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Locke's Second Treatise on Civil Government

John Locke

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

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

Chapters 14-15: Of Prerogative and Of Paternal, Political, and Despotical Power (treated together)

Summary

Locke notes that, despite its importance, there is no need for the legislature to always be in session. It is not necessary to have a constant flow of new laws, and, in fact, a perpetually active legislature carries risks of abuse, as discussed in the last section. So the legislature, as a body or an individual, only needs to be "active" or "in session" at certain times, and is not perpetual.

The executive, on the other hand, must always be active, because the laws that the legislature passes must always be enforced. For this practical reason, as well as theoretical reasons discussed later, the executive and legislative powers should be separated.

Locke then moves on to discuss the international character of his civil state. All of the individuals forming the civil state and their government come together to form a single body, and this body is in a state of nature with respect to other states; in other words, international relations are governed by natural law. Locke names this the federative power, the natural power in charge of the state's international relations, and notes that it is often conjoined with the executive power, which manages the society within.

Chapter 13 begins with a reminder that, despite the high powers of the legislature, the people are still supreme over all, and have the power to "remove or alter the legislation" as they deem best. The community is always the true supreme power.

Within the government itself, however, the legislature always stands supreme. Locke notes that, even in a monarchy when the executive is vested in a single person who may also have some say in the legislature, this person only has supreme execution, not supreme control of the government.

Locke notes that the executive's power over the legislature does not imply that it controls the legislature. First, if the executive impedes the meeting and acting of the legislative when it is required, this constitutes an act of war against the people, since they have a right to the protection and work of that body when the state requires it. This control of the executive over the legislative, then, is a necessary trust placed in the executive: the legislative cannot meet constantly and the executive presides in its absence.

Lastly, Locke notes that a city or region may experience a major change in its population and importance, necessitating an alteration of its number of representatives accordingly. It is the executive's prerogative oversee any alteration, as long as it complies with fair and equal representation within the legislative, and rectifies disorder that may spring up in the legislative body over time.

Commentary

Here Locke introduces the notion of separation of powers. His arguments in Chapter 12 are pragmatic, but we shall soon see him turn to a theoretical discussion of why it might be necessary to divide the executive and legislative. Locke is wary of investing any single governmental body with too much power; a dual legislative / executive would make Locke very concerned, since it would presents a situation in which the governors may have different interests than the governed, which leads to dissolution in Locke's model.

Next, Locke discusses the international character of his civil state. Locke's idea that the state in a "state of nature" would remain governed by natural law across boundaries is perhaps the most outdated of all of his political theories. Much of modern international relations is founded on the idea that one cannot apply the rules of domestic policy to international policy. Some modern authors who maintain that an international code of morality must be maintained in relations between states (this is sometimes called a "cosmopolitan" view) but this view is generally outmoded.

We should also address some of the assumptions Locke has made about the legislative body. The notion of monarchy in which the legislative is wholly invested in the monarch seems anathema to Locke. Secondly, if we recall our discussion in Chapter 9 of Locke's ideal, propertied legislative, we can spot a very revealing phrase towards the end of Chapter 13. Locke explicitly notes that any area or region must be represented "in proportion to the assistance which it affords to the public." Locke's organizing factor for representation is property, as an area's representation is determined by the taxes it pays.

Locke's introduction of executive prerogative at the end of this section introduces an important new component of his civil society model. Although Locke devotes the entire next chapter to this concept, we should keep clear his definition of prerogative as "nothing but a power, in the hands of the prince, to provide for the public good, in such cases, which depending upon unforeseen and uncertain occurrences, certain and unalterable laws could not safely direct." The trust placed by the people in the executive, just like the executive's power to call the legislature into session, stays within the boundaries Locke has set for his civil government.

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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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