used against the “unjust and the unlawful” (though he doesn’t say who decides who these are). (See Jones p 171)


2.5 The government is a party to the contract, and must be held accountable. It can be removed if it fails to protect our lives, liberty and property. Ideally, the contract should be renewed from generation to generation. If a dispute arises with the government, clearly an independent judge is needed; and so Locke advocates separating the “Legislative” (Parliament) from the “Executive” (the King). This “separation of powers” has become an important principle in liberal democratic thought. However, for Locke the Legislative was to be superior.


2.6 I spend some time on Chapter V, On Property, as it reveals to me the main limitations of Locke’s theory. Locke’s definition of property (which actually has interesting similarities to that of Marx!) was that it is anything that someone has taken from the state of nature and “mixed his labour with” – I think he was primarily thinking of ownership of land (as was, later Adam Smith. Rousseau made this hidden assumption explicit – and rejected it). Critics of Locke (and of liberalism) would say that the importance he places on “property” reveals a hidden bias in the theory. Feminists have pointed out that women were excluded from holding property – so the state has no role in protecting them, or anyone who does not own property; and of course women and the property-less were not in fact included in the notion of “citizenship” – they had no rights.


Although we might not expect to find a version of the “labour theory of value” in one of the founder thinkers of liberal capitalism, nevertheless Locke says that “It is labour that puts the difference of value on everything”. However, he then goes on to defend what we would now call “exchange” – and the inequalities that have arisen in actual society (as distinct from the state of nature).


In the state of nature, people took what they could use, and this was both “right” and “convenient”: property was therefore held “in common”. However, the advent of money and exchange changed all this, and put “bounds” – by which I think he means that our modern definition of private property came into being. But since Locke was living in a pre-industrial society, his argument is that money is a wonderful invention because (unlike crops…) it does not “spoil” if it is not used. He also seems to recognise that this feature of money has produced inequality (though he doesn’t say how this arose: how did one landowner acquire more than another?) – since, thanks to money, which can be used “in exchange for the overplus [surplus]”, a landowner can now own more land than he can use the product of. But Locke defends the inequality by saying that we must have had “a tacit and voluntary consent” to this situation (by agreeing to the creation of money in the first place!).


Finally, I find it very interesting that Locke (and later Adam Smith) needs to counter an argument for common ownership of land. Although Locke was thinking of the “transition” from the state of nature to what we now call “civil society”, his argument seems to me to have a deeper and longer-lasting resonance, for surely something like this debate still rages today (especially in regard to problems of third world development): is land held in private more productive than commonly-owned land? (There is now the added issue of state-owned land…). Note, however, the equation of “in common” with “lying waste”… Is this fair?





3.1 It should be clear how much of Locke’s argument is still used as the basis for defending our liberal democracy. Yet there are some elements which are more progressive (renewing the social contract with each generation, clearly stating that the Legislative is the highest power) – and others which are not so forward-looking (the high importance given to “property”, the view of citizens as individuals and the failure to recognise that we belong to groups as well).


3.2 Locke’s theory was based on a belief in God. What happens to the notion of “natural rights” etc if we reject the idea of God?


3.3 Locke’s “contract” establishes the government, and binds it to the people’s will. Others (e.g. Althusius, Rousseau) argued that there needed to be one contract among the people to establish a government, and another between the people and the government. The social contract idea was radical at the time of its first use – perhaps it is not so useful now?