Originally published: 1690
132 pages
Chapter 1


John Locke

Information overload is a modern phenomenon that distorts the big picture and erodes our understanding of first principles. In the maelstrom of fact and opinion, many are the critics who attempt to define liberty for us, almost always with a political slant; yet we seldom find individuals who can clearly articulate the essence of their freedom and understand its attendant obligations. The danger in this circumstance is that taking freedom for granted or ignoring its accompanying responsibilities are the two surest ways to lose one's independence. It is disquieting that comprehending the indispensable conjunction of freedom and obligation is increasingly rare.
       John Locke's Second Treatise on Civil Government brings us back to the basics of liberty and duty, to first principles. He offers a cogent look at what we seem to have lost sight of today. Since Locke investigates freedom at the inception of modern times, when problematic aspects of its nature were still relatively simple, his conclusions are among the clearest and most persuasive.
       To a degree, Locke writes in opposition to fellow-countryman Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), his predecessor in time and theory and author of Leviathan (1651). Hobbes holds that the state is a necessary evil, a beast-like Leviathan that is crucial to controlling men’s self-interest. For Hobbes, the state is the sole antidote to anarchy.  He saw that religion had failed in its efforts to bring peace among men, that religion had actually caused more conflict than it resolved. Hobbes thus relegates religion to a separate and secondary role and contends that men must submit to government because they ultimately fear one


another more than they fear a central authority. This suspicion later received some validation in the aftermath of the French Revolution of 1789 when “citizens”—who were expected to respect one another once the monarchy was destroyed—proceeded to treat each other in an utterly barbaric and lawless fashion. Their behavior remained unchecked by the predicted but failed advent of reciprocal good will.
       Hobbes understands mankind’s individualistic and often self-serving nature and feels the need to restrain that with a Leviathan—in his case, a monarchy. But Hobbes’s solution doesn’t sit well with either Locke or Adam Smith, whose Wealth of Nations (Chapter 12), published almost a century after Locke wrote, elaborated an alternative, more practical and positive view of human nature. For Smith and implicitly for Locke, mankind’s true spirit flourishes in the inducements of enlightened self-interest and ordered liberty. This proved to be a more accurate and helpful understanding of human nature, as was seen when America and its foundation of freedom came into being. Without denying the venal aspects of the human condition, enlightened self-interest posits that we can do well for ourselves by doing well for and with others (mutual cooperation, the division of labor, the advent of interpersonal charity, the creation of community).  In other words, doing well for ourselves while engaging others in like-minded activities is not a selfish or negative concept; it is quite the opposite.
       Locke and Smith view society as a largely cooperative venture rather than a continuous power struggle. Their outlook became the foundation of self-government in the centuries following the publication of both The Second Treatise on Civil Government and Wealth of Nations. Of course, certain freedoms that bring out the best in some men also bring out the worst in others. There thus remains the need for authority-but not absolute authority. Whoever holds absolute authority (whether as a monarch/executive/bureaucrat, a legislator, or a judge) is still human. The tendency is always toward self-aggrandizement and self-interest at the expense of others when power is conferred. The practical result requires that there be checks and balances on those given power to prevent them from over-reaching. It also requires a separation of church and state to prevent religious edict from becoming civil tyranny.
       The value of Locke's insights became self-evident after the implications of Hobbes's speculations (unrestrained power) were taken to their logical endpoint. In contrast to Hobbes's abstract and theoretical approach, Locke draws his conclusions from evidence and common


experience. His first premise-that liberty is not a license-recognizes that freedom is a real-world equation, not just an intellectual concept. For Locke, before cultures or civilizations evolved, each man was in a "state of nature" and individually responsible for protecting his own natural rights to life, liberty, and property, and controlling, even punishing, those who violated those rights. When people agreed to form a civil society or community for the purpose of collectively protecting life and property, rules were piled on top of rules until we were left with modern attempts at government. The problem of how to contain the ever-proliferating rules and those who exercise power remained.
       For Locke, the supreme authority in a social/governmental undertaking designed and controlled by its members (called a commonwealth) is the legislature; this body creates laws in a public forum that are to be made known to the populace in advance and applied with equal force to all individuals. In Locke's view this "social contract"-a contract among the people, and between the people and their government-requires the sort of definition that comes from a representative assembly, made up of the people themselves. In this democratic format legislators create the rules by which everyone (in a communal, majoritarian sense) is willing to be governed. Locke is equally aware of the need for amendability, for change such that when the majorities or the realities are altered the rules necessarily are mutable. Society's fluid nature is recognized from the outset and this fosters confidence in the fairness of the legislative process.
       These rules, by which and through which agreement was achieved on most matters involving human relations, were neither black nor white, nor did they always fit foursquare with human activities. There was a need for impartial judgment in applying, or enforcing them, thus the executive branch of government was born. And for those times when the citizens disagree with the executive or the legislature Locke creates a judiciary for the interpretation and interpolation of laws, to arbitrate when the governors and the citizens arrive at odds.
       In designing his system, Locke takes into account man's inherently contradictory nature-which is alternately generous and self-centered. He argues that a rational tension between centers of authority is needed in order to protect not just the people, but the system itself; in this manner he seeks to reduce the effect of self-interest. He views a separation of power between all three governing entities as indispensable to controlling potential errant human impulses.
       A century later James Madison recognized there are benefits as


well as disadvantages to individual self-interest (as did Adam Smith at almost the exact same moment) and refined Locke’s broad ideas.  Madison observed that the world is based on and proceeds as individuals act and react.  Thus, we must use man himself, not just government, to counterbalance another man’s unrestrained impulses, the impulse toward self-realization that can go too far, and in doing that we will also act toward the public’s interest—for the public’s interest is in each person having his own rights, his individual freedom, intact.   As self-interests are allowed to battle openly and rationally they constrain or complement one another.  If we try to eliminate self-interest, because we all recognize it can be harmful, we eliminate the very basis of freedom, and instead we install government as the arbiter of all things.  But governors are just people, who suffer their own failings, shortcomings and personal agendas.  Mankind is better left to its own devices as much as possible.  Henry David Thoreau noted: That government is best which governs least. 
       The Constitution, the codification of Locke’s ideas, does two things: it allows the government to act, but equally it allows us to protect ourselves from the very powers of those who govern if those powers are mishandled or misapplied.  The laws that flow from the Constitution, as well as the separation of powers, the courts, frequent elections, freedom of speech and press and assembly, a federal government with enumerated, not unlimited powers, all mitigate and exert control over the public official who would subjugate or at least order the citizenry.  If we allow freedom under the force of law, if we do not try to allocate economic resources—whether labor or capital—by force of that law, then the system will work because of that very freedom.  If we do otherwise the system, and the people, will fail.  Most importantly, if we do not understand these relationships through our own experience and education, we will not value, and defend to the limit, our freedom.
       The natural right to private property is central to Locke's vision, for private property is the institution essential to dividing one person's labors from another's. For Locke, property rights are the counterpoint to (limited) government. Indeed, people secure in their property rights experience only a minimal need for government to direct their activities, or the activities of those around them. (For a complete look at the development of the concept and reality of property from the very, very beginning, Richard Pipes offers a definitive assessment in Property and Freedom [Chapter 11].)
       Locke's development of the concept of property takes up much


of his energy, and many of his conclusions are sound and applicable today. However, some require nuance to fit into a modern capitalistic economic model that did not exist when Locke wrote. Understanding property is essential to understanding first principles, yet property is so basic to humanity's existence few people take the time to consider its implications or imperatives. Any distance from comprehension of such a core element of freedom and self-governance makes it difficult, if not impossible, to fit the whole together.
       Concomitant with his equation of freedom and responsibility, Locke understands the necessity of enforcing our rights-whether property or personal-and recognizing our obligations to one another. The Golden Rule may be divine, but it is not self-executing in an imperfect world; thus Locke's next step, after discussing aspects of our rights and our responsibilities, is to expand his discussion of the "executive":

No law is of value without an ability to enforce it.

       Locke severely limits his executive's unilateral ability to affect the rights and circumstances of each person, but his executive also has to possess the power necessary to allow effective fulfillment of the legislature's enactments and the relationships created thereunder. This essentially delicate balance required of Locke a somewhat detailed consideration of how an executive should act and how those actions must be limited.
       Fidelity to a rational assessment of human nature complements Locke's strategy of commencing his investigation of civil government at the point when human beings were in a state of nature. The fact that Locke was writing in 1690 when a government such as he described was only a vision (and historically still a century away) made his arguments both unique and revolutionary in the face of two millennia of monarchy and despotism. Watching Locke dissect human nature and human interaction at their most basic levels offers a comprehension that is fundamental to understanding most of the subsequent development of freedom in an ordered society.
       Locke, of course, does not operate in a vacuum. The ideas he formulates are really an amalgam of thoughts and practices and customs that had been developing throughout the two thousand years that preceded his efforts. His work reflects history-first of the Greeks and Romans, then ranging through that of medieval Europeans in both England and on the Continent, and finally in the British colonies


in America. According to author Richard Pipes, Locke's grounding in English common law was his most important historical resource. Often misunderstood, English common law was the aftermath of various struggles-as Pipes observes in Property and Freedom-between rulers and ruled, between church and state, between sects within religions, and between the well-off and the less well-off. Over long periods various traditions had evolved that became the common law.  These helped avoid the necessity of starting with a blank slate each time a repetitive issue of 
governance arose.  Such traditions allowed, as Edmund Burke noted, wisdom to prevail without need for continued reflection, investigation or argument.

       Locke wrote when the law's evolution had come to accept considerable freedom of thought and action for Englishmen; thus his amalgam of precedents into a "new" whole was neither unexpected nor-for everyone but English and continental monarchs-unwelcome. The law had come to acknowledge governance based upon the mutual obligations and promises between the governed and the governing authority; in other words, that governance was contractual in nature. Breaking the promises encompassed by this contract would, as a matter of course, require a new governing paradigm. The ability to change the contract became the key to England's-and eventually America's-quest for sensible, workable government.
       Russell Kirk's The Roots of American Order (Chapter 4) offers useful historical insights into what was known by Locke at the time of his writings. Kirk's overview acquaints readers with the origins of our modern political arrangements and offers a survey of how complex their evolution was. Locke's encyclopedic approach to the study of governance, coupled with his understanding of human nature, make his book the first among equals; yet none of Locke's work would likely have been accomplished without all that passed before. Although Locke did not describe each facet of representative government's "square one" attributes as they exist today, he came presciently close to crafting an almost flawless whole. Appreciating how Locke got where he did, described in Kirk's book, is equally important, for his accomplishment is not as easily understood without all of its foundations.


About the Author
John Locke was born in 1632 into professional wealth and society. His education was extensive, as would befit someone occupying his station in life. Interestingly, he eventually took up the study of medicine in order to escape entry into the priesthood of the Church of England that his parents wished for him. Locke's mind was inquisitive and his ultimate avocation, epistemology, seems almost inevitable. When one considers the times in which he lived-revolution, counter-revolution, civil war, all as a result of the willfulness of the monarchy-one can readily comprehend how natural was his overtly logical, intellectual path. His association with the Earl of Shaftesbury-a mentor and powerful political figure who weathered almost all the vicissitudes of seventeenth-century England-not only benefited Locke's study of human relations but also gave him a living example of political intrigue and machinations from which to draw persuasive extrapolations regarding how the English system could be improved. John Locke died in 1704 after long service to the government and fidelity to the philosophical insights explicated in his writings.

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