Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Locke: Of Civil Government


Blogger SMJ said...

In his Second Treatise, John Locke attempts to give an account for the origin of government, where it derives its power, and what, if any, are the limitations on that power. Like Hobbes before him, he imagines a state of nature that exists prior to political society. But where Hobbes had described the state of nature as a condition of moral depravity in which men struggled ceaselessly to avoid being killed or enslaved, Locke views nature as a realm of perfect freedom in which men "order their actions and dispose of their possessions and persons as they think fit." Since men are "born to all the same advantages of nature," their power should be more or less equal. Yet everyone is subject to a law of nature. This law is rational and universal..."for all men are creatures of God." The law of nature commands that, "since all are equal," men should refrain from harming one another. This law, which can be ascertained through reason, "wills the peace and preservation of mankind."

Hobbes' response to Locke would be that even if such a law existed, not everyone would acknowledge or submit to its authority. Thus, to live in nature would be to inhabit a moral vacuum, where every man is a law unto himself. For Locke, however, the state of nature represents a kind of moral equilibrium between men who lack a common authority to rule over them. Violence merely disrupts the natural equilibrium (or peace) between them, changing it into a state of war.

Locke is fully cognizant of the problems and temptations of our original state, but his view of human nature is more Aristotelian. Since man is by nature rational, he is capable of apprehending nature's law and living at peace in the world. Yet, his condition, though tolerable, can still be improved. Thus, in order to better preserve his "property," man agrees to give up part of his freedom to improve his prospects in life. In accordance with Aristotle, Locke believes that men (being rational creatures) require more than mere survival, but prefer happiness to misery, and that the conditions for happiness are better obtained in civil society than in nature. For this purpose governments are established among men.

When Locke speaks of "property," he means more than just material goods. He says that a man's body and the labor he performs belong to him as his property. In essence, this means that a man's property includes his life, his liberty, and his estate (or goods proper). Critics of Locke have a tendency to accuse him of caring only about the preservation of wealth, when, in fact, Locke sees freedom and humanity as being inseparable..."A man not having the power of his own life cannot by compact, or by his own consent, enslave himself to anyone, nor put himself under the arbitrary power of another to take away his life when he pleases." This position represents the Lockean response to Hegel's claim that some men are natural slaves, who prefer to be enslaved than to perish in war. For Locke, slavery is "nothing else but the state of war continued between a lawful conqueror and a captive." Thus compacts cannot exist between the powerful and the powerless, i.e., through force or the threat of violence.

Locke has some provocative things to say about the ownership of land. He says that whatever a man joins with his labor, removing it from a state of nature, becomes his own, as long as there is enough left in common for others. He goes on to say that asking the "consent of all" to remove something from a state of nature is not required, nor should it be. The same law of nature that gives us property, does also limit that property. "As much as any one can make use of..."before it spoils"...whatever is beyond this is more than his share and belongs to others." Locke says that God commanded us to labor. He that obeys this command and works the land has rightfully annexed it as his property.

These statements certainly appear to impose reasonable limits on the acquisition of land. One can't help wondering what reaction Locke's wealthy patrons might have expressed to this progressive vision of land reform. But, Locke says nothing about the legitimacy of current land holdings. He is no radical advocating the return of landed estates to indigent farmers. He does, nevertheless, give voice to a moderate, rational distribution of what God intended for man's use.

A political society can only exist when individuals yield their natural power to preserve property and hand it over to the authority of a community. The community acts as an umpire to settle all property disputes. This arrangement requires stable (and public) rules, and the fair application of these rules to all parties. Certain men are authorized by the community to enforce these rules, for without that authority, men must remain forever in a state of nature. But, unlike Hobbes, Locke feels that absolute monarchy is inconsistent with the idea of civil society..."The end of civil society being to avoid and remedy those inconveniences of the state of nature which necessarily follow from every man's being judge in his own case."

For Locke, no man can be compelled to join a political society. He must consent of his own free will. Men do so only in hopes of improving the state of their natural liberty. When joined together, they make one body politic, wherein the majority govern on behalf of all. Everyone is bound by an implied consent to be ruled by the majority. This is the meaning and the necessary condition of lawful government.

Locke is unambiguous about the reasons why men willingly give up some of their liberty: to better enjoy and preserve their "property," that is to say, their lives, liberties and estates. Here it may be useful to reiterate the defects intrinsic to a state of nature: (1) no standard of right and wrong that is universally acknowledged; (2) no unbiased judge with authority to arbitrate disputes; (3) no power to enforce natural law. Thus, the failure of men to apprehend and submit to natural law requires the power of an unbiased authority. Man's natural instinct for self-preservation needs to be regulated by civil society; thus his power to punish wrong doing must also transfer entirely to a civil authority.

It is to effect this transfer of individual power that Locke says "the first and fundamental positive law of all commonwealths is the establishment of the legislative power." Above the legislature is the primary natural law which governs both the legislature and the people—namely, "the preservation of society and (as far as will consist with the public good) of every person in it."

This legislature is the supreme law of the land and unalterable. No edict will have the force of law unless it be given by the legislature, or has its sanction. The consent of the people is necessary before any law shall have authority. Implied in this authority is the idea that the power of the legislature is limited to the public good of society. The obligations of the law of nature do not disappear in political society..."thus, the law of nature stands as an eternal rule to all men, legislators as well as others." Here, Locke makes explicit that the law of nature is equivalent to the will of God. However, this connection is not elaborated further. It is simply understood that God's law is prior to and superior to man's.

Locke goes on to enumerate the primary limitations on the power of legislatures: (1) to govern only by promulgated established laws; (2) laws ought to be designed for the good of the people; (3) taxes not to be raised without the people's consent; (4) the power of making laws is not transferable to anyone else, except in the people themselves.

With his Second Treatise of Government, Locke offers a useful contrast to the somewhat extreme authoritarian views of Hobbes. Whereas Hobbes believed the greatest evil to man is the collapse of civil authority, Locke sees a more likely threat in the abuse of power by a sovereign who answers to no legislative body. To put absolute power in the hands of any man, no matter how virtuous or well intentioned he may be, is to invite tyranny. The often quoted adage that "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely" is a succinct expression of Locke's view on civil authority. Political philosophy endeavors to solve the problem of where authority should lie. In the end, whether you prefer the answer of Locke or Hobbes just might come down to the source of your own greatest fear...either to live within a tyrannical regime under Stalin or Saddam Hussein, or to be trapped in the midst of a bloody civil war like Bosnia or Rwanda. The voice of reason informs us that neither extreme will advance the cause of liberty.

4/26/2005 7:56 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home