Thursday, May 6, 2010

Locke: Concerning Civil Government

I wish I had the time to devote a serious review to this work which I found enlightening and also worthy of discussion.

Natural Law John Locke says that before we had governments, justice was determined by "Natural Law", e.g. do onto others as they have done onto you. We were our own judge, jury and executioners if someone wronged us.

The problem with Natural Law is that we cannot be dispassionate and fair judges of what we deserve in compensation for our loses. That is one reason why we developed government, to have an impartial judge and executor of natural law. Similarly, government gives the weaker party the ability to overcome the stronger in the name of justice.


Property is the result of labor. Acorns fallen from a tree in the wild belong not to everyone but to the one who collects them. If I kill a rabbit in the wilderness it is now my property (according to Locke), since I used my labor for the activity.

Can I take as much "property" as I want? Locke says we should take as much as we need. In Natural Law this would only be enough food that won't spoil or go to waste. This makes sense, since why would you collect more than you can consume? However, since we do gather more than we need, we developed money to represent property. The protection of property and money is the job of government.

Laws and Rulers


"All men are by nature equal", says Locke, and that includes monarchs. In fact, leaders have a special obligation to follow the law and maintain equality.

Laws should not serve as a limitation to our freedom but as guideposts. The law makes us free by protecting us and our property. Locke says that laws act sort of like parents protecting children and they should only limit to the extent that we do not affect someone elses freedom or property.

Monarchs and other executives should also act like parents, as kings came originally from patriarchal societies. However, even though we are told to "honor our parents" by God, they should only receive the honor they deserve.

Each of us is born into a governmental system, but we do not have to accept or adopt this system. When we leave the age of minority we should acknowledge the right of this government to rule us or we should leave the protection of this society. If we recognize our government, we should demand that it remain just and follow its own laws. If it does not, we are obliged to rebel against it.

Locke states that we have no obligation to follow laws or the authority of a ruler that was not appointed by our representatives to govern us. This is probably what people thought after the 2000 presidential race. Similarly, unjust laws should not be followed. However, Locke admits that it may be difficult to determine what is "unjust" and that may vary on your point of view.

Locke's treatise made great strides in recognizing individual rights. I want to fault him for not going far enough but that would be, in the context of history, unfair. From everything I have read in the last 12 months, Locke's treatise has been one of the most interesting and thought provoking works.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

John Locke

John Locke (1632-1704) was a British philosopher whose innovative ideas on the purpose and regulation of government has given him the title of spiritual father of the U.S. Declaration of Independence and our Constitution. John Locke is also recognized as the founder of British Empiricism which hypothesized that innate ideas about the world do not exist. The only knowledge we can obtain is through sensory perception and experience.

During Locke's lifetime England played witness to many revolutionary thoughts on the function and role of government. The English Civil War (1641-1651) between the monarchy and the Parliament resulted in the execution of the King of England Charles I in 1649 and the establishment of a commonwealth (sans monarch). Eventually Charles II, son of Charles I, was restored to the throne in 1660, but his son (James II) was later overthrown in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. This resulted in the establishment of a constitutional monarchy with Parliament gaining significant power. In the following two years (1689 and 1690) Locke wrote his treatise "Concerning Civil Government".

John Locke wanted to understand why we needed government and how it could be useful. He thought that the purpose of government is to protect individual rights and property. Property is what we accumulate through our labors and no one should be able to take that away from us (not even the government). Our rights include life, liberty and the freedom to rebel against unjust governments. While this did justify the revolutions in England, it also supported the American revolution a century later.

Locke also had the novel idea that government should have its authority separated into different branches and be regulated between these units by checks and balances. The executive branch would have judicial responsibilities and the other division was made of Parliament, which had the authority to remove (impeach) the executive. This is very similar to our government, except of course that the judicial branch is separate from the executive (depending on who you ask).

Locke's ideas had an enormous influence on our founding fathers and it is fascinating to see the progenitor of our own constitution.

As Thomas Jefferson wrote, "Bacon, Locke and Newton, I consider them as the three greatest men that have ever lived, without any exception".