Liberalism is foremost about liberty (i.e. freedom) of the individual, and it has been the dominant political philosophy in the western world through the modern era. Central to early liberalism was religious freedom, as well as the freedom of individuals to pursue happiness in whatever way they saw fit. This meant (in theory at least) that people should have the same opportunity for happiness, but if some people used these opportunities more effectively than others, no one has the right to interfere in someone’s happiness even in order to level the field. In reality, happiness was closely associated with wealth and security from the beginning, so liberalism values commerce and the ownership and protection of property. In political terms it means people are free to choose who governs them (although to begin with they had to be the right sort of person, i.e. property owners). Prior to liberalism political authority had been derived from God. To begin with liberalism entailed a bias against governments, because they were generally in the hands of divinely ordained kings, and because governments generally curtail the freedom of the individual.
The Hereditary Principle
Russell divides Locke’s thoughts on liberalism into five sections, starting with the hereditary principle. The reasoning for the hereditary transfer of political authority was that the monarch is analogous to the father (who was understood in Locke’s time to have absolute authority over the family), and that God bestowed authority on Adam who then handed it down to his heirs, who became the various monarchs of the modern period. These arguments may sound absurd to us. Nevertheless, the hereditary principle and the divine right to rule was the status quo in 17th century Europe. Locke had no difficulty attacking these principles, highlighting the injustice of primogeniture, the substantial difference in the power of the father compared to the power of a political sovereign, and the general absurdity in claiming decendancy from Adam and Eve. The multiplicity of Christian religions in Europe at this time helped – how could all monarchs claim divine right to rule if they followed different religions? Russell points out that, given our feelings on inherited political power, it is curious that no-one challenges the hereditary principle in economics, such as the custom of children inheriting the wealth of their parents. This helps to explain why Locke’s views were seen as revolutionary. His contemporaries saw a kingdom as simply a larger version of an estate, which was owned by the king. Expecting a king to hand his kingdom over to parliament to choose a successor when they die was somewhat analogous to expecting parents to hand their property over to the state in their wills.
The Purpose of Government
I discussed Locke’s understanding of the state of nature (what life would be like without the political state) in a previous post, but it is worth giving Russell’s perspective. Locke’s state of nature is a community of “virtuous anarchists”, who need no police or law courts as they obey a common ‘reason’ or natural law, which is derived from God via the Bible. Religion then is a key part of this society. People are completely free as long as they respect the laws of nature, and there is complete political equality – no one has more political power than another, except for the leader. Private property exists. Indeed, the protection of private property is the chief reason for instituting government. Locke clearly has a much rosier conception of the state of nature than Hobbes. The key difference is that while Hobbes believed in God, he did not think that belief in God would be enough to control people’s behaviour and prevent them acting violently.
Having attacked the hereditary principle, Locke explains that the legitimate basis for political authority is in fact a social contract between ruler and the ruled. This is similar to Hobbes’ contract, but Hobbes believed the contract was between the ruled only, who having selected a ruler hand over all power to the ruler, and cannot thereafter hold them to account. Locke’s contract includes the ruler, and so they can be held to account if they do not uphold their side of the bargain. Clearly every citizen will have a different view as to what they expect from the government, so the contract can only work on the basis of majority opinion. Part of Government is a neutral authority to settle disputes between ruler and ruled, which is an independent judiciary. Locke appears to have believed in the institution of government by a social contract to be a historical event, which is evidence of pre-evolutionary thinking. Since Darwin, we are more inclined to imagine that things evolve into existence gradually, rather than suddenly appearing.
It is possible to find in Locke views which appear to support everything on the political scale from socialism to right wing libertarianism. His preference for liberty over equality and his obsession with property appears right wing. On the other hand, he advocates the labour theory of value, which many would assume to be attributable to Marx. This is the theory that the value of a product is proportional to the amount of labour required to create it, and that only people who laboured on something should be paid for it. Locke did not propound this theory in the way that Marx did as a revolutionary attack on the status quo. Locke lived before the Industrial Revolution and Capitalism, in a world where the economy was based on agriculture and craftsmanship. Locke intended this theory as simply a sensible way of valuing goods.
Separation of Powers
Central to liberalism is the idea that the executive and legislative should be separate, and that the legislative must be supreme, and must be removable by citizens (in practice meaning there must be regular elections). Locke also believed that when the executive and legislative are in conflict it is not always possible to decide right and wrong, and so the inevitable outcome is civil war. In this sense the modern U.K. is arguably more similar to Hobbes than Locke, as we consider the legislative (parliament) to be sovereign over the executive (the government). However, the picture is made somewhat more complicated because the executive is part of the legislative. In addition, when the government has a solid majority legislation is almost always passed at the will of the executive. This is entirely contrary to Locke’s principles, who would much prefer the current U.S. constitution (except perhaps for the politicisation of the judiciary). Liberalism enjoyed the confidence of youth until the French Revolution, which gave absolutists ammunition to argue that the common people cannot be trusted with power. The emphasis on liberty over equality would also have to be compromised in response to the Industrial Revolution and the rise of socialist thinking, but Liberalism retained Locke’s lack of dogma and proved itself able to adapt in order to survive.