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HN Politics A: John Locke
Transcript of HN Politics A: John Locke
Many of Locke's ideas are based on an opposition to authoritarianism
Locke's political theory was founded on social contract theory
A form of social organisation where individuals submit to authority.
Opposed to individualism and democracy.
An authoritarian government is one in which political authority is held by a small group of political elite with exclusive powers, typically unelected by the people.
Locke's theory has formed the basis for the constitutions of nearly all of the major western democratic powers including the United Kingdom and the United States of America.
Two Treatises of Government
Locke set out to examine three features of government.
1. The purpose of governmental power
2. The extent to which governmental power can be considered to be legitimate
3. The measures which can be taken to check this power in order to prevent governments extending it further than is considered to be legitimate.
In The First Treatise of Government, Locke rejects the idea of the Divine Right of Kings.
In the Second Treatise... Locke uses the idea that people agree that their condition in the state of nature is unsatisfactory, and so agree to transfer some of their rights to a central government, while retaining others. This is the theory of the social contract.
Hobbes and Locke
shared a belief that
people were prepared
to give up rights in the
state of nature in order
to live a more secure life.
During the course of his examination Locke argued that governments could be classified into two distinct categories: illegitimate and legitimate
Those whose power rests solely on conquest or coercion do not have any claim to political authority over the people even although they may exert coercive control.
Absolute authority means there is no consent from or responsibility to the people.
Consequently such a state cannot be a genuine political community as the government does not possess legitimate authority.
A legitimate government rules by consent of the people
Is characterised by an elected law-making body; a legislature which makes and implements laws on behalf of the people.
The Social Contract
Locke's ideas were based on social contract theory
Hobbes also believed in the ideas of the social contract
Individuals in a community are inclined to make a contract with themselves in order to promote stability and social cohesion. Eg. a tacit understanding that mutual respect should be accorded to each individual’s private person and property
Locke was very optimistic about human nature and believed that people are basically rational and do not require the authoritarian type of regulation which Hobbes argued was necessary for the establishment of a stable society
Remember that Hobbes felt that human nature was flawed and that people were
too selfish to be able to be trusted with a vote. Hobbes said that the state needed supreme authority, otherwise society would revert to the state of nature.
Locke rejected this as he felt that human nature was rational and that people would always choose the order that comes with government over the chaos of the state of nature.
Locke was optimistic about human nature. In Locke’s view a civil society constitutes a genuine political community since it is freely founded by naturally equal human beings and claims its authority on the basis of people’s consent to be members of a single political community.
What is the job of government?
What does it do?
What does it NOT do?
Here he asked
How far should government powers go?
How far do the people consent?
Here he asks:
What stops government from
going too far?
What checks and balances exist
to constrain government?
Legislature - a law making body
such as the UK Parliament.
Locke reasoned that:
as society can be formed by common consent,
so government can be formed by common consent too.
Essentially the government should act as an agent of society, its prime purpose being to serve the people.
Under this arrangement the government is charged with the responsibility to protect the rights of the individual and defend citizens from threats of external aggression. Equally, all members of society are under an obligation to obey the laws that are passed.
This is, therefore,
a social contract.
Government protects the citizens
All citizens in turn obey government laws
However, if government fails to protect individuals or to keep them safe, then citizens are released from their obligations to obey the commands of the government since the government has, in effect, broken the contract.
This would be facilitated by elections and – in very extreme circumstances – by revolution whereby the entire state would be overthrown.
So, government is 'contracted' to look after the citizens. But what obligations are placed on the citizens in this contract?
Hobbes also said that revolution might take place if the government broke its part of the bargain, but he didn't advocate elections. Hobbes thought that the public needed to trust the government (monarch) completely unless there was a total failure on its behalf.
If individuals did not respect other citizen’s private person and/or property then the state would reserve the right to penalise these individuals e.g. by fines or imprisonment.
If an individual, or group of individuals, placed the security of the country in jeopardy, then the state would reserve the right to severely punish those concerned
For those individuals who did not agree with the stipulations and requirements laid down by the Social Contract, Locke stated that an “opt-out” clause could be invoked whereby the individuals concerned would leave society and return to a “state of nature”. However these individuals would also forfeit the rights and protection which are afforded by the state.
So, the social contract is an arrangement where government has responsibilities to the citizens, and the citizens have responsibilities to the government. Locke called this 'Dual Accountability'.
Section 5: The role
of private property
According to Locke the acquisition of private property should be limited since no individual should accumulate so much property that others would be prevented from acquiring the necessities of life. In Locke’s view private property is not important for its own sake but as a means to an end.
Limited accumulation of private property would allow people to provide for themselves and their families and thereby free them from the pressures of survival.
Using this premise as a rationale Locke further argued that, since private property owners are more likely to behave in a more responsible manner, they alone should be extended the franchise to vote for political representatives. Furthermore the franchise would be limited to male-property owners only (which tells us something of the social status of females during Locke’s day).
Certainly the type of franchise which Locke envisaged was favoured by the “framers” of the United States Constitution (Jefferson, Adams, Madison et al) who introduced it into the US electoral system.
Recap: You Tube video clip.
End of Presentation
Section 6: Power, Authority and Accountability
For Locke, authority comes through the consent of the people.
(Remember his point about legitimate versus illegitimate government).
In Locke's view, the state exercises power on behalf of the people, through representative government - a government derived through elections.
Locke talks of 'dual accountability'
The government is held to account by the people (e.g. through elections).
The people agree to obey the laws of the government (or to be punished).
This is a 'social contract'.
Locke felt, however, that people could opt out if they didn't agree with the arrangement.
But they would not then enjoy any of the benefits that a government brings.
The idea that kings and queens gain their right to rule from god.
If god gives kings/queens the right to rule then disobeying the king/queen is the same as disobeying god.
State of nature (HOBBES' MODEL)
The state of life before government.
No state = no law = anything goes
Every person is at war with every other person. No laws to protect a person.
Survival is important and a rational person will do whatever is needed to survive.
Theft of resources and even murder are rational choices if this ensures survival.
Life is a constant state of brutality and fear and there can be no safety in security in life.
State of Nature (LOCKE'S MODEL)
State of nature is one where people agree not to harm each other. If harm occurs, punishment ensues.
Locke though felt that there were limits on what people would do as they would follow the 'Law of Nature'.
The Law of Nature says that no person has a right to harm another person or take their possessions, and that people should help each other.
To say that a form of government is legitimate is to say that it has a right to enact
laws and enforce them via coercion. If a form of government is legitimate, then citizens
have a duty to obey it—its police, judges, laws, etc.
For Locke there are two separate conditions that a government has to satisfy in order
for a citizen to have a duty to obey it:
1. It must respect and protect its citizens’ natural rights to life, liberty, and property.
2. It must enjoy the consent of that citizen.
Each condition is necessary; neither is by itself sufficient. Hence, if you consent to a form
of government that violates either your own or other people’s natural rights, you have no
duty to obey it (no more than you have a duty to commit a murder that you have promised to commit).
Nor do you have a duty to obey a government that does a wonderful job of
protecting everyone’s natural rights but whose authority you have never consented to.
Locke attacked Sir Robert Filmer's view that:
a) the king's authority/right to rule his subjects derives from the right that a father has to command obedience from his children, a right that is divinely ordained,
b) that right is unlimited; the king has an unlimited right over the lives and property of his subjects, as a father has an unlimited right over the lives and property of his children (as long as they remain children).
c) hence, government does not require the consent of those subjects to restrict their liberty or seize their property, and
d) those subjects do not have a right to revolution, to replace the king with someone who will better serve their interests.
(Short, straightforward and highly recommended)
(Detailed, more complex but worth taking time over a few key sections)