Essay on the Theories of John Locke

The theory of John Locke is found in his two Treatises on Civil Government published anonymously in 1690, wherein he defended the ultimate right of the people to depose the monarch from his authority if he ever deprived them of their “liberties and properties.”

Locke, in reality, sought, as he himself admitted, to “establish the throne of our great Restorer, our present King William, and make good his title in the consent of the people.” Mark the words ‘in the consent of the people’ for this forms the keynote of Locke’s theory. Civil power, according to Locke, is based upon consent.

The State of Nature:

Locke, too, started with the state of nature. But his state of nature was pre-political and not pre-social and, as such, it did not present to him such a dismal state of affairs as it had done to Hobbes. Locke’s man in the state of nature was neither selfish, nor self-seeking, nor aggressive.

He was social and sympathetic towards others, because the law of nature, which was the law of reason, directed him to be so. Under the law of nature, as Dunning says, “of which reason is the interpreter, equality is the fundamental fact in men’s relations to one another.”

But equality, for Locke, was not what it was for Hobbes. In Locke’s state of nature men were equal and free to act as they thought fit, but “within the bounds of the law of nature?” And the “bounds of the law of nature” enjoined upon them not to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.

Locke’s state of nature was “a state of peace, goodwill, mutual assistance and preservation,” as he himself put it, in contrast to “a state of enmity, malice, violence and mutual destruction,” as he described Hobbes’ state of nature.

From the law of nature, as it prevailed in the state of nature, flowed, according to Locke, certain natural rights: rights to life, liberty and property. The right to liberty, he said, was man’s right to do whatever he wanted to do so long as that was not incompatible with the law of nature.

The right to property was man’s right to anything with which he had mixed his labour, provided he made good use of it since “nothing was made by God for man to spoil or destroy.” But the law of nature did not create rights alone.

It imposed corresponding obligations as well, because rights had “a law to govern which obliges everyone; and reason which is that law teaches all mankind who will but consult it, that, being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty and possessions.”

That is, everyone in the state of nature, while valuing his own life, liberty and property, must also value and respect the life, liberty and property of others as a matter of duty. Such a state of nature in which men enjoyed rights and acknowledged their duties was both moral and social.

Need for Civil Society:

But unfortunately peace was not secure in the state of nature. It was constantly upset by the “corruption and viciousness of degenerate men.”

This “ill condition,” Locke said, was due to three important wants which remained unsatisfied in the state of nature: (1) they want of an established, settled, known law; (2) they want of a known and indifferent judge; and (3) they want of an executing power to enforce just decisions.

Such an “ill condition,” Locke asserted, was “full of fears and continual dangers”, and in order to escape from all this and to gain certainty and security men made a contract to enter into civil society or the State.

This contract was of all with all and Locke named it a social contract. The social contract put an end to the state of nature and substituted it by a civil society or the State. Each individual contracted with each to give up some of the rights he possessed in the state of nature.

All he agreed to was to “give up everyone his single power of punishing to be exercised by such (authority) alone as shall be appointed to it amongst them, and by such rules as the community, or those authorised by them, to that purpose shall agree on.”

The social contract was, accordingly, no more than a transfer of certain rights and powers so that man’s remaining rights would be protected and preserved.

Secondly, the contract was for limited and specific purposes, and what was given up was transferred to the community as a whole and not to a man or to an assembly of men, as Hobbes had held.

In this way, Locke recognised and established the sovereignty of the people, and that the State existed for the people who formed it: they did not exist for it.

Two Contracts:

If men were objects for which the social contract was necessitated, that is, to create positive law, establish a known judge, and to create an authority to enforce just decisions, the society in its corporate capacity established the government and authorised it to make positive laws consistent with the law of nature, appoint impartial judges to decide disputes, and to enforce their decisions.

There were, thus, two contracts according to Locke, though he did not say so explicitly. The first was a Social Contract which brought into being the civil society or the State. The second was a governmental contract when society in its corporate capacity established a government and selected a ruler to remove the inconveniences or “ill condition” which necessitated the formation of the civil society or the State.

The second contract or governmental contract was subordinate to the first in as much as government was “only a fiduciary power” to act for certain ends, and its authority was confined to securing those ends. It was limited, moreover, to the condition that it was to be used in the exercise of “established known laws.”

If the government failed to secure the ends for which it was created and to which it had agreed, or did not exercise its authority according to the “established known laws,” the community might dismiss it and appoint another government in its place.

Here Locke establishes the inherent right of the people to revolt against the authority of the monarch, if he ever abused the terms of the contract to which he is a party, and ruled arbitrarily, ignoring the “established known laws” made by the representatives of the people.

The purpose of Locke is served. By making monarch a party to the contract he limits authority and subordinates it to Parliament, “the supreme power of the commonwealth.” Three conclusions flow from it: (1) that the government exists for the good of the people; (2) that it should depend on their consent; and (3) that it should be limited and constitutional in its authority.

If it is not for the good of the people, if it does not depend upon their consent, if it is not constitutional and exceeds the authority vested in it, the government can be legitimately overthrown. Locke, thus, justified the Revolution of 1688, and the deposition of James II, and the accession of William and Mary to the throne of England.

Locke recognised the existence of three powers in the civil society or the State. There is first of all the legislative, which he called “the supreme power of the commonwealth.” Legislature, he held, was the instrument through which the will of the community was expressed.

Since the expression of that will preceded and determined its execution, that department of government which carried out the laws must be subordinate to the department that made them. Although, for Locke, the legislature was unquestionably the superior power, yet it was not sovereign.

The idea of absolute, unlimited, and inalienable sovereign power in any human hands found no place in Locke’s theory of Social Contract. Behind the “supreme” legislature stand the people, the final embodiment of power.

“The community,” said Locke, “perpetually retains a supreme power of saving themselves from the attempts and designs of anybody, even of their legislators, whenever they shall be so foolish or so wicked as to lay and carry on designs against the liberties and properties of the subject.”

Secondly, there was the executive which, according to Locke, included the judicial power. The legislature need not always be in session, but the executive must be. Hence, he concluded, they “come often to be separated.”

There should be separation between the legislature and the executive, “because it may be too great a temptation to human frailty, apt to grasp at power, for the same persons who have the power of making laws to have also in their hands the power to execute them.”

This is how Locke enunciates the doctrine of the Separation of Powers which is enshrined in the American Constitution, though he is Montesquieu, not Locke, who is the author of the famous classification of powers into executive, legislative and judicial.

The third power that Locke recognised is what he called the federative—the power that made treaties. Locke has not more to tell us about the federative power, except that it is much less capable of being directed by positive laws and so must necessarily be left to the prudence and wisdom of those who are entrusted to manage it for public good.

To sum up, the following important points may be noted in Locke’s doctrine of the Social Contract:—

1. Locke’s state of nature is pre-political rather than pre-social.

2. His state of nature is not that of perpetual warfare as it is with Hobbes. It is a state in which men are equal and free to act as they thought fit within the bounds of the law of nature.

The law of nature is the law of reason and the law of reason established certain natural rights and recognised certain duties. This state of nature in which men have rights and acknowleged duties, is moral and social in character.

3. But certain inconveniences are experienced in the state of nature. These inconveniences are three in number: uncertainty in the application of the law of reason; absence of a common judge to decide disputes according to the established law; and, no proper authority to execute those decisions.

To escape from these inconveniences and the continued danger of fights, wars and confusions accompanying them, men through voluntary compacts formed political communities and the communities instituted governments.

4. According to Locke there are two contracts: social contract and governmental contract. The first put an end to the state of nature and substituted for it a civil society or the State. The second is made with a view to forming the government and selecting a ruler.

But the second contract is subordinate to the first. Since the creation of government by a community followed the prior organisation of the community itself, the community can change the government without dissolving itself.

5. The ruler is a party to the contract.

6. There is not a surrender of rights as with Hobbes. It is only the transfer of a few given rights.

7. Law is not the command of the sovereign as Hobbes had said. According to Locke law must be the expression of the will of the people and it should be consistent with the law of reason.

8. Locke makes consent of the people the source of all governmental authority.

9. Locke concedes to the people the right to revolution and, thus, the ruler can be deprived of his authority, if ever he fails to fulfil the terms of his contract.