Locke’s social contract Notes for March 25

Main points

We covered the following points on Locke’s social contract.

  1. Why government: why do people who lack a government create one?
  2. What is involved in creating a government: what rights are given up and what powers are created?
  3. Do we tacitly consent to obey the government?
  4. Rights of revolution

Inheritance and consent

Locke’s account of tacit consent turns on the ability of the state to treat property within something Locke calls its “jurisdiction” as encumbered in the following sense. If you inherit this property, you will be regarded as consenting to the state’s rules.

It seems to me pretty clear that this could be the deal. You receive the rights to this $20 bill only if you consent to mow my lawn. It could be that you can only receive the rights to a piece of property if you consented to obey the state. The question is whether it has to be that way. Locke said that it does, but I don’t understand why he was so sure.

Wynn showed us how to think about this. Imagine two different societies, which we called the Land of Dads and Libertariana. It was pretty clear that the latter was at least possible despite the fact that its inheritance rules do not transfer consent along with property.

Richard’s comment from our session on property, picked up by Seth, showed that the objection can’t come from the party inheriting the property. That person didn’t do any of the relevant labor, after all. Rather, the question is about the person who owns the property and wants to hand it down. Why can’t this person just do so, without the state adding on this additional condition that receiving the property amounts to consenting to obey the state?

Here is one reason why it is very plausible to suppose that every property owner would agree to accept such a limit as a part of the social contract. No one wants his neighbors turning the state into swiss cheese by handing down their land in ways that takes it out of the state. The disadvantages to that are fairly obvious.

So I can see how Locke could easily have addressed this problem. I’m just curious about why he didn’t do so but rather seems to have taken an answer for granted.

Who are the people?

Locke was concerned with relations between the state and the people and so he tended to describe them as two unitary parties.** He acknowledged divisions within the state. I think that’s a mistake that shows up in two ways.

First, it leaves the right to revolution in a highly ambiguous state. The people get to decide when the state has violated its trust, thereby meeting the condition for a legitimate revolution. But Hobbes was right to say that the people are always divided in these cases.†† see Leviathan ch. 18, par. 3. So how will we determine whether a revolution is legitimate or not?

Second, Locke’s descriptions of the state’s powers are ambiguous. Sometimes, he says that the state’s only job is to enforce the laws of nature and, in particular, to preserve property rights. Other times, he says that its job is to promote the common good. Those two look the same if you treat the people as one body. But think about it for a minute and you’ll see this can’t be right. Individual property owners may not want to improve the common good. How can the state protect their property rights and also command the resources it needs to promote the common good, that is, the good of other members of the people?

This page was written by Michael Green for Social & Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2009. It was posted March 26, 2009.
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