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Locke's Second Treatise on Civil Government

John Locke

Chapters 8-9: Of the Beginning of Political Societies, and Of the Ends of Political Society and Government

Chapters 6-7: Of Paternal Power and of Political or Civil Society

Chapters 10-11: Of the Forms of a Commonwealth, and Of the extent of the Legislative Power

Summary

Locke starts off by arguing that the governing factor in civil society must be the majority, for practical reasons. By entering into civil society, the individual submits him or herself to the majority, and agrees to abide by the rules and decisions of the majority.

Locke then addresses two hypothetical arguments against this model. First he discusses the lack of historical precedence for government by majority rule. Locke concedes that there are many examples in the modern world and throughout history of absolute power--czars, kings, sheiks, and so on. However, he notes that societies often forget their origins, and that in fact "the beginning of politic society depends upon the consent of individuals, to join into, and make one society." He then cites historical examples supporting this idea. He concludes once again with his paternal model, putting great credibility in its historical accuracy--people coming together, and willingly submitting themselves to a central male figure's control, either within their own family or a group of families. However, even in this situation, the establishment of government is by consent, as it must be to ensure the peaceful formation of all civil societies (he notes that he will address conquest, which is clearly not consensual, in a later portion).

Since people are all born under some government, they are not in fact free and at liberty to unite together to change that government. Locke's response is that, although someone may bind himself to a given government, he cannot bind his children--they are born free and must make the decision about whether to ally themselves with their parents' government. Once again, "consent makes any one a member of any commonwealth." In Chapter 9, Locke reiterates why people would give up their natural freedom to enter into society--namely, to assure the protection of their lives, liberties, and estates, all of which Locke considers property.

Nature lacks three very important things, all of which a just civil society provides: "an established, settled, known law"; "a known and indifferent judge"; and the "power to back and support the sentence" In order to gain the three things above, people must relinquish their natural rights. These include the right to do as they wish within the bounds of the law of nature; the power to punish the crimes committed against natural law. The first right is partially given up by submitting oneself to the laws of civil society, which are stricter than those of nature. The second right is given up totally in favor of putting oneself under the protection of the executive power of the society. Locke finishes by noting that this system is contingent on the three characteristics of civil society mentioned above--a law, a judge, and an executive working "to no other end, but the peace, safety, and public good of the people."

Commentary

This section represents the end of the first portion of the Second Treatise of Government. By this point, Locke has defined the state of nature, outlined the formation and goals of a just civil society (the word "ends" in the title of Chapter 9 should be read as "goals"), and the principles behind that society.

To review, briefly: in the state of nature, people are completely free and independent. Everyone is subject to natural law, however, and may execute that law when someone threatens his or her natural rights. People amass property in the state of nature, first by adding their labor to the land and the products of the land, then by bartering, and eventually developing money and acquiring the ability to gather large amounts of property together. At this point, natural law is no longer an adequate protection for the property and liberty of individuals, so people enter into civil society to protect themselves. By entering into society, people relinquish their freedom under natural law, and their right to execute law. Instead, in this society, they establish a judicial power to arbitrate disputes between members of the society, a set of laws that all the members of the society must obey, and an executive power to maintain and enforce the law. This commonwealth is valid and just so long as these three common powers serve to the best advantage of all of those who have relinquished their rights to join it.

Locke does a very good job of supporting many of his ideas with references to either divine law or higher moral imperatives, and to some extent these are important elements of his argument, but we must always remember that property predominates. We find Locke's elevation of property in Chapter 9, in which Locke explicitly notes that the desire to protect property moves people to enter society. Government forms once people begin amassing large amounts of property, since those with property need a higher central authority to protect it.

This raises another issue: what happens to those without property? So far, the state of nature favors those with money, people who enter into society to protect themselves from those who would steal from them. Why would those without property enter into this bargain? Why give up their freedom to protect what they lack?

The answer might seem disappointing. Locke in fact never intended or expected that those without property would be in charge of civil society. In order for the system to be advantageous to those with property, those without property must be excluded from its privileges although still protected by and subject to its laws.

We should remember that Locke's ideas were in fact progressive for his time. His assumptions about natural rights, and freedom from arbitrary and unjust government helped shape the creation of the United States Constitution, which rested on Lockean principles of equality and a government working to the best advantage of the people (although, while not mentioned, Locke's ideas about the advantages of the ruling class were built into that model as well).

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The Preservation of Property

by readingthegreat, July 25, 2013

Throughout the essay, Locke stresses the key reason for the formation of a governmental system: the preservation of property. This becomes his pseudo-mantra that he often returns to while making a point about usurpation, despotism, or tyranny. If the government is designed by the people to first and foremost protect their property, then it makes sense that Locke’s closing words would include the statement, “the end of government is the good of mankind.” This preservation of property is Locke’s explanation for why a group of people wo... Read more

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