Locke’s social contract Notes for March 31

Main points

This session was devoted to understanding Locke’s version of the social contract. I was especially interested in the question of what distinguishes Locke’s view from Hobbes’s.

Where does the legislative power come from?

Locke identifies two functions of the state: the executive function, which involves enforcing the law, and the legislative function, which involves making laws.

In §87, we are told that a Political (Civil) Society is a group of people who have all given up “Executive Power” (§89) to “judge and punish breaches” of the Law of Nature to a common authority. This leads to a straightforward statement of the purpose of the state: “Government has no end but the preservation of property” (§94). “Property”, I remind you, includes “Life, Liberty, and estate” (§87).

This follows nicely from Locke’s analysis of what is wrong with the state of nature: the private enforcement of the laws of nature causes problems. These problems are eliminated by shifting the power of enforcement to a central authority.

I think Locke was right about that. For instance, when I read Jared Diamond’s description of warfare in the mountains of New Guinea, I was struck by how familiar it was. The New Guinea Highlanders have rules governing warfare and revenge that are far more complex than the laws of nature, as Locke describes them. But their decentralized system produces endless warfare. Even a satisfied participant concedes that a state run system is better. Tell me if you’ve heard something like this before:

“I admit that the New Guinea Highland way to solve the problem posed by a killing isn't good. Our way disturbs our day-to-day life; we won't be comfortable for the rest of our lives; we are always in effect living on the battlefield; and those feelings go on and on in us. The Western way, of letting the government settle disputes by means of the legal system, is a better way. But we could never have arrived at it by ourselves: we were trapped in our endless cycles of revenge killings.”** Jared Diamond, “Annals of Antropology: Vengeance is Ours.” The New Yorker, April 21, 2008.

Two points for Locke! (And Hobbes: compare chapters 13 and 17 of Leviathan with the previous paragraph. The old man was also pretty much right on the money.)

So I can see where the Executive power comes from and how it is motivated by his description of the state of nature. But where does the legislative power come from? Where does the state get the right to enact laws and impose taxes that will limit what people can do with their property or even take it away?

I think Locke’s explanation comes much later, in §§129–30. There, he says that the legislative power comes from individuals’ rights to do what is necessary for the preservation of property. It isn’t as fully worked out as the account of the executive power, however.

What’s the contrast with absolutism?

Locke tried to reach different political conclusions than Hobbes did in at least four ways.

  1. Locke thought there were natural property rights that the government has to respect. Hobbes didn’t.
  2. Locke thought that it was important to have a third party to judge disputes between subjects and the state. Hobbes thought that was impossible.
  3. Locke thought that representative democracy was by far the best system. Hobbes thought all political systems were basically the same, though he preferred monarchy.
  4. Locke believed in a right of rebellion for ideological reasons. If the subjects want someone else in charge or if they want to change the form of the state, they have the right to do so. Hobbes restricted any rights to rebellion to cases in which the state threatened the subjects’ lives or, at least, failed to protect them.

Concerning the second point, I said that I didn’t think Locke had really advanced things very far. There can’t be a third party to judge disputes between subjects and the state. At most, one part of the state can judge conflicts that subjects have with another part. But Hobbes had something similar. Hobbes also worried that making one part of the state powerful enough to check another could be a cause of civil war.

Concerning the fourth point, we talked about whether it makes sense to acknowledge an official right of rebellion. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it, but I do find it odd. The point of setting up a state is to channel disagreements into the political system. Stating that there is a right of rebellion points to a way of avoiding that. Perhaps the idea is that the threat of rebellion keeps the state in line.

This page was written by Michael Green for Social and Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2008. It was posted April 27, 2008.
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