Original Locke

***As part of my dissertation, I will explain the structure of liberalism. This is a portion of my literature review in Chapter 3: The Structure of Liberalism (working title). This is from Locke’s Second Treatise.

 The ends of political power are to determine that the people of a community, for the public good, are able to: formalize laws, punish wrongdoers via the death penalty or lesser reprimands, to regulate and preserve private property, and to employ community members to execute the laws and defend the state.[i] A strict adherence to this definition results in a government that: (1) secures the people from foreign invaders, (2) secures the people from criminals within the state, (3) protects private property, and (4) enforces contract law to preserve private property. Indeed, the state is limited to the former points, and that is essence of liberalism.

The cause of political power stems from an evolution of entrepreneurial activities within the order of nature, coupled with a potentiality for a warring state to disturb the natural and peaceful environment. The order of nature abounds naturally without government and without war, whereas, people assume “perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions” to members of the community, without dependence on any other person.[ii] In nature, the Maker endowed people with liberty. However, people do not have the freedom to “harm another in his life, heath, liberty, or possessions.”[iii] Since mankind may not engage the former under liberty; then, mankind must “preserve the rest of mankind, and may not unless it be to do justice to an offender, take away, or impair the life, or what tends to the preservation of the life, liberty, health, limb or goods of another.”[iv]

In nature, people will have to reprimand criminals [or execute rapacious murders] in order to preserve liberty and thwart orders of war. To do so, some people will exercise power over other people.[v] Though the people are naturally equal in nature, situations may arise when the people will restrain or punish wrongdoers—ensuring that they are not equal. However; liberty, in nature, affirms that people are “not bound to submit to the unjust will of another,” and the social contract formalized between people is a reflection of the natural conditions of liberty.[vi] On the other hand, people might initiate war against one another if injustices are not remedied. Without a formalized social contract, people may believe that they have been unjustly wronged within the natural world, and that justice must be served.[vii] Without a remedy to wrongdoing, the conditions of perfect freedom in nature might turn into the imperfect reality of war between people. In order to keep perfect freedom, the people agree to formalize a social contract.

The people’s liberty is natural no matter what government exists, but what about slavery or exploitation? Could slavery be natural if everyone has a right to life, liberty, health, limb or goods? Locke argues that slavery is not natural in the “state of nature” but is the “state of war continued.”[viii] Once obedience by the slave is guaranteed to the master, and, the master agrees to limited power; then, the state of war and slavery stops.[ix] Absolute, arbitrary, and despotic power is not natural.[x] Locke would later apply all of this to conquest. However, Locke does “confess” that people do sell themselves, but that “this was only to drudgery, not to slavery.”[xi] Locke thus admits that exploitation is within the “nature” framework, or said differently, that exploitation is legal within the social contract. Indeed, a nuanced examination of property will help clarify this point of exploitation and when exploitation is acceptable.

Without government and in conditions of perfect freedom, people will take from the commons, and what is taken will be his/her property.[xii] For example, a hunter on public land, through her labor, may shoot and kill a deer; and, that deer will become her property. In society, some people will be quite industrious and rational,[xiii] and they will make excellent use of land. The labor they employ initiates a “right of property.”[xiv] For example, thousands of perfectly free people may do nothing during the day but eat, sleep, bicker, and procreate. On the other hand, one person may farm 100 acres of fertile land. According to Locke, this one productive person must be protected, and thus, the land is his property. There is no duty of this single farmer to care for the rest, but s/he could sell the crops for money, “some lasting thing that men might keep without spoiling, and that by mutual consent men would take in exchange for the truly useful, but perishable supports of life.”[xv] Thus, the role of the state is to protect this productive person by protecting private property. But what of exploitation?

Above all, a person’s body is their first piece of property, and “this nobody has a right to but himself.”[xvi] In this manner, slavery is excluded from the state of nature. So can a person sell his labor to another for money? Yes.[xvii] However, the person must choose to sell his labor to another, whereas one man may not force another to sell himself against his will. In the natural order of perfect freedom, people cannot dominate or force others to work for them. Unfortunately, though, Locke complicates the issue ideologically when moving from the order of nature, interrupted by war, to the make-up of civil society. After explaining that a person may be temporarily exploited,[xviii] he continues that “slaves, who being captives taken in a just war, are by the right of nature subjected to the absolute dominion and arbitrary power of their masters. These men… have forfeited their lives, and with it their liberties, and lost their estates; and being in a state of slavery, not capable of any property, cannot in that state be considered as any part of civil society; the chief end whereof is the preservation of property.”[xix] Moreover, Locke also explicitly says that a man is master of the family over his wife, children, servants and slaves.[xx] The founder of liberalism certainly didn’t favor equality of human to human.

Finally, Locke invokes God very often, and aspects of biblical thought are intertwined in the Second Treatise. However, God is not necessarily within the root extract / essence of liberalism. This passage is a good allusion to how Locke understands society, and how Locke invokes God:

The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, 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, or possessions. For men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent, and infinitely wise Maker; all servants of one sovereign master, sent into the world by his order and about his business, they are his property, whose workmanship they are, made to last during his, not one another’s pleasure.[xxi]

Thus, the root extract / essence of liberalism is that it: (1) secures the people from foreign invaders, (2) secures the people from criminals within the state, (3) protects private property, and (4) enforces contract law to preserve private property.

As people are God’s property (hierarchy is a fact–let the Christian submit to Christ), they may not harm their own/another’s life, heath, liberty, or possessions. In forming a social contract to secure the former tenets of liberalism, of liberty; a civil society forms. Though absolute monarchy is “inconsistent” with civil society[xxii]—no political society can exist without preserving private property.[xxiii] A free man must, by nature, be able to “preserve his property, that is, his life, liberty, and estate…”[xxiv]

There you go–Locke as structuring liberalism….many more architects to follow.


[i] Locke uses “commonwealth,” but I use “state.” Second Treatise, Section 3.

[ii] I use “order” instead of “state” because I use “state” instead of “commonwealth.” Second Treatise, Section 4.

[iii] Second Treatise. Section 6.

[iv] Second Treatise. Section 6.

[v] Second Treatise. Section 8.

[vi] Second Treatise. Section 13.

[vii] Second Treatise. Section 16.

[viii] Second Treatise. Section 23-24.

[ix] Second Treatise. Section 24.

[x] Second Treatise. Section 24.

[xi] Second Treatise. Section 24.

[xii] Second Treatise. Section 29.

[xiii] Second Treatise. Section 34.

[xiv] Second Treatise. Section 45.

[xv] Second Treatise. Section 47.

[xvi] Second Treatise. Section 27.

[xvii] Second Treatise. Section 85.

[xviii] Second Treatise. Section 85.

[xix] Second Treatise. Section 85.

[xx] Second Treatise. Section 86.

[xxi] Second Treatise. Section 6.

[xxii] Second Treatise. Section 90.

[xxiii] Second Treatise. Section 87.

[xxiv] Second Treatise. Section 87.

One thought on “Original Locke

  1. Pingback: what’s a “Liberal democrat”? An American! | Political Pipeline

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