Locke’s Political Philosophy

Published 14 Feb 2017

In the Second Treatise of Government Locke justifies revolt against the state if the state rules without the consent of the people whom it governs: “They, who remove, or change the legislative, take away this decisive power, which no body can have, but by the appointment and consent of the people.” (Sec. 227) According to Locke, the commonwealth and the laws with the help which it rules were established by the agreement of people who lived in a “state of nature”. First of all, it is important to understand what a “state of nature” is. It is a situation in which people live insulated or in family groups, but not in a community, they do not interact nor collaborate with each other to provide for their every-day needs or to protect themselves from predators. In other words, “state of nature” is what human life could have been like without laws.

According to Locke in the state of nature all human beings are free and equal: “… [what] state all men are naturally in, and that is, a state of perfect freedom to order their actions … [A] state also of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another;” (Sec.4)

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Nevertheless, they are not free to do anything they wish, because of the ‘law of nature’, arranged by God and in compliance to which they must live. The ‘law of nature’ states that if a human being’s freedom is violated by another human being the former is empowered to get restoration from the disturber. Correspondingly, if a part of his property is stolen he has a right to try to get it back from the thief. If a man attempts to kill him, he has the right to fight back in self-defence, if necessary killing the attacker. Encroachment upon anyone’s liberty in the state of nature is regarded as an act of ‘war’ upon the victim, and the victim has the right to revenge: “And in the case, and upon this ground, EVERY MAN HATH A RIGHT TO PUNISH THE OFFENDER, AND BE EXECUTIONER OF THE LAW OF NATURE” (Sec.8).

It became apparent that such ‘state of nature’ causes numerous “inconveniences” for human beings who live in it. For example, physically weak individuals are going to encounter difficulties in finding provision of food and home; and, moreover, if some stronger person decides to infringe the liberty of a weaker one, the latter will find it difficult to gain satisfaction from the disturber and thus keep up to the law of nature. The situation for the strong is not necessarily much safer as far as the weaker could assemble together to rob them of their property or kill them. On the other hand, the strong, may still take advantage of the assistance the weak can provide them in some situations, for example, if they have acquired more land than they and their families can tend.

That is why, as Locke asserts, people in the state of nature decided that their interests would be better regarded if they appeared together as a people to organize a society. In this society they would be able cooperate to satisfy their needs and consequently avoid the ‘inconveniences’ of the state of nature. So that not to break the law of nature by themselves the members of this society would establish the commonwealth, that is an institution to administer the law and create new laws to meet new cases. Thus the people in this way confide the protection of their natural liberties to the commonwealth.

Another point to consider is that division of labour to provide food is acknowledged to be more effective than simply caring for oneself. Theoretically, Locke suggests that the liberties of the individual, namely the law of nature will be more efficiently upheld by the commonwealth and its laws than by the individuals themselves.

However, the authority to rule the society is granted to the commonwealth by the consent of the people governed by this commonwealth. For this purpose, a contract has been agreed between the commonwealth and the governed people to the effect that the people will obey the commonwealth on condition it upholds the law, which serves to protect the interests and liberties of the people governed by the commonwealth. The people consent to be governed by the commonwealth if its representatives impose the laws and thus protect the liberties of the people.

So the contract is a bilateral pledge that both parties undertake obligation to uphold. A violation of this contract on the side of the ruled people, i.e. lawbreaking, is punished by the commonwealth: “and punishes those offences which any member hath committed against the society, with such penalties as the law has established” (Sec. 87).

If the commonwealth breaks its side of the agreement, for example if it fails to fulfil its obligation to protect the liberty of the community and expropriate the property of citizens when they have not violated the law, or if it takes any another illegal actions, this constitutes for Locke a declaration of war by the commonwealth on the citizens and thus an infringement of their liberty. “and so they putting themselves into a state of war with those who made them the protectors and guardians of their peace, are properly, and with the greatest aggravation, rebellantes, rebels” (Sec 227). The commonwealth has thereby voided the original agreement with the citizens because it has acted as if it were back in the state of nature. The citizen whose liberty has been infringed therefore is entitled to attempt to recover his right.

In more serious cases when the commonwealth turns into a tyranny, and disrespects all protests expressed by the majority of the citizens, and all legal and peaceful attempts to discourage the commonwealth from acting tyrannically have been unsuccessful, the people are justified, according to Locke, to raise rebellion against the commonwealth and replace the existing government or monarch with one that will obey the during its governing.
However, some controversy with Locke’s account arises around his concept of consent.

Exclusively, the original parties to the contract that founded the commonwealth are empowered to express consent to the agreement that established the commonwealth. Successors of the original contracting parties are not usually asked for their consent, such consent seems to be taken for granted. But if they have never given their consent to the commonwealth, how can they be obligated to obey this commonwealth, let alone if it acts tyrannically? Locke’s answer to this objection is his concept of tacit consent.

“Tacit consent is incurred,” according to Locke, “by anyone who voluntarily takes advantage of the resources of the country” (Sec. 201). One’s physical presence in the country’s territory is a sufficient condition for being held in this way to have consented tacitly. Citizens, he argues, are free to leave the commonwealth in which they live. If they do not do so, this is because they consent to the state tacitly, even thought not expressly. They make use of the advantages that the commonwealth has provided; therefore they accept the commonwealth.

“There is a common distinction of an express and a tacit consent, which will concern our present case. No body doubts but an express consent, of any man entering into any society, makes him a perfect member of that society, a subject of that government.

The difficulty is, what ought to be looked upon as a tacit consent, and how far it binds, i.e. how far any one shall be looked on to have consented, and thereby submitted to any
government, where he has made no expressions of it at all. And to this I say, that every man, that hath any possessions, or enjoyment, of any part of the dominions of any government, cloth thereby give his tacit consent, and is as far forth obliged to obedience to the laws of that government, during such enjoyment, as any one under it; whether this his possession be of land, to him and his heirs for ever, or a lodging only for a week; or whether it be barely travelling freely on the highway; and in effect, it reaches as far as the very being of any one within the territories of that government.” (Sec. 119)

Locke admits that territorial sovereignty is one of the key features of government. Every member of community living within a determined geographic area is subject to the jurisdiction of that area’s government. Locke implicitly realizes that the alternative to this would be anarchy, for he writes, “For it would he a direct contradiction, for any one, to enter into Society with others and yet to suppose his Land, whose Property is to be regulated by the Laws of the society, should be exempt from the Jurisdiction of that Government.” (Sec. 121)

However, Locke’s doctrine of tacit consent exhibits inconsistency with his statement that people need not obey tyrannical commonwealth in two points. First, it is not appropriate to consider that simply staying within the commonwealth puts in itself a sign of consent. The only provision for not consenting in Locke’s treatise is emigration from the commonwealth. This is Locke’s escape from tyranny, for if people “are not permitted to emigrate, they can hardly be said to have consented.” Emigration is a logical necessity within the framework of Locke’s theory of consent, because without it, the whole theory loses its viability.

Second, simply using the conveniences a commonwealth has provided to its people is not necessarily a sign of consent too. People who are not happy with the political system in which they live in many countries (for example Byelorussia) still use the public transport system, roads, libraries, and the other advantages that the commonwealth has to offer them. But they cannot be said to consent, even tacitly, to the authority bodies that governs them.

We can conclude that Locke’s doctrine of tacit consent cannot present a logically consistent response to the question of obligation to the government. Locke’s theory of consent can finally lead to anarchy. The only way out for Locke was to make “consent” involving an agreement to abide by majority rule. “Whosoever therefore out of a state of nature unite into a community, must be understood to give up all the power, necessary to the ends for which they unite into society, to the majority of the community, unless they expressly agreed in any number greater than the majority” (Sec.99)

Works Cited list

  • Locke, John. The Second Treatise of Civil Government. 1690. Retrieved on 08 November 2005
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