If you haven’t heard of or read John Locke, and you’re an American citizen, you need to read John Locke.
John Locke was perhaps the most influential political theorist on the American founding. The Declaration of Independence is essentially a plagiarized version of Locke’s writings. Thomas Hobbes’ writings acted as a spring board for Locke’s writings, which is why I chose to include an article about Hobbes—-but it’s Locke who really took the entire idea of government to another level.
You know the whole idea of “private property” that we cherish here in America? Yeah. You have Locke to thank for that one. So, take a moment to read this article as we peak back in time to learn more about the foundations of American government.
John Locke: Historical Context
John Locke was born in 1632 in England. He was a physician and political philosopher and a contemporary of Thomas Hobbes (mostly because Hobbes lived a long time…seriously, he lived until he was 91). Two Treatises of Government is Locke’s most famous work. His ideas about natural rights, private property and a social contract (should sound familiar to you if you read Part One) were revolutionary and even caused him to be expelled from England.
Why were his ideas so revolutionary?
Because, at the time, there was no such thing as private property. Everyone was a subject of the King and subject to his complete and arbitrary power. What he said was law, was law, and what he said was not law, was not law. He was the law.
The idea of a social contract? Unheard of! How average people could hold the power to create government with the power the people already had, was treasonous to think about. These ideas were completely foreign to people during Locke’s time.
These concepts being so foreign, are hard for us to grasp given how familiar our culture is with these ideas, but try to understand how truly radical they were.
Two Treatises of Government: Private Property
(I’m assuming that you’ve read Part One and have a general understanding of some basic concepts like a state of nature, a state of war or a social contract. (If not, click here). So, I’m not going to go into all the descriptions and definitions for these terms as I use them.)
In his Second Treatise of Government, Locke starts out similarly to Hobbes, using all the same concepts, but he assumes that mankind operates with a sense of reason—-something Hobbes did not assume. In Locke’s own words:
“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.”
In other words, the law of nature is that mankind (using reason to realize this) should not harm each other’s life, health, liberty or possessions. This is similar to Hobbes, but Locke takes the idea of a state of nature a step further when he introduces the concept of property.
He defines property as the work of a man’s hands. You write a book, that book is yours. You build a house, that house is your. The labor makes it yours.
He said, “Though the Earth, and all inferior Creatures be common to all Men, yet every Man has a Property in his own Person. This no Body has any Right to but himself. The Labour of his Body and the Work of his Hands, we may say, are properly his” (288).
In other words, a man or woman’s own body is his or her own property, something that no other person or government can infringe upon. And once someone labors to cultivate something, it is now his and his alone. Kind of like how you feel the money you work for is rightfully yours and not anyone else’s? This whole idea of property that is so familiar to us, was not familiar in Locke’s time.
The Social Contract and Private Property
Locke doesn’t believe that humans are completely devoid of reason and therefore argues that we do not exist in a state of war in the same way that Hobbes’ theorizes we exist in a state of war. Locke believes that, with reason, humans realize that we must not harm ourselves or others. However, Locke does believe that this state of nature will eventually become a state of war.
But why? If we are reasonable and not brute beasts, why do we still end up in a state of war?
I’ll break it down for you this way. According to Locke, we all have reason and we all have private property (both in our own bodies and in our labor). In a state of nature then, we’re all pretty much our own government. So, I am my own executive, judicial and legislative branches with my own set of laws and my own standards of justice.
You are the same way. Meaning, in a state of nature, we’re a bunch of mini-governments walking around and bumping into each other every now and again.
Locke says that, in this state of nature then, it is lawful “for a Man to kill a Thief, who has not in the least hurt him…I have no reason to suppose that he, who would take away my Liberty, would not when he has me in his Power, take away every thing else” (280).
For example: Let’s say I steal an apple from your apple orchard. That apple is your property because you planted and grew the apple trees. You find out I stole an apple and according to your standard of justice, I should be killed for violating your property—especially because of the fear that if I violate this small amount of property, what’s to stop me from violating more?
So, in this state of nature, mankind must simply operate as individual judges attempting to preserve their own individual property and freedom based on their own standards of justice and law. This creates a state of anarchy and war.
Do you follow this line of reasoning? It’s a bit different from Hobbes’ understanding of a state of war, but nevertheless, they both reach the same conclusion: mankind, in the state of nature, ends up in a state of war.
And since, according to Locke, we’re all reasonable enough, and unwilling to stay in this state of war, we decide to make a pact with each other, to never violate each other’s private property as long as everyone else agrees to do the same. This is Locke’s social contract.
And who is going to hold us all accountable to the social contract and enforce a universal standard of justice and law?
You guessed it.
Private Property and Government
So, according to Locke, the only reason government (and by default, law) exists is this: to protect private property.
Private property and its protection then is the primary end of government. We, mankind, come together and form government for the “mutual Preservation of their Lives, Liberties and Estates, which I call by the general Name, Property”.
Get this. It’s really important to understanding American government. The only reason that government is formed is for the preservation of property. Government has no other job, meaning laws are written for no other reason, but to protect private property.
There’s so much more that I could get into regarding why the Americans revolted against England and how they used this whole concept of private property (taxation anyone?) to justify their civil rebellion. But, I will leave that for another post.
Understand this about the legislature though:
Locke argues that the law-making body should be directly connected to the people whom they represent, because its the legislature’s sole job to protect our private property through making law. That means Congress’ job is to make law to protect our private property. So, where does healthcare, or climate change etc fit into this?
And that’s the point.
Are you starting to understand why having a clear and established foundation behind why you believe government is needed is so crucial. Most people have never thought about why we need government and therefore go along with whatever government does without even blinking. Well, guess what?
I want you to no longer be most people.
The Liberty Belle