If John Locke appears uninteresting to modern readers it is because his views on the proper limitations of constitutional government are broadly the status quo today. During the absolutist reign of Charles II they were incendiary. He was born in England in the early 17th century, and during his career he experienced the turbulence of civil war, the Cromwell years, the restoration of the Monarchy, and the Glorious Revolution. His principles would become the dominant force behind the U.S. Constitution of 1787, and he came to epitomise English Liberalism; an aversion to both absolute authority which leads to despotism, and excessive reforms that might lead to upheaval and civil war.
The Purpose of Government
Locke disagreed with Hobbes that the choice was between absolutism and the misery of the state of nature. Mankind can employ the laws of nature to regulate our conduct without government. In a state of nature it is possible to acquire legitimate property rights (‘property’ being ownership of rights and liberties as well as material objects). God gave the earth to mankind in common to use for the substance and enhancement of life, so we each have a right to take what we need to meet our needs. God’s gifts must sometimes be worked otherwise they will go to waste (e.g. turning grain into bread). We legitimately acquire things by mixing what we own (our labour) with what we acquire. This is on condition that we leave enough for others, and use what we own for a legitimate purpose. We can legitimately cultivate a field, because by increasing the yield of the field we add to the common stock. The difficulty comes when all the land is acquired and there are those without. If the owner employs them as labourers, they do not own the field even though they mix their labour with it, and it seems the landowner owns without working while the labourers work without owning. Locke disagreed. What we acquire by labour is property, meaning ‘a living’ rather than material things. In addition, the landowner must still work to manage the labourers, and must pay the labourers fairly. Locke’s views on property are incompatible with the communist idea that all private property is illegitimate, but compatible with a welfare state, where money is taken from those that have more than they need and given to those that don’t have enough (providing they are willing to work if they can). There remain several limitations with living in a state of nature. One is the fact that ownership requires recognition by other people. This is difficult to organise without a single body that represents the people. Locke also believed that exchange of goods by money was impractical in the state of nature, limiting it to a simple bartering economy. Money has no intrinsic value, so it’s value relative to other commodities would be impossible to agree without government.
Locke believed that the purpose of government was to protect people’s rights. This is incompatible with Hobbes’ view that people do not have rights, having handed them over to the sovereign. Locke also disagreed with Hobbe’s covenant. Nobody possesses absolute authority over their own life and liberty (only God has that), so we can’t give that authority to a sovereign. Government protects our rights by providing settled law administered by impartial judges, and its authority is limited to the needs of its subjects. A person or institution may claim only the rights needed to fulfill their function. Like Hobbes, Lock’s form of limited government involves a contract between ruler and ruled, where the people put themselves under a government of some form. However the nature of Locke’s contract is very different to that of Hobbes. Locke is truly modern in saying the people do not wholly give up their authority. The government is employed by the people to protect their rights, and if they fail in their job they can be dismissed. Government must rest on the consent of the people. This does not mean that every decision of a government requires our consent (or every individual’s consent), but more broadly the people as a collective consent to the existence of our government, and to the extent of our government’s power.
Locke was casual about different forms of government and their virtues, and did not explore the theory of the separation of powers and checks and balances. He did however discuss the topic of revolution. For Locke, the purpose of revolution was, like Machiavelli, the process of renovating a constitution, rather than the more modern sense of a progressive social change. Hobbes denied that we have a right to attack our government, where Locke believed we had a duty to do so if it exceeds the constitutional limits of its authority. Revolution is a legitimate response to a government which has broken its social contract. However, revolution does not need to overturn the political community. It should simply by the forced replacement of one ruler by another. It does not follow that Locke would have approved of the excesses of the French Revolution. Nor would Locke have approved of the permanent revolution of later Marxists. He believed in stability, and that revolution was an infrequent necessity required to maintain a system of representation.
Locke was modern in his view of religious toleration. Many of his contemporaries believed that the sovereign should grant religious freedom to their subjects. Locke went further, believing that religious freedom was a right of the subject, not a concession from the sovereign. If a Church is defined as a voluntary collection of like-minded believers who wish to practice their beliefs in common, then the only authority a Church requires to maintain that purpose is to excommunicate dissident members. It cannot for example levy financial or physical penalties. The state is a compulsory organisation with laws that exist to secure our earthly peace and prosperity. Financial or physical penalties may be required to maintain this purpose, but it does not require an interest in its subject’s religious beliefs. However, all laws of a state apply equally to a church, including the right to protection of a church’s property. This means that a church must comply with state law. However, Locke’s tolerance did not extend to Catholics, whose loyalties are divided between state and Pope. To subscribe to a religion that could ask you to betray your country made you a traitor, which was intolerable.
If you are interested in finding out more about this topic, I strongly recommend getting a copy of Alan Ryan’s ‘On Politics’, which this blog is predominantly based on. Here are a few links you can use to find it: