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Locke's Second Treatise on Civil Government

John Locke

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

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

Chapters 12-13: Of the Legislative, Executive, and Federative Power of the Commonwealth, and Of the Subordination of the Powers of the Commonwealth

Summary

The majority, upon entering into a commonwealth, get to choose their form of government. They may choose a democracy, in which case they retain the legislative powers for themselves, an oligarchy, in which they submit that legislative power to a few select persons, or a monarchy, in which they give power to a single person. The monarchy may be hereditary, if it passes from the ruler to his son, or elected, if a new ruler is elected by the majority's decision whenever the old ruler dies. The majority always has the power to change types of government. The placement of legislative power defines the type of government since legislative power is the supreme power within a civil state.

Locke then notes that by "commonwealth" he does not particularly mean democracy; rather he uses the term to underscore the point that the community, regardless of its form of government, exists for the commonwealth, for the good of all.

Chapter 11 is devoted to a study of the legislative power, which Locke has identified as the most important part of the government. The first rule of the legislative power is the preservation of the society. No one may challenge the power of the legislative body, or pass laws of their own; all such power is invested in this body by the majority (the majority can, of course, challenge the legislative in some instances). Every member of society must adhere to the laws laid down by the legislative body. The limits to the power of the legislature include the following: the legislation must govern by fixed "promulgated established laws" that apply equally to everyone; these laws must be designed solely for the good of the people; and the legislative must not raise taxes on the property of the people without the people's consent.

Here, Locke brings up what will be a constant concern: long-term office holders. This rule becomes particularly important when the legislature's members hold their positions for long periods of time, or even life; in these instances, they may think of themselves as a body separate from society, and start working for their own best interests rather than for society's. The legislation does not have the power to transfer its power--it cannot give the right to make laws to anyone else-since the people's majority have placed this power with the legislative, and the majority's will, being the only force more powerful than the legislature, cannot be contradicted.

Commentary

Locke has laid down the groundwork for a civil society, and now he describes the best structure for that civil society. He starts with the legislature because, in Locke's model, the legislature is the supreme power in the government: it issues the laws that the executive must enforce, and that the judicial branch must use as a measure of justice.

Although today we may associate the ideals Locke espouses with democratic government, he was not solely focused on democracy, by any means. In his list of types of government, he does not favor any one above the others (although we know of his cautions about absolute monarchies)--as long as they adhere to his rules, they remain equally valid in his view.

Locke's concern for a legislature that serves for too long a time is a good example of his practicality. We have discussed Locke's faith in human rationality, but now we should note that this faith is tempered by a caution about people's natural appetites. If a legislative is put in the position where it can legislate for its own benefit, Locke believes that it may well succumb to that temptation.

Locke continues to focus on property in this section. He notes that although an officer may have the power of life and death over soldiers in his group (to protect the common good), he has no power over that soldier's property--the soldier's property is, in some ways, more sanctified than the soldier's life. We have seen this argument appear before, and we will see again several more times before we reach the end of the Treatise.

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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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