Friday, January 20, 2012

Locke on the Origins of Government

In Search of the Republic--26

According to Locke, not all men lead  lives of reason according to the law of nature. They turn the state of nature into a state of war by attempting to put others under their absolute authority and threaten their lives and property. This situation moves men to form civil governments:

To avoid this state of war (wherein there is no appeal but to heaven, and wherein every the least difference is apt to end, where there is no authority to decide between the contenders) is one great reason of men putting themselves into society, and quitting the state of nature: for where there is an authority, a power on earth, from which relief can be had by appeal, there the continuance of the state of war is excluded, and the controversy is decided by that power.”

Therefore, men put themselves into organized society by divesting themselves of their natural liberty in return for a more secure civil liberty:

MEN being, as has been said, by nature, all free, equal, and independent, no one can be put out of this estate, and subjected to the political power of another, without his own consent. The only way whereby any one divests himself of his natural liberty, and puts on the bonds of civil society, is by agreeing with other men to join and unite into a community for their comfortable, safe, and peaceable living one amongst another, in a secure enjoyment of their properties, and a greater security against any, that are not of it. This any number of men may do, because it injures not the freedom of the rest; they are left as they were in the liberty of the state of nature. When any number of men have so consented to make one community or government, they are thereby presently incorporated, and make one body politic, wherein the majority have a right to act and conclude the rest.”

When forming a political community, the individuals have become one body that acts by the will of the majority:

For when any number of men have, by the consent of every individual, made a community, they have thereby made that community one body, with a power to act as one body, which is only by the will and determination of the majority: for that which acts any community, being only the consent of the individuals of it, and it being necessary to that which is one body to move one way; it is necessary the body should move that way whither the greater force carries it, which is the consent of the majority: or else it is impossible it should act or continue one body, one community, which the consent of every individual that united into it, agreed that it should; and so every one is bound by that consent to be concluded by the majority”

And by entering into a political community, each individual obligates himself to submit to the decisions of the majority. Without this obligation, no real community can be formed:

And thus every man, by consenting with others to make one body politic under one government, puts himself under an obligation, to every one of that society, to submit to the determination of the majority, and to be concluded by it; or else this original compact, whereby he with others incorporates into one society, would signify nothing, and be no compact, if he be left free, and under no other ties than he was in before in the state of nature. For what appearance would there be of any compact? what new engagement if he were no farther tied by any decrees of the society, than he himself thought fit, and did actually consent to? This would be still as great a liberty, as he himself had before his compact, or any one else in the state of nature hath, who may submit himself, and consent to any acts of it if he thinks fit.”

In Locke's judgment, a government formed by the consent of the governed in the only legitimate government. This view at first appears a radically different from the view of Aristotle and other republican writers. Aristotle argued that any government is legitimate if it makes laws for the common good. But as we shall see, Locke later qualifies his conclusion with addition that lawmakers much legislate for the “public good.”

If men give up their natural liberty in return for security in their lives and property, what liberty do they retain from themselves? The next post will examine Locke's views on republican liberty.

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