Sunday, January 29, 2012

Locke's New Republicanism

In Search of the Republic--30


When Locke discusses the nature of government, he differs from traditional republicans in two important ways.

First, he differs when considering the ends or purposes of government. Historically, republicanism taught that the government should promote virtue in its citizens. Usually, this meant only the higher social orders. Locke, however, sees the chief purpose of government as the protection of individual rights.

"IF man in the state of nature be so free, as has been said; if he be absolute lord of his own person and possessions, equal to the greatest, and subject to no body, why will he part with his freedom? why will he give up this empire, and subject himself to the dominion and controul of any other power? To which it is obvious to answer, that though in the state of nature he hath such a right, yet the enjoyment of it is very uncertain, and constantly exposed to the invasion of others: for all being kings as much as he, every man his equal, and the greater part no strict observers of equity and justice, the enjoyment of the property he has in this state is very unsafe, very unsecure. This makes him willing to quit a condition, which, however free, is full of fears and continual dangers: and it is not without reason, that he seeks out, and is willing to join in society with others, who are already united, or have a mind to unite, for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties and estates, which I call by the general name, property. The great and chief end, therefore, of men's uniting into commonwealths, and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property."

Secon, Locke differs in consideration of the structure of government. He divides government by function rather than by its social constituents.


 Historically, republicanism in it most general sense denoted any government without a monarch. It was  a "res publica," or thing of the people. Traditionally, republican theorists devoted their attention to the form of a republic. Earlier posts in this series noted the republican efforts to establish "mixed regimes" in which both the higher and lower orders of society participated in the government. In that way, the common interest would prevail over class based factions and each class would enjoy republican liberty--freedom under law and freedom from domination from the other social class.

In Aristotle's theoretical polity, the lower orders of a given city-state assembled to make the laws and they elected the elites to run public affairs between the meetings of the popular assembly. In ancient Rome, the hereditary elites known as the Senate proposed laws and the popular assembly approved them.

Locke, however, focused on the division of government by function rather than by social class. This provided a more logical fit with his social compact theory. According to Locke, men leave the state of nature with its laws to form a society with laws made collectively. This is the origin of the legislature. In addition, men give up their right to enforce the law of nature and  privately punish offenders of the law of nature. This is the origin of the executive.

"Where-ever therefore any number of men are so united into one society, as to quit every one his executive power of the law of nature, and to resign it to the public, there and there only is a political, or civil society. And this is done, where-ever any number of men, in the state of nature, enter into society to make one people, one body politic, under one supreme government; or else when any one joins himself to, and incorporates with any government already made: for hereby he authorizes the society, or which is all one, the legislative thereof, to make laws for him, as the public good of the society shall require; to the execution whereof, his own assistance (as to his own decrees) is due. And this puts men out of a state of nature into that of a common-wealth."

Locke devotes much of the rest of his Treatise elaborating on legislative and executive power. To this he also adds what he calls federal power: the power to conduct foreign relations.

Locke devotes a chapter to forms of a commonwealth, but provides no elaboration on this most traditional way of  republican thinking about government. He notes the Aristotelian division of government into three types: rule by the one, the few, and the many.


"THE majority having, as has been shewed, upon men's first uniting into society, the whole power of the community naturally in them, may employ all that power in making laws for the community from time to time, and executing those laws by officers of their own appointing; and then the form of the government is a perfect democracy: or else may put the power of making laws into the hands of a few select men, and their heirs or successors; and then it is an oligarchy: or else into the hands of one man, and then it is a monarchy: if to him and his heirs, it is an hereditary monarchy: if to him only for life, but upon his death the power only of nominating a successor to return to them; an elective monarchy."

Locke addresses only one sentence to the traditional republican concept of the mixed regime:

"And so accordingly of these [the three forms identified above] the community may make compounded and mixed forms of government, as they think good."

This paucity of attention to traditional republican mixed government may result from the much more complex society in which Locke lived. The republics of the ancient world had a much more simple social structure. The majority of free people fit neatly into categories of rich and poor. Seventeenth century England, however, exhibited a much more complex society with an extensive and growing middle class. Traditional social distinctions between rich and poor, patricians and plebeians, appeared less relevant.

Moreover, Locke's focus on how government functions rather that how it mirrors the social structure reflects his interest in the origins of government and legitimacy. Remember, Aristotle believed any form of government--monarch, aristocracy, or democracy-- is legitimate so long as it governs in the public or common interest. Although Locke, too, agreed that government must seek the common interest, that alone did not make it legitimate. In Locke's view, the only foundation of any legitimate government is the consent of the governed. When people leave a state of nature and consent to relinquish lawmaking authority to a legislature and executive authority to a magistrate, they have formed a commonwealth.

According to Locke, when a people consent to live together in one body politic and submit to the determination of the majority,

"this is that, and that only, which did, or could give beginning to any lawful government in the world."


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